the m john harrison blog

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The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times

“It’s 1923. Lucy Marsh and her friend Winifred, mid-teenagers from an enclave of dying pubs and dead industries in north-east London, find themselves effectively sold into prostitution by their families. Once a week in Epping Forest they meet with and service four bizarrely wounded ex‑servicemen who have given arms, legs, hands and faces for their country in the recent world war. Lucy isn’t sure if they’re named after Dorothy’s companions in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, or if the characters in the story were named after them. The “funny men” seem as decent as they are damaged, puzzled to the point of inarticulacy by the things that have happened to them. But though they’re shy they know what they’ve lost – homes, wives, children, physical comfort, any sense of themselves as welcome in the society that sent them to fight – and they know what they want, at least from Lucy and Winifred.”

–Read the rest of my review of Xan Brooks’ dark & politically timely debut novel at the Guardian, here.

the pellicci tract

“Stop here,” Aschemann ordered “We can have a nice breakfast here.” They swept into the kerb outside E Pellicci. A notorious cholesterol venue halfway down Neutrino, Pellici’s offered deco walls and cafe electrique. More important, Aschemann said, you could hear the food smoking in the animal fat. At that time of the morning Pellici’s was full of rickshaw girls in pink and black lycra gorging themselves on simple carbs. They stood awkwardly up to the counter, unable to use the seating, ducking their heads needlessly, embarrassed to be among people of ordinary size. Aschemann smiled around at them, one or two smiled back. Once he was eating he seemed to forget both his wife and the murders.

–Nova Swing, 2007

last transmissions

From 2013–

I’m saying we didn’t have command of the vast fictions of the day … The city wasn’t, in the end, where those of us who lived there thought it was. We had already lost it in all senses of that word … All we knew about this place was the news … preferring the past’s acknowledgment of humanity, we remained uninterested by the watertightness of the plot … the halls are aware that–in the end–they can never know what, exactly, the plot was. It’s only silence after that. Back at the beginning there’s the tapping sound, like metal on stone … then the call signs, several of them, very amplified and confused … cries in the halls … a cruel few words and then, “We no longer know which way to face.” The halls are still aware … What if nothing “fell”? Nothing was lost but existed just alongside everything else, fifty years later in the rubble by a farm at the flat end of nowhere … who could write this … everyone has a different story to sell … call signatures in rooks, fresh plough, old silence: “We don’t know what to do. Everything is the alongside of something else.” –Minor players gesture helplessly … signals hard to make out in the chaos as the big institutions go down … everyone desperate now.


notes for a debriefing

Don’t say: “Riding my intelligent cool-looking polar bear to do battle with evil.”
Do say: “The arctic sea-ice isn’t freezing this year.”

Don’t say: “Dog with head-balancing skills becomes star.”
Do say: “We blew antibiotics.”

Don’t say: “Swipe it straight into your mouth.”
Do say: “Pence at Hamilton was theatre in the theatre, a deft, clinical reframing of the opposition’s theatrical space, utilising the media as proscenium.

on the white road to carleon

In 1923 Arthur Machen calculates that writing has earned him six hundred and thirty-five pounds in forty two years. “That is, I have been paid at the rate of fifteen pounds and a few shillings per annum.” So he wasn’t writing for the money. As for the rest of what the trade might be about, you never really write what you hoped you would, not so much in terms of quality as in terms of content and structure: in the end, he admits, it’s never quite the story you intended to tell. Why do it, then? Well, to provide interest in a bland life, much the way mountaineers “expose themselves to horrors, miseries and the instant risk of death on the most desperate mountains of the world”. Life is “cold mutton”, he says, intolerable without sauce. If this seems to us quite a bland response in itself, not to mention (especially given what we know about the single-minded ambition and sheer personality disorder of mountaineers) an evasion or cover-up, well Machen isn’t going to show any more of his cards. Except of course to suggest that perhaps what we call life isn’t really life at all. My review of Machen’s Things Near & Far and Catherine Fisher’s Machen’s Gwent: A country hardly to be known in the TLS today (£).

late style

Late style arrives when you realise that you are: competent enough to write those things you wanted to write when you were twenty five; impatient enough to have one more go at going all the way; angry enough not to allow anyone else to persuade you to do something else. At the same time late style is cold, amused, contemptuous and savage about everyone you have been or ever tried to be. Late style is when the monster down there has finally had enough. Late style is when the people who have all your life jumped in front of you–waving their arms No! Careful!–jump out one more time to encourage you to run them down.

the new fantastic

Lowrider sword & sorcery. Before the battle of Helm’s Deep, Galadriel, who’s eaten nothing for a week but the wadding from benzedrine inhalers, does Cootchie Cootie in the back of his 1951 Fleetline bomb. It’s a favour for a friend. Wittgenstein, Merlin & CS Lewis look on in passive-aggressive disavowal. After that, for the founding volume anyway, it’s Zap Comic dynamics on a lean-burn version of The Revenger’s Tragedy–the usual tale of poor choices, low ground clearance & self medication. Emotional palette from A Glastonbury Romance, prose from Destination: Moon! & worldbuilding from one of those ads where if you buy the right mobile phone it causes inconvenient buildings to fold themselves away in front of the user so she can get to some other stuff she wants to consume without ever walking round a corner or even, apparently, consulting the phone itself? (The world will be called Eldrano, & not as I first proposed Eldranol, which turns out to be already TM’d for a bovine mastitis application.)

–published as “use your new genre” in 2012

A Twitter mention of Bernard Moitessier reminded me of this, blogged February 11, 2011, under the title How To Write

In his NYT piece about Reid Stowe, Adam Sternberg describes a classic detournment performed by Bernard Moitessier during the Golden Globe round-the-world race in 1968–

‘…he was well in the lead when he decided to change course and simply keep sailing. He explained this in a note, which he flung by slingshot onto the deck of a passing ship, that read in part: “I am continuing non-stop because I am happy at sea, and perhaps because I want to save my soul.” He later wrote that, looking back on his decision, he only regretted the inclusion in the note of the word “perhaps.”’

Moitessier himself writes, in The Long Way

‘The geography of the sailor is not always the one of the cartographer, for whom a cape is a cape with its longitude and latitude. For the sailor, a great cape is both very simple and extremely complex, with rocks, currents, furling seas, beautiful oceans, good winds and gusts, moments of happiness and of fright, fatigue, dreams, aching hands, an empty stomach, marvelous minutes and sometimes suffering. A great cape, for us, cannot be translated only into a latitude and a longitude. A great cape has a soul, with shadows and colours, very soft, very violent. A soul as smooth as that of a child, as hard as that of a criminal.’

Still can’t think of anything to add to this. Magnificent.

fermin lima at the well of souls

You’ve been inside the mystery long enough not to care anymore that you can’t encompass it. In fact you’ve been inside long enough to prefer a position a little way outside, just left of the door. The view is more interesting. Parallax error runs in the background of everything you see, like a little bit of code totting up Air Miles and Nectar Points & so on. The main thing is that you don’t have to try, although it takes a few decades of trying before you discover that. You have to put in those decades, then one day you just build a new instrument out of inappropriate &/or broken bits; then you stand on a corner in all weathers playing it. People see you there night and day and they wonder about your life, something that stopped puzzling you years ago. You’re happy at last, give them a few years & they will be too.

–Originally blogged 2013, as halloween, or Charlie Mingus at the Well of Souls