the m john harrison blog

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insects, lawnmowers, dogs. hot cars on the rolling road, running up to 5000rpm then going abruptly off the cliff’s edge into silence. “How do!” “How do!” “How do!” in the street. hot cars in the street, rumbling & banging on the over-run as they square up for the roundabout. the rag & bone man’s cry, which isn’t a cry at all but a four-note bugle call slowed to a gurgle by some kind of ancient ice cream van sound system and which I have been failing to write this five years. sun on the lawn. baked walls. sun in the street. beyonce in hot cars. washing machines that grind away as if at stones. light aircraft nauseously repeat the same pattern across the breadth of this May afternoon. flashes of light from windscreens. “How do!” at the greengrocer’s. “How do!” outside the pub. None of these things are happening in memories from being eight years old except one–light flashing off shallow rippling water in partial roadside shade–and yet they somehow all are.


the shape of the ruins

Bombings, shootings, riots, betrayal, misrepresentation, theft of evidence and, above all, conspiracy: Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s novel The Shape of the Ruins (translated by Anne McLean) contains in 500 pages more plot, more mystery, more action than five ordinary novels. The events it confronts are so complex–so chaotic–that it can’t, in a sense, be reviewed: the only true way to review the Uribe and Gaitan killings, in their national, historical and literary setting, would be to study for a decade or two, then write a further 500 page overview, which would include all the previous views on which Vasquez draws. The reviewer would, in fact–and this is perhaps Vasquez’s point–have to give in to the paranoid, Borgesian terraced-reality of it all, and begin the lonely, obsessive and probably fruitless process of rearranging what Vasquez memorably calls “stickers in a football album”. Evidently there wasn’t time to do that. So here’s my review of the novel, as a deeply enjoyable novel rather than a historical, political or criminal investigation, in the Guardian…

a recent history of bread

In the light of recent events in Edinburgh, it might be worth repeating this:

First the corporate bakers replace bread with a packaged, highly uniform item based on the cheapest ingredients and most cost-efficient production methods. By comparison, old fashioned bread is too slow, too difficult to make; it has a shorter shelf life and can be shown to appeal to fewer customers: they drop it from their repertoire, on the basis of the fall in demand they themselves have stimulated. As a result, perhaps a generation later, there begins to be seen a minor but discernible movement in the population itself towards “real” bread, generally defined as “wholemeal”; a bread which, though it is slower to make and harder to store, has all the qualities manufactured bread now lacks–taste, texture, substance & so on. The corporate bakers ignore this “new” bread until it begins to win publicity & shelf-space, at which point they claim that its entire raison d’etre is baseless: their product adheres fully to the regulations that define bread; it is just as good, just as wholesome, nutritious and fulfilling to eat; and anyway, people prefer its qualities of softness, reproducibility and long shelf-life. They commission advertising around these points. They commission nostalgia advertising. The wholemeal market, though still small, continues to grow. The corporate bakers commission cultural attack advertising, which shows ordinary, decent voters trying to make fish-finger-&-tomato-sauce sandwiches with “difficult” & foreign breads. But while these ads are comedy & rhetorical gold, and work well with the confirmation biases of eighty percent of the bread market, it’s now clear to corporate accountancy that there is in fact money to be made from the other twenty percent. Achieving by political lobby a change in the rules that define the notion of “wholemeal” which allows them to make a cheap, long-life, soft-feel imitation and still call it “real bread”, the corporates begin their move back into the slice of the market they voluntarily vacated a generation before, publicly condemning the “crushing consistency” of their own core product and tempting wholemeal experts away from their start-ups to design & package lines of the new real bread they will move through locally branded outlets set up on the sites of the old high street bakeries. Equilibrium returns. Everyone is safe.

Originally blogged in March last year.

edge hill

You Should Come With Me Now has been longlisted for The 2018 Edge Hill Prize. This is quite an extraordinary thing.

Congratulations to everyone on the list: Kelly Creighton – Bank Holiday Hurricane (Doire Press); Agnieszka Dale – Fox Season (Jantar Publishing); Lucy Durneen – Wild Gestures (MidnightSun Publishing); Tessa Hadley – Bad Dreams (Penguin); Sarah Hall – Madame Zero (Faber & Faber); David Hayden — Darker with the Lights On (Little Island Press); James Kelman – That was a Shiver (Canongate); Alison MacLeod – All the Beloved Ghosts (Bloomsbury); Sean O’Reilly – Levitation (Stinging Fly Press); Adam O’Riordan – The Burning Ground (Bloomsbury); Tom Rachman – Basket Of Deplorables (Riverrun); Leone Ross – Come Let us Sing Anyway (Peepal Tree Press); Nicholas Royle – Ornithology (Confingo); Eley Williams – Attrib (Influx Press). So many small press & independent books here: beautifully & honestly made, beautifully packaged, covers you’d kill for!

Thanks to everyone–including Edge Hill–who has supported & worked on behalf of the short story as a form. Thanks to everyone who supported YSCWMN despite its unlikelihood as a publishing proposition, especially everyone at Comma Press; and to everyone supporting further adventures of mine in these kinds of directions. Sorry I’m not here much at the moment: I’m working hard on the new novel. Stay tuned for further news, & for news about an outrageous, exciting & purely unexpected new project.

You Should Come With Me Now

any new but the new

The commentariat limits the new to the new it already knows: the only new it will acknowledge is the new predicted and confirmed by its own discourse. The new it doesn’t know has been staring any given commentariat in the face for a decade, but the commentariat pays no attention. The new the commentariat doesn’t know pays the commentariat no attention in return, but gets on with being what it is. That’s where science fiction, with its knack for predicting the present, can sometimes help. The best science fiction seems to drag the present into some sort of consciousness of itself. It seems to be ahead of the times because the times are always behind themselves. But science fiction must never accept the temptation to become a commentariat in itself, or by definition it will start to fail to recognise any new but the new that its internal discourse predicts & confirms.

Oh, wait…

Blogged as “a tree falls in a forest” in 2012, when the penny was beginning to drop

there are memories of west london you can use in the new book & memories you can’t

It’s been raining in a steady, thoughtful way for about twenty four hours. There’s a pair of Converse in the paved area outside the kitchen door, not far from the bleaching wicker chair. They’re black. They’re well-used. They’re mine. One of them has tipped over on its side. It’s leaning on the other, while the other leans away from it in an appalled fashion. I can’t remember how they got there, although I do remember it was dark, also shouting, “And don’t come back.” Whatever our quarrel it’s forgotten, but they’re so wet now there doesn’t seem to be much point in fetching them in. Nothing looks shabbier than a pair of wet Converse. A bleaching wicker chair, propped up at one corner by two bricks, is one thing–it can look quite deliberate, quite arranged, cottagey if you like: but discarded shoes are quite another. You could’t pass those off at the Chelsea Flower Show as an eye-catching feature of the urban garden. Or maybe you could. Anyway, it’s an ASBO in Barnes, quick as you like. Wet Converse, for some reason, make me think of Andy Murray. To me he’s always looked as if he should be wearing long shorts & oversize unlaced baseball boots, in a three-frame comic or soft-drink advert from the late 80s. He has a puzzled look. Speaking of Barnes & tennis, I once saw Tim Henman in Sonny’s, just after his career was over.


none of this

Empty items, delivered like ads but without content, begin to appear in your inbox. The first is entitled: You Got to Gas It Up & Go. You press all of the buttons. You leave the things behind. Within a week you’re on the run, on the turn, your little town’s Most Wanted. All you have left is your favourite undersize T shirt with its faded legend: I’m In Bits. Eventually you follow the lights out of town and towards the river. La Reve. Innocente. I Got No Dog In This Fight. Further out, they cluster under the bridges, singing opera they remember from a 1980s Cher vehicle. None of this is real.

not really a metaphor

This house is old, late 1700s. It shifts and resettles with the weather. It makes noises in the night. It makes noises when you walk about. It’s seen a few things. It’s “like a ship”, whatever that might once have meant. All the impressive old floorboards, along with some of the less impressive newer ones, are interestingly warped. They’re bowed, creaky and flexible. Yes, they’re fun–like the mystery cupboard someone made from part of a now-vanished staircase on the top floor–but more fun than you might want when you wake up in the dark with your anxieties arranged unartfully around you. Next day you’re aware of every dip and bounce. Outside the dry cold winds of late February grind around the town. The loft is fine to think about because the roof’s good and the floor up there’s brand new. We could sail the loft out of this port any time. We never use the word “subside”.

duties of care

A dream in which I was looking for someone, or making a journey to a house where they could be found. I went on foot & sometimes by bike. I had to take a small bird with me. Sometimes the bird flew, sometimes I carried it in my hand. My hand had to be held flat or very shallowly cupped, in case I crushed the bird. I had some worry about that, & some worry that the bird might fly off or become lost. At the same time, this was not a dream of anxiety. The person I was looking for could be described like this: a boy, younger than twelve but quite grown up & intellectually mature, very companionable & at ease with people. The house might be described like this: no older than the 1930s but feeling Edwardian. Detached. In the Home Counties. On a hill, in woods. On soft earth. Bay windows. The bicycle considerably more modern. No threat in this dream, & the only tension centered on the bird, for which I felt a duty of care. I was looking forward to seeing the boy, whose ideas & ability to talk were already attracting the interest of writers & teachers.

never think beyond the problem of getting things down

Stop reading. Stop being anxious about your relations with books. Assume your skills are adequate. Assume you don’t know who you are. Go away to another town. When you get there, don’t “write”: instead begin recording what you see. Describe a life you can only be on the edge of. Get those people down. Get down what they do, what they say, how they say it. Aim for observational accuracy but understand that you can only ever proceed from emotional & moral judgements you have already made. Never try to resolve that opposition. Never think beyond the problem of getting things down. Keep everything. After two years go back to where you came from, if you any longer believe that to be possible, or if you believe yourself any longer to be the you that went away. You can start trying to “write” again now.

Originally published as “note found in a copy of The Cosmic Code”, in 2013.