the m john harrison blog

Category: the disaster

orpheus in the underland

There are so many good books around at the moment. Will Eaves’ Murmur, obviously, which won the Wellcome prize a few days ago, a triumph not just for the author but for Charles Boyle’s CBEditions, one of the smallest publishers in Britain. The Dollmaker by Nina Allen, reviewed here. Sandra Newman’s glitteringly imaginative time story, The Heavens. Coming soon: Homing, by Jon Day, a calm, artful meditation on home and returning, navigation and orientation, which, in addition, will leave you knowing everything you always wanted to know about the Columbidae; Will Wiles’s rebarbative Plume (also, in a sense, bird-oriented); Helen Mort’s Black Car Burning, also, in a sense, about home, as the place you structure out of the things you do; and Salt Slow by Julia Armfield, her debut collection.

Then there’s the Underland, which opened its maw this week.

Every time he writes, Robert Macfarlane performs several extraordinarily deft acts of focus, by which he interleaves layer upon layer of landscape and mindscape. At the same time he never fails to give you the sense that the book you are reading has self-assembled from its own imaginary, which is in turn composted and churned from the substance of the world and his relations with it. Even if he only thought about things, and wrote them down, Macfarlane would be a significant, persuasive writer—he has perfect control of the skill, or art, or quality of mind Brian Dillon described in Essaysim. But Macfarlane has been there too, and looked, and this is what he saw; and this is what he did; and this is what emerged from the experience. This is what it means to be a contemporary landscape writer. Macfarlane made the book, you understand, with its cunning millefeuille of themes and imagery, deep human history, cycles of politics, poetry and myth: but you also understand that it developed under its own impetus, out of the deep relations of the things of the world. Or, in the case of Underland, the things under the world: from its deep time geological underpinnings, up through layer after labyrinthine layer of cultural and economic connection, to the shallow scabrous subsurface litter of the things we know and are trying to forget—the things our species is trying to hide and hide from—the things we’re burying as we bury ourselves alive.

“While writing Underland,” he said in the Guardian recently, “I have come to think of claustrophobia as one of the distinctive experiences of the Anthropocene: a sense of time and space running out; of being in the grip of Earth forces triggered by human actions but exceeding human control…” Underland takes us inside that experience, and is a genuinely frightening catabasis as a result. But Macfarlane keeps singing to the end and gets us back into the light.

march 2013

Hanwell Bridge to Wharncliffe Viaduct: suburban gardens, each with its decking, its wooden viewing bench, its toy mooring stage. At some point not long ago the river, suffering some sort of flux, the fluid equivalent of a seizure or convulsion, has swept down from the north, exfoliating its banks to grey mud, carrying away the garden-centre fences, the clumps of bamboo and exotic grasses, leaving instead a detritus of broken branches, blanched and ancient looking, tangled together with plastic carrier bags, broken toys and bits of garden architecture from the houses upstream. It has washed away a pebble path here, a nice if flimsy little gazebo there. Suburbia, which previously ran all the way down to the petrol coloured water, now ends ten feet further inland, ceding itself to a mud flat. We follow the river through Brent Lodge zoo and maze, past Hanwell Cricket Club with its views of St Andrews Tower, Ealing, to the point where it crosses Brent Valley Golf Course. There, I write by accident,“Gold Course”; and, extending that immediately to “Gold Coast”, arrive at the concept “Hanwell Gold Coast”. Hanwell Gold Coast, shabbier than some. Everywhere it slows, the stream is pasted with the usual milky brown curd; every large obstacle has a stationary stern eddy filled with beer cans and plastic bottles; and a smaller one at the bow.

you can have this other free thing

Aren’t you sick of the same world. It’s not the ideology so much as the lack of imagination. This is it. Consumption. This is the offer. This is how it is. This is the sheer inevitability of these goods. An elite who pretend to be populists manage the rest of the population & offer in return this locked-in set of opportunities. This is what what we take from you: work all your life. This is what you get in return: the digital funfair & fatty sugared-up meat our people can make look really good. But aren’t you sick of there being about five basic avenues of satisfaction, each internally graded for price? & aren’t you sick of being obsessed with your hobby? Your house? Your car? Everyone must have a car & now–wow–those cars have fucking radar and everything. Everyone can have a wrist radio & speak into it as if their errand is a mission & their mission is more important than anyone else’s in this jam-packed space. Hello? London calling. Hello? Everyone calling. Hello? Hello? Did you know? Fast things got faster & smoother! You can have a fast smooth thing! This is new, this kind of liquid fastness! This is the future. It’s the new kind of future. It’s what they wanted in the 1950s, finally–always–indisputably–coming true. If there’s a real age-versus-youth problem (one, that is, which isn’t stoked by middle-aged middle management like any other transient program of divisiveness) it’s this: all our goals, all our ideas about philosophical & economic goods, were decided between 1945 & 1955; and, apart from their means of satisfation, have not changed since. We live in that period’s utterly naive dream, the early-consumerist future, & we’re trapped there because we don’t have the imagination to see or hope for anything else.

the water house

Later, a succession of squalls swung in across the north bank and obscured the river. Hand sat in the remains of the garden shed, listening to the rain and watching the tide rush down the narrow defile between Oliver’s Island and the southern shore. “I’m just going into the garage!” he called into the house, but the old woman had turned up the TV and didn’t answer. In the garage he pulled the dust cover off the bonnet of the vehicle he kept there. Its bodywork glowed in the greyish afternoon light, rich with wax polish and chrome. Hand smiled. He checked the other items he kept in a rucksack under some rubbish in the corner. Everything was still dry and good. He had one more look at the car, then pulled the dustcover back over it and left. On his way back through the house, he called, “I’m going now.” No answer. He thought she had fallen asleep in front of the film, but she was waiting for him in the hall. “I know what you’re doing,” she said.

a difficult time for everyone

If you’re in London on the evening of the 5th March & you’d like to hear me reading “The Crisis”, leave an email address here, or DM me at @mjohnharrison on Twitter–

Adolescence. West London. You always believed a hidden war was being fought, a war nobody would ever admit to. Lay awake at night, listening to bursts of corporate fireworks that seemed too aggressive to be anything other than a small arms exchange; while by day, ground-attack helicopters clattered suddenly and purposively along the curve of the Thames towards Heathrow. You held your breath in moments of prolonged suspense, imagining the smoke trails of rockets launched from the bed of a builder’s pickup in Richmond or Kingston. These fantasy-engagements, asymmetric and furtive, a kind of secret, personalised Middle East, left you as exhausted as masturbation. There was something narcissistic about them. A decade later, everyone was able to feel a similar confused excitement. With the coming of the iGhetti, everyone had a story to tell but no one could be sure what it was. Information was so hard to come by. Between anecdotal evidence and the spectacular misdirections of the news cycle lay gulfs of supposition, fear, and denial. People didn’t know how to act. One minute they heard the guns, the next they were assured that nothing was happening. One day they were panicking and leaving the city in numbers, the next they were returning but rumour had convinced them to throw their tablet computers in the river. The thing they feared most was contagion. They locked their doors. They severed their broadband connections and tanked their cellars. They avoided a growing list of foods. They clustered round a smartphone every summer evening after dark, eavesdropping on the comings and goings of the local militas as they scoured the railway banks and canalsides for telltale astral jelly. Were the iGhetti here or not? It was a difficult time for everyone.

what it looks like now again

You sit over a one-bar electric fire in a rented room. As soon as you feel recovered from the commute you’ll boil some potatoes on the gas ring, then, three minutes before they’re done, drop an egg into the same water. You can hear the family downstairs laughing at something, some dressed-up cats or something, on the internet. After people have cooked, they can often get use out of their gadgets–join a world building game, preorder the gadget they want next–although the load soon precipitates a brownout. During the day you work in a 7th floor office in the Strand. Publicity for a fuel corporate. It’s nice. All very heads-down but worth it to have the security. Last year you got involved with an East Midlands junkie who claimed to have a telepathic link to another world & to be able to control a 3d printer with their mind alone, & they turned out to be seventeen not twenty seven as they said, & after their staffie/mastiff cross, which they were looking after for a friend in rehab, bit two fingers off your ex’s left hand when he came back from an oil-exploration contract in one of the ‘stans, you forget which one, they fitted all the lights in the house with blue bulbs then tried to commit suicide in your bath in an excess of adolescent self-disgust. It was a cry for help. They’ve gone now–last you heard they were with a grindcore musician in Peckham–and you’re glad, but you miss their smell, which was instantly exciting; & their dysfunctionality, which you remember as “character”. The sex was tremendous, if a little full on & tiring. Outside it’s minus ten & you have no idea what’s happening on the old housing estates by the river. “Welcome to London,” someone in the office said today. That got a laugh. “Welcome to the managerial classes.” All he really meant was that like everyone else he would do anything to stay this side of the line.

best wishes as ever

Southern England just doesn’t seem as nice as it did, dear, so your father & I are moving north before Thames Valley prices drop even further. We were thinking of somewhere in the Harrogate area. Above 100m, obviously, and with a bit of ground for the dogs. It will be such fun for them, especially Pinnie. The fact is, darling, your father and I are rather surprised that this has happened to people like us. You do see why some of the Somerset people complained, don’t you, but I think we’ll always vote Tory. Anyway, best wishes as ever, and I’m sure you’ll do well with your little wellington boot shop.

buried in exotic ground

Buggy tracks in snow. Spindrift blowing off the roofs. Silhouette of a labrador dog hauling the silhouette of a woman across Grove Road; detail from a Lowry of the West London suburbs. Meanwhile the van from Bathrooms At Source–a constant visitor to this pleasant street–ploughs its way responsibly towards the river, first-responder to the morning’s soft catastrophe. Everything is so hushed as he makes his way down! In Barnes, bathroom commerce, second only in religion to kitchen commerce, must go on. He’s closely followed by Bespoke Carpentry. Meanwhile, over in “Burma”, no crates of preserved Spitfires have come to light. Buried Spitfires! The very words are like a knell, awakening the British retroconscious to a deep sense of itself. The earth with which they turn out not to be compacted is the authentic dark chocolate of myth. We dream that Spitfires lie buried in exotic ground, the exact way they are embedded in our diffusing memories of empire. Meanwhile, perhaps the Spitfires dream themselves, in some half-world of suspended purpose, the trope of sci fi war machines made obsolete by time, waking too late. It’s the final reinscription. Ballard would have loved it.

lebensraum

Two houses down they’re having the loft opened up. At present the work is halted by rain. Twin skips lie silent, tightly covered in blue tarpaulin–not to keep them dry but to protect the emptiness which represents their value. Materials are no longer being hauled up from the street. Previously I couldn’t make out much of the work, only hear thuds & shouts, but now that the leaves are off the trees I see scaffolding; the pulley that dangles from it; & a thick, ancient-looking rope swinging against a sky filled then emptied on a regular basis. The scaffold has Victorian values. Gothic and energetic even when it’s out of use, it speaks of the rush to be active that achieves nothing but can’t be argued against. All projects, after all, are inherently good. They are good because they are projects. Business is busyness. Although having your loft opened up is a weirdly old-fashioned improvement, an improvement from an era when people could only afford to build upward: the hot money, the property money–the proper modernity–of West London now resides in domestic bunkers mined deep beneath house & garden.

november

A cryptic note that just says “Nightjar”. Another one that just says “stairs”. Today must have been more confusing than it seemed. I had some pretty good news one way & another. But I never got over the poverty business. It seeped into my head & stayed there. “Nightjar.” “Stairs.” What was I going to do that involved the stairs? What did I have to remember about them? I had a look at them a moment ago. From one end they went up. From the other they went down. That seemed fine. Nothing to see there. Nightjar… Nightjar… Time to watch another bad film. November’s your month for bad films. The Poverty Business would make a good title.