the m john harrison blog

any port in a storm

You’re interested in this clown. He wants connection with others, he’s just inept at choosing them. He’s led by his own passivity. He ends up on the edges of other people’s lives and relationships, drawn there by the obsessive-compulsive cycles of his own personality. His favourite pretence is that before the story began, before he met you, he had momentum, which he lost through no fault of his own. We see right through that. It’s comically self-deceptive. He leans towards the normal, he’s optimistic he can achieve it: what he doesn’t seem to understand is that any context will satisfy him, however grotesque. If he’s lucky he can settle in a temporary unstable orbit around people who don’t need him for anything. He’s of no utility. He’s damaged goods. He’s the drowned man, the text’s corpse looking for somewhere to wash up.

progress report

My broadband went over the hill last week & shows no sign of returning. What a dog. If I owe you an email: patience. If you owe me one remember how I saved your Arabian hyena from the flood that time, also those other favours I did that we do not need to talk about now. The clock is ticking on our friendship. Anyway, things might be slow here & on Twitter for a day or two more.

in search of lost anxieties

I misplaced my current notebook about a month ago. I’m puzzled as to where or how; but even more puzzled that I haven’t begun another one. There are ten or a dozen waiting in a cupboard upstairs–covers ranging from cloth-on-stiff-board bought years ago in Colombo, to the inevitable black squared-paper Moleskine still in its shrinkwrap–but I can’t seem to choose between them. I quarter the house instead, trying to convince myself there’s somewhere I haven’t yet looked. I’m vaguely annoyed I can’t find it, but mainly for the puerile reason that it was “almost full”. At the same time, I can’t really get agitated. That seems like a loss in itself. I wonder where this latest novel is leading me: if you realise that you haven’t seen me for a couple of months, arrest it.

characters (5)

This character never has much more than an unconscious relationship with events. His awareness always skims them, or goes round them, or manages to find a way of dismissing them as shallow and insubstantial even as they’re happening. If the things that happen to him are taken in at all–actually engaged with or reacted to–it must be the unconscious which does that work, because his consciousness always seems to be off somewhere else. It’s never really connected up. Things’ effects on him have thus to be welcomed later, in symbols. Sometimes the return of the repressed will be all he has to work with to understand what has actually taken place.

where you really were

Insiders know everything about the thing they’re inside and deny everything that doesn’t suit them about what’s outside it. Contemporary insiderism is stickily mixed up with, and still owes its metaphysical base to, postmodernism: pressured, a contemporary insider is not only able to deny there is an outside, but also that there can ever be an outside. Knowing everything about the thing you’re in brings considerable status, although that’s hard to maintain when the bubble pops and you find out where you really were. The last thing you want to be then is an insider. Two generations have shown themselves this again and again but they won’t grow up and learn it.


Friday approaches and recedes but it’s never where you are. Two buzzards drift out over the valley, wings as flat as planks. Warm air, sunshine, rowan blossom like a confectioner’s shop; next door’s dogs howl. Further off, the junkman’s wonky bugle call. You live forever suspended in this complex medium until someone walks past saying, “I don’t think I’m anything like as well as I feel.”


Middle class left begins its predictable trudge rightwards under the tattered banner, “After all, it can’t be so bad.” Also, “Let’s get a sense of proportion about this.” Etc etc.

the truth about history

Judging by the present, all our interpretations of deep-historical human behaviour are over-dignified. Instead of, “This item was probably part of a religious ceremony,” for instance, we should always prefer: “They used this as part of some stupid fad.” Or: “It was that generation’s version of the Yo Yo.” Archeology by kitsch: foundational myth as pulp: the Mysteries as am-dram. Melinda dresses like a mermaid and sits on a rock staring out to sea. In the arena, Ronnie is pretending he can jump bull. Bull-jumping used to be a dangerous sport, but with today’s techniques and equipment, anyone can have fun at it. Later, they’ll go up to the limestone caves and watch the dogging. Then Melinda rests her head on Ronnie’s shoulder in the warm dark and you can hear her say: “It was a lovely holiday but let’s do something else next year. Everyone’s going to Hittite Anatolia these days.” Fantasy that rips off history should always take account of this.

well used to falling down

Soon after we moved into the Dulwich house, we were called over to number 31 at one in the morning to help pick Lord Arquiss up.

His wife ran about in the empty street for a while, trying to attract our attention. A light, dry snow was dusting the road, wreathing and twisting along like dust round each quick little step. “Look at this,” said Elaine, who knew a performance when she saw one. “Not dancing but waving.” She waved back until the ballerina gave up and rang our bell.

“I wouldn’t ask,” the ballerina told us, “but he’s had a little bit much to drink, so we can’t really call the ambulance.”

Their front room was full of furniture too big for it, dimly lit by standard lamps with tasseled satin shades. Lord Arquiss lay waiting for us on the carpet at the base of a display cabinet, arranged on the glass shelves of which were hundreds of very small items in a kind of bright blue glass. He was looking up mischievously from the side of his eye. One of his slippers had fallen off. His legs, thick but somehow graceful, poked out of the bottom of the shortie dressing gown, their color somewhere between white and cream. His skin was very smooth. He had a faint, distinct smell — not unpleasant — which reminded me of babies. We got him up off the floor and back into his chair with difficulty. He was still a heavy man, even in a dressing gown and with naked, biscuit-colored balls.

He looked unrepentant; the ballerina looked relieved. “You must have a drink,” they urged; filled two glasses with Famous Grouse; and spent an hour telling us anecdotes of people called Tippy or Ticky — people who were Malcolm Sargent’s mistress in some old days even the participants barely now recall — people who had been well used to falling down and being picked up again.

from “Black Houses”, in Things That Never Happen, 2002.


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