the m john harrison blog

Category: the postmodernised landscape

in real life

Along with the imminent publication of Rob Macfarlane’s masterpiece Underland, this retweet by Andrew Male reminded me of something. I’ve always been fascinated by the praxis and professionalism of cavers. Especially cave divers. A friend of mine gave up climbing to do that activity for a while. He supplied me with some fine anecdotal material. In the late 1970s I had written part of a sci-fi/horror novel in which a team of contemporary cavers and climbers, prospecting the Irish karst for new routes in their separate disciplines, rediscovered the remains of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland. Their subsequent exploration of the associated geology would have had all the predictable results and in addition allowed me to make a critique both of the Hodgson novel and Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls”. It was also my idea to catch the reader up with contemporary caving and climbing techniques and attitudes. (The “exploratory value” would be seen being absorbed into the new values of risk sport, for instance, a transition later touched on in Nova Swing and Empty Space.) I dropped the idea because it seemed too ordinary, too direct and too glib. All that’s left, apart from perhaps ten thousand words of yellowing draft, is the short story “The Ice Monkey”, which I cut out of it. “The Ice Monkey” started me off in a completely different direction and led to Climbers. I stopped trying to literalistically incorporate my real-life interests and experiences into fantasy fiction (see Tomb the Dwarf’s solo of the first pitch of Medusa, Ravensdale, or Alstath Fulthor’s trail-run up from Hadfield via Yellow Slacks up on to Bleaklow, across the Woodhead and then down by Tintwhistle Low Moor in A Storm of Wings) and instead began to let the two kinds of content and technique blur together, in search of what the result could tell me. You can see that immediately you look at the stuff. You can also see that I became happier and more comfortable with the way I was doing things. You can call these very self-aware metafictional explorations of the exploratory value and its inevitable structures “the Weird” if you like. I call it being the kind of writer I started to be in 1979.

the pure & the impure

Lots of responses like James Lasdun’s to Michael Finkel’s book on Christopher Knight, Stranger in the Woods.

The interesting thing about Finkel’s revision of Knight is not that it attempts to romanticise a thief but that it accidentally questions the idea of wilderness survival as an available form of self-authentication.

The space he went to ground in was already impure: full of weekend retreats and–presumably–used for outdoor recreation. Any attempt to “survive” authentically there was doomed by that. Its usage as a space was already domesticated, otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to steal from holiday homes.

The same was true of Christopher McCandless and of John Krakeur’s book about him: the space in which McCandless tried to authenticate himself was not considered by local users of wilderness to be particularly wild. He wasn’t, as far as they were concerned, all that deep in. That was the tenor of the local reaction to the tragedy. With a little of the workaday understanding the local users had, their complaint went, he could easily have survived.

The problem with that position is that it describes the wilderness as already partly domesticated. The level of skill required might be specialised, but it is perfectly available. And the more people take up the skills, the more normalised the process of survival becomes. That begins an inevitable domestication of the space which will, eventually, lead to it becoming a leisure resource, an extension of the suburb.

So when you blame McCandless for being naive and failing to learn anything about the problems he would face in the “wild”; or when you blame Knight for living off the land the way a Yosemite bear or suburban racoon might (that is, as “the land” now presents itself), you are really, if unintentionally, mourning an already vanished concept of wildness. Penetration of that pure space as an equally pure self-authenticatory act has become a game. It can no longer be romanticised. It is no longer the scene of the rite of passage–or at least not that particular rite of passage. Our irritation at Knight for “cheating” is a tacit admission of that.

terranauts

Ecosphere 2, a sealed multi-biome habitat in the Arizona desert, is a dry-run for life off Earth; an experiment in closed systems living sunk by sex, hunger and competitive tensions; and a two-year reality show and visitor attraction set in a popular-science theme park, the gift shop of which offers soft-toy bush babies “at $14.95 a pop” “It wasn’t a stunt,” one of its occupants admits, “And it wasn’t theatre. But certainly those elements were present… Call it science-theatre.” Something we’ve seen plenty of this week, as “all eyes” were turned to Mars etc etc, and will see plenty of again as the publicity of science becomes more important than the science of science. My review of The Terranauts, TC Boyle’s blackly comic novel, not quite a new Tono Bungay but a savage enough pisstake of contemporary techno-boosterism, up at the Guardian.

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from empty space to stanage edge

I’ve got two slots at Edge Lit in July, it seems. For the GoH “speech” I’ll read a new story & maybe answer questions about the forthcoming short story collection & the novel in progress. For the other one, an item on writing landscape, I’ll probably do something like this–

Landscape in fiction is never just background, or you’re wasting your opportunities. Let the landscape do as much of the work of informing the reader of your intentions as possible. Entangle your ideas & meanings with the setting. Fold them into one another.

Empty Space: the Funene Golden Hour, a landscape derived from photography of the Namib coast. Ad-image pseudo-sublime. What is the difference between awe & oh wow? The reification of an aesthetic judgement, a play on the use of the term “landscape porn”. Woven into the trilogy’s general position on neoLiberal postindustrial spectacle–the transformation of real sites into sites of public art, ie leisure heritage.

Climbers: “The moment you step into a landscape it becomes another one.” But also, the gritsone edges as a kinaesthetic abacus on which you “tell” your life. To what degree–& in how many lives–has Stanage served that purpose–emotional touchstone or pivot, hermitage, site of psycho-addiction sought out at points in your life, abandoned at others–but also the sense that the gritstone landscape can in some unforgiving way abandon you & you may never be allowed to go back…

Come prepared to ask: What’s the difference, then, between a real landscape & a fictional one? & its various obvious corollaries.

voices in the hills

Attempts to deliver outside as inside, to convert the landscape into a kind of built environment and our interactions with it into a confusion of messages and mission statements. Interest groups that deliver the outdoors to us are not the outdoors itself but by mediating the experience they turn it from an interaction with the outdoors into an interaction with them. Structural intrusions into the landscape market limiting messages about how it can be used. Loosely-associated entertainments draw a family demographic, playing into the hands of direct commercial exploitation. Landscape as backdrop, as ever. Signage & architecture intrude, multiply and move steadily towards the spectacular. 2050, the thing has become the picture of the thing, the plan for the thing: “Wind, stones, light trapped in the fast cold air along the hillside. Edwardian sunrise. We leave the bunkhouse hopeful, return tired from a day of voices in the hills, the hard winter crossing of the Interpretation Room of the Ogwen Visitor Centre.”

conservation

I’m waiting for the time when the Roman Wroxeter Heritage Site falls into ruin and far-postmodern generations place its replica Roman villa (2010) on a historical par with the remains of the second century municipal baths, so that the Heritage experience becomes in itself heritage, as authentic as the real thing. It’s the future of Heritage to replace the past. Meanwhile, I heard someone complain recently that the cooling towers of the about-to-be-decommissioned Ironbridge B power station “spoil” the Ironbridge World Heritage Site. And what, exactly, we ask ourselves, is the heritage of Ironbridge Gorge? Why, it’s the decommissioned remains of a couple of hundred years of industrial spoliation; that’s what brings the punter in. There are some cheap ironies here if anyone’s interested in conserving them.

living with particulates in NO2

But we love the N02 postcode! Only your father, who lives in the country and is therefore guilty of all the usual historical crimes, ie for instance of being your father, wants fresh air! Country air’s not so fresh either, is it? Full of all that poo. In fact there’s no fresh air left anywhere in the world if you come to think of it and none of us is dead! Just look at this article from The Lanarkshire Times in 1342, “Thee eyre beeing no langyr frish, lyffe if not worth th lyvynng of’t.” See? Every generation ever has thought the world was fucked! But that’s just change! The only thing that’s certain is that things will change, Zizek or someone said that. I believe it and that’s why I love living with particulates. Here’s YouTube of our daughter hyperventilating some on a bike ride round the recently reclaimed Cadmium Park. Is there anything wrong with that little sweetie? I tell you what, I wish her more “pollution” not less! And I hope she has a fantastic life full of the craft beers with clever aggressive names and really exciting urban experimental music it brings. Where’s the toilet here?

access all areas

It’s very Garner. Sunken lane with holly trees. Witch’s pool, steep-sided and dry. A cliff made, on closer inspection, of something friable between mud and stone. It all drops away steeply into the valley. But before that a dozen footpaths and neat, well-serviced boardwalks open up, all signposted by competing outdoor quangos, agencies, trusts, conservation bodies, nature reserves and local councils. They flex their muscles between the trees, run precipitously into one another, stumble into brand new stiles, topple into overgrown quarries and out again the other side, indicate in a quiet panic in all directions. They are saying, This way! and, This way! They are offering access. They are offering so much access. It’s confusing. The OS records two rights of way, the more significant of which, though it remains on the map, vanishes from the ground just as you have become used to it. To make things worse, half a mile into the wood we meet a woman in a Boden summer dress and high heels, walking away from an isolated house in the upper rooms of which a dog can be heard barking. I check to see if she is wearing gloves, because the rest of the outfit looks suspiciously 1950s.

post industrial zones

Dubious & formalised, as in Bilbao’s ex-docks or Sheffield reinvented as an apres-steel boutique: from industry to heritage industry. Wreckage needs to be real. It needs to be free. The central, inevitable & useful thing about a bent & rusty girder sticking up out of an overgrown cooling pond is that it’s a bent & rusty girder sticking up out of an overgrown cooling pond. Anything else is so pathetic: cleaned up, saved from itself (separated from the entropic processes it was always part of) & fit for a place on the mantelpiece in a nice front room. That teaches us something about the sublime in general: ie, really, it’s the Black Spot, the beginning of the end. So try & avoid capturing, recapturing or–especially– “celebrating” it. The urge to convey the authentic glee & terror of the post industrial wasteland is the beginning of the processes of romanticisation, postmodernisation & domestication. From the raw horror of a working blast furnace, through the uncanny of that much rust, to the kitsch. We need to live in the ruins; forget them; then live through them all over again, as whatever the landscape makes of them. Anything else is the media souvenir.