the m john harrison blog

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joan didion

“Part of what I want to tell you is what it is like to be young in New York, how six months can become eight years with the deceptive ease of a film dissolve, for that is how those years appear to me now, in a long sequence of sentimental dissolves and old-fashioned trick shots–the Seagram Building fountains dissolve into snowflakes, and I enter a revolving door at twenty and come out a good deal older, and on a different street.” [“Goodbye to all that”, Slouching Toward Bethlehem.] This, along with the preceding essay, “Los Angeles Note Books”, is the best of her. Observationally clean & stripped-down, perfectly sweet & sour, nostalgic but taking no prisoners, not even herself. Especially herself. I’d kill to write like this, to be able to face and record things from this angle, which is both slyly direct and directly oblique. All distinctions between forms dissolve into this. It is written so lightly & fluidly into being. By the mid-to-late 60s she had already done everything I associate with Jayne Anne Phillips & Denis Johnson.


no news is good news

Just to reassure people: there is a new novel & it will be published through the typical channels at some point. Other stuff: I’m still working on collaborative projects. News if & when something emerges into the grey light of day etc etc. The disorienting science fiction novel I began in 2013 is still writhing in & out of existence like one of the monsters in “The Crisis”. There are also short ghost stories in various stages of completion, set in the world as-is & with the ghost hidden in the ambient fabric. This is the direction the fiction is going in at the moment, so if you want Light-style bizarro (or its default opposite, Just A Really Wonderful Empathic Story) I’m not your man. Oh, & I have a very short, very distributed item called “Colonising the Future” coming out in the second issue of VISIONS.

two for one

1. the magus zoroaster

I bumped into myself on the street & just talked & talked.

The late life doppelganger is the worst. You aren’t being shown anything you haven’t already seen. You don’t learn anything you didn’t already know.

The truth about the doppelganger is that you were always what you were seeing. People avoid that for as long as they can, on the grounds of banality, & who can blame them. But a writer’s job is to rub their noses in it.

2. who is the 3rd who always walks beside you

Tarkovsky was such a successful prophet. Every colonisation, every gentrification, re-enacts itself across a generation or so, first as its own myth–a landscape of risk, death, unknown rules & nightmare struggle; then as a tourist destination. This is the contemporary meaning of the Zone. In Chernobyl and on Everest we see how every motive the Stalker rejected in his would-be female client at the beginning of the film is now the commodified norm of the edgeland.

salt slow

A cohort of bright and lively Catholic schoolgirls, required to watch sex-education videos– “censored Health and Safety movies from the 1970s, heavy on abstracted metaphors and light on biology” –suddenly grow “slack and strange from too much inactivity” and spend their time boasting to each other about their physical flaws. These competitive lists of defects quickly yaw towards the macabre. “I dream in sheddings,” the narrator tells us; soon enough we begin to suspect that her skin problem might be something more than metaphor… Julia Armfield lays tender but surreal fantasies like nets over a deep comic savagery, structuring them like films from another country. My review of her debut collection Salt Slow in the Guardian; and of the astonishing short “The Great Awake” at Jonathan Gibbs’ A Personal Anthology (scroll down).


Elsewhere, stands of scrub had overgrown the old walls to make intimate sunken bays floored with turf. They looked like rooms in the intimacy of the western sun. You felt instantly calm. You felt instantly at home, until what you thought was a chalk bank, cut deeply by the footpath, revealed ends of brick. It was all going back to the earth. Landscape as a metaphor for the constructed had met & become tangled with the metaphor of the built environment, & they had collapsed into one another. It made you think about the sorts of things that architects said at the beginning of the last century, about the good effect of the right architecture on people’s lives. The sense that people would be cared for by the architects themselves, & architecture be a way of replacing the accidents of the vernacular, the disorderly provisions of the natural world. Then, as you walked further up the hillside, everything opened out again suddenly to wide re-entrants grass-glowing in the sunlight, opened out to the long ridges dotted with isolated hawthorns and patches of burnet rose. The wind opened everything out and moved it along.

(June 2008)

urban vertical

Orange overalls daubed with sealants hang from a loose cable at the back of the power-tool room. From there you go up in a lift like a ribbed steel coffin smelling faintly of disinfectant. Roof access: pull-down steel ladder, counterweighted trap door. The drop is set up from ring bolts placed at regular intervals along the flat roof, the load spread over two or three bolts with clove-hitches. These bolts were part of a suspension-system for window cleaning cradles, unused because it didn’t get the approval of the insurance companies. Lightning conductors: a flat copper strip runs all the way round the parapet; more conventional rods are placed at the corners. When a storm is approaching, these begin to vibrate palpably. Because the ropes run across the copper strip, this is a good time to get off the drop for a bit. An unimpeachable tranquillity overtakes you once you’re over the parapet of the building. Nothing can harm you now. The wind hits you like a wall, then dies away & there you are, hanging above the trees, cars, old men walking between the blocks, a bull terrier fighting with a broom, women pushing babies in prams, cars like toys–the whole estate laid out below you like the architect’s model it once was. The ropes trail away. Freedom. Freedom from everything. A man unloading something from a van glances up briefly in surprise. Trees which look like coral in the sun. You hang there relaxing after the tension of getting over the parapet. Balconies: kitchen chairs, mops, rubbish in black bags, crates of empty bottles. One of the balconies flooded with two inches of rainwater. As you go down, the wind picks up 90 feet of trail rope, blows it round the corner of the block, where it tangles round a satellite dish. The same gust knocks you ten feet to one side & off balance so that you have to hook one foot under a balcony rail at about the level of your chest to anchor & reorient yourself. You sit patiently twitching a loop of rope until it’s disentangled & you can drop again. Underwear dances suddenly above you over the balcony. A window opens. A hand appears, to throw out dust or crumbs. You can’t see who is attached to it. You look out over the man-made lake, a kind of Brutalist reservoir now terminally polluted by a sewer-burst. It used to support all sorts of activities, even windsurfing. Now four or five men set out across it very slowly in a small boat–huddled, cold-looking, perhaps collecting samples of the polluted water. The wind takes all the vigour out of them.

(long ago)

the library

For some years a sub-basement beneath the hotel’s parking facility was used to store texts generated by the guests. These, ranging from thin volumes of verse to literary horror novels the thousand pages of which might be read in any order, were discovered in predictable circumstances: an immaculately tidy room with fifty years of stored nail clippings & a mysteriously opened window; urgent written or recorded warnings against reading or even turning the pages of the manuscript; the death, wandering-off or unexplained evaporation of the writer in circumstances which suggested they too had been an item in a text. During the pre-war period, the Theory Cadre threw open this library three times a year, but though its contents drew visitors from most major universities, no scholarship emerged & in May 1946 the sub-basement, along with the passage that leads to it, was sealed.Elements of the Closed Architectonics Committee of the Theory Cadre visit Le Tourniquet, circa 1930.

From “The Theory Cadre”, You Should Come With Me Now

upon reading the measles statistics

I’m not interested in an embodied and localised knowledge. I had enough of it as a child in the early 1950s, among people whose top argument was, “Because I know better.” They didn’t want the NHS. They didn’t want vaccination. They didn’t want the kids that survived to waste their time on education. They didn’t want science. All sense was common sense: they were the well, and your role as a child was to drink what you were given. Anything else, from the welfare state to astrophysics, was a challenge to traditional hierarchies. After you’d tried, and had it drilled into you how worthless your fancy new ideas were, your ambition was to quickly and quietly exit their radius of control and enter the de-localised intellectual funfair of modernity, with its fantastically advanced concepts such as “abstract thought”. Your secondary ambition was to work on a politics that got shot of all that forever. That’s really what the 60s was about if you lived where I lived. It was a revolt about what kind of knowledge you could have of the world, and how you could get it. I never regretted running away from the Trump-like epistemics of postwar semi-industrialised, semi-rural England. All I regret is that we didn’t quite achieve full escape velocity and get rid of its limiting ideas forever, so they couldn’t crawl back and infect everything again. I never want to return to that nightmare, or sympathise with it, or “understand” it, or give it any more than this single paragraph of the oxygen of analysis.

shelf life

Books with thickened pages. Books that smell of a damp room with an unswept chimney. You’ll get rid of them the next house move because it will probably be the last. You don’t want a lot of books for someone else to deal with, drawing down moisture, thickening all the while. One or two you remember buying but you don’t remember why. One of them has a sentence you promised you wouldn’t forget. You’ll never write the essay that proceeds from it now. You read these books incessantly & didn’t learn one thing. They pointed in every direction but they don’t have a future without you. You imagine someone saying, “They meant such a lot to him, choose anything you like,” then, when everyone has gone, looking around at all the books still left & wondering what to do with them because the charity shops aren’t interested. You don’t want that. The fact is that books–including your own, especially your own–talk all night & you wish they’d leave you alone.

real histories

Thomas Sidney Cooper RA, 1803-1902, was so associated with paintings of cows that he became known as “Cow Cooper”. On his eightieth birthday he started the massive picture of cows you see here, completing it in six weeks. He seems to have painted it so large because he didn’t want anyone to buy it. Elsewhere this is an exemplary museum, repository of “all things stolen and stuffed”, its cabinets full of items that once had cultural significance and context but which now look sad, beaten down and really quite difficult to define. A Church of England primary school seems to have donated a mummified feline; or perhaps adopted it. You would do that out of sympathy, the instant you saw its minute teeth, though it doesn’t at all resemble a cat. There are various Victorian birds, along with their eggs, nests and environs; and, for the girls, many weapons! including “an armguard with dagger and pistols” (Madras, early 1800s), which looks like something from the cover of an astonishingly poor fantasy novel, early 1980s. An echidna is partly hidden beneath less indentifiable stuff. But then, suddenly and gloriously, these.Picture Cath Phillips