the m john harrison blog

the schools of night

Catching up late with Cyclogeography, Jon Day’s excitingly obsessive memoir of the cycle-courier trade. Dispatchers become the map, couriers map themselves onto the ground. History & literature of the discipline. All the things, fluidly organised & delivered at speed: just what writing ought to be. Excellent review here. And buy it here or at your usual outlets. I love experiential memoir, hermetic knowledge of actual events; but then you know that. Propellerhead, Junkie, Space Below My Feet, Tales of a Rat Hunting Man, How the Universe Got Its Spots, The Mint: nothing more exciting than someone else’s descent into a discipline–whether it’s sex, math, junk, microlighting, rat-hunting or whatever–and do they or don’t they manage to haul themselves out afterwards. One of the brilliances of Cyclogeography is that it’s catalogued as travel writing. If I was Jon Day I’d be so happy with that. The height of my career was walking into a Charing X Road bookstore & finding Climbers shelved under Fiction, Autobiography, Travel & Sport. What more are you going ask of life? In that kind of writing you surf the difference between the act and the record of the act. You’re jumping red lights in the rain at night in November in a space engineered to be somewhere between life and the discourse. The knack of writing like that is to know exactly where you were in that space when you fell off.


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.

I spent my birthday in ambush by water

Photo: Cath Phillips

You Should Come With Me Now

good breast bad breast

Elements of an audience reject the majority of the work, then, on the basis of a wilful misreading of something written half a century ago, publicly rebuild its author into the symbol they prefer. This move is acceptable, perhaps, in the case of a single reader & a single book. A book is published: an act which opens it to the traditional combination of ideological cherry-picking and emotional misprision that encourages appropriation. Some readers quite literally make a book their own, treating it as part of their deep psychic contents as if every page has originated there prior to reading. Their reading seems to them to precede their reading. Authors are used to that. Harder to come to terms with is the very strong romantic who–able to manage neither their demon nor their own boundaries, and determined not to feel in hock to the wrong writer, now a haunting dimly but irritatingly perceived behind every turn of the appropriated text–is forced to reinvent not just the book but the author. In this supernatural scenario, the author becomes a figure of moral failure: someone who went wrong; someone who wrote one correct book but subsequently–perhaps in search of adventure, more probably out of weakness–took a wrong turn, made a fatal error, and spoiled all the rest. As a result, unforgiveably, the reader’s career in appropriative revision was equally spoilt, so that they are now forced to make a powerful corrective in the form of an internet review.


It’s 2001. The central character of this hilarious, unremitting and cruelly intelligent satire of privilege decides to sleep a year away, in the hope that her life will have improved by the time she wakes up. Her plan works best–at least to start with–in the supply closet underneath the stairs at the New York “art” gallery where she works. “Every time I lay down in that supply closet I went straight into black emptiness, an infinite space of nothingness. I had no visions. I had no ideas.” She’s aware of the nothingness– “I was awake in the sleep, somehow. I felt good” –and it becomes her target state. Prescription drugs become its vector. Otessa Mossfegh’s observational skills are surgically accurate, her deployment of them produces effects on a spectrum from wry to savage; the picture she builds up is of a society so rotten to the core with privilege and self-involvement that it can only be ours. Expect a lot of ruffled feathers, projection and aggressive-defensive reaction to this book. Expect it to be brushed aside as unpleasant and needlessly negative–always a sign that the target’s been hit. Read my review of it at the Guardian, here.

a little of what you fancy

A couple of paragraphs from the construction site, just because I like you–

Victoria emailed Short.

“It’s very English Heritage up here. I expect I’ve told you that before.” As soon as you entered the woods, a dozen footpaths, signposted at the will of competing conservation bodies, went off busily in all directions, running precipitately into one another, stumbling over brand new stiles, toppling into an overgrown quarry and out the other side. “They’re offering access. They’re offering so much access you don’t know where to go for the best.”

In fact, she often ended up beside the pool where she had watched Pearl bathe, and stood there wondering how she could make herself go in. She took off her sandals. She took off some of her clothes then, believing she had heard someone call their dog in the next field along, quickly put them back on again. She was puzzled by herself. On the surface, something seemed to splash and turn lazily; below it, the yellow flowers still lay preserved. They maintained their leaves, and a brittle look, and except for their curious habitat they were quite ordinary. On the way back she heard church bells. The day already had a waxy look, as if some very modern coating had been applied to it at half past seven that morning.

At home she sorted her mother’s things: small framed prints slotted as tightly as old vinyl into cardboard boxes, top edges furred with dust; an ashtray with horses on it; seashells in a jar. This to go, that to stay. Nothing she could place securely in her childhood, or in some later house.

Among the prints she discovered a Felix Kelly capriccio, about eighteen inches on a side. It was already framed. Victorian chimneys confronted self-satisfied Jacobean architecture across a placid lake; trees leaned out from wanly-lit surrounding heights. In the background, Wales had somehow been brought too close to Shropshire. She wiped the glass, knocked a nail into new plaster; stood back to look and saw, predictably, her own reflection. “Why does that always happen?” she wrote to Short. And: “I don’t expect you to have time to answer, between the demands of the gig economy and the heady bustle of metropolitan life. Well, here it’s been raining since 1301.”

Storms had in fact swept up from Powys for a week: after each one, rain slopped off the front gutters of the closing shops, while refreshed jackdaws conducted their meetings in the invisible boardroom between the roofs. It was still summer but it didn’t quite feel like it.

“I don’t know what to think about Pearl,” she admitted suddenly, as if Short was in the room and was someone she could talk to.

voodoo larry’s lead sled

Ben Myers’ grainy, uncompromising, wildly exciting The Gallows Pole, from tiny Northern publisher BlueMoose, wins the Walter Scott Award, 2018. A fortnight or so later, Crudo, Olivia Laing’s “experimental novel about Kathy Acker” becomes a bestseller a week after publication. These are only the most snapshot examples, the most visible evidence. Things are broadening out. A little catch-up is going to have to be played. No one’s claiming the 1980s are finally on their way out; but we have as much right to dream about that as we do about reaching the semifinals of Global Sportsball. So, for all you aspirational writers out there: a big round of the chorus from Eddy & the Hot Rods’ greatest hit again, I think. And, kids, always remember: you are not writing a book. You are in the basement with Tom. You are building your version of Voodoo Larry’s Lead Sled. You need to be able to explain without embarrassment, “I Frenched the headlights.” Understand Voodoo Larry Grobe, you understand The Work, this is a metaphor ok it is what we do.

Incidentally, apropos of nothing, here’s that history of recent changes in the bread market again.

high ticket, obsessed & adrift

When we first see Laura Bow, she’s a lonely adolescent, self-harming with a lighted match. She’s talking by email with a friend in the US. She’s already a coder, already hooked by the urgency and excitement of a conversation that only exists between her and the computer. It’s the 1990s, and dial-up connections still make a noise like an animal in pain, and she’s just added another £150 to her parents’ phone bill. Thereafter, James Smythe slices her life for us at ten-year intervals. By 2007, things are out of hand: she’s a high-ticket professional, obsessed and simultaneously adrift–we see her in that classic old-fashioned hacker-movie style, running panickily down a line of servers in a Palo Alto corporate, trying to retrieve a deteriorating situation. 2017, she’s running down a street in Kuala Lumpur in the rain, thirty-seven years old now and pregnant. All this time she’s been building an artificial intelligence.

My review of James Smythe’s excellent AI thriller I Still Dream, in the Times Literary Supplement today (£).

on the verb

Some great chat the other night on Radio 3’s “The Verb”, with Bella Hardy, Kate Davis, Ben Myers and Simon Bainbridge, produced by Faith Lawrence & chaired by Ian McMillan. Enjoyed every minute, would ramble on helplessly about writing again. Also Kate’s poetry got me thinking about the exteriority of gritstone versus the interiority of limestone. The latter doesn’t get much of a look-in in Climbers, but provides the controlling metaphor of “Cave & Julia”.

that hyddeous strength

Some of these gestures are so liminal you can’t tell if they’re personal or political. In a paddy, little Donny, 70, throws sweets at the mother-figure who won’t on this occasion encourage him to be the self he really can be. Defeated in honest babel combat by the Parkland survivors, he soon finds some even more vulnerable children to turn on. His perhaps resentful, apparently trophy wife looks too confused to understand her own fashion statement (she knows what she’s done but she doesn’t really know what it means to do it, you feel she’s already too culturally & cognitively dissociated); or she may be in full use of her skills & senses. They might, both or all of them, be mad, or completely narcissistically sane. They might be both. You can’t tell. You can’t tell whether it’s political or personal; you can’t tell whether the psychodrama is private or public; organised, or improvised–like the most personal of behaviours–out of the chaos of the self; ideological or simply vengeful. You can’t tell if the audience is responding to the politics or the improv, out of enlightened self interest or out of its own emerging psychic excitement. It’s the pure Ballardian irrational. One thing you can say is that, whatever all this is, it works. These actions are mad, but perfectly in tune with the base. They are shamanistic and in their own frame visionary. Being able to identify this is no help, of course, until we can persuade ourselves that our entire previous stance–comprising all available rational postures of the last hundred or so years–is being successfully undermined by a minute-by-minute bricolage of personality disorders.