the m john harrison blog

plug & play

The more all of this goes on, the more you recognise a vocabulary of reusable rhetorical structures, some new, some achingly traditional. Following the latest skirmish becomes like consuming TV bolted together from tropes: by the end of ep one you’re following the structures but ignoring their apparent “content” (as you would with, say, Keeping Faith, The OA, or Cardinal); by ep two, of course, you’ve started watching something else. One of the recent additions to the rhetorical vocabulary is, “No, I must do [insert clearly immoral act] because it is in fact right & I would be irresponsible NOT to.” This to be delivered, obviously, in conjunction with either a po-faced passive aggressive expression indicating middle class woundedness; or with the appended Putinesque metatext for “Fuck lads, look, they can’t even stop me saying this crap”. But its USP is its utility: like the best of these proven tropes it’s fully pret a porter, quick to deploy in symmetrical or asymmetrical arenas & can be used by anyone in defence of either side of any argument, especially in conjunction with popular “pushing the boundaries of The New in tech, politics or media” formulations. A good solid buy for your culture war. The only risk in use is that your audience will become exhausted, complain puzzledly, “Haven’t I heard all this before,” and change channels. But we can sell you one of several specialised plug-&-plays to control that response.


wild epistemologies

From the absorbing and enjoyable Cyclogeography, by John Day, of a London cab driver who retired to become the dispatcher at a bike-courier operation–

“But after a few years on the road [Frank] realised that he preferred his mental map of the city to the real thing, and so he retreated to the office to live in it at one remove, traversing London vicariously in his imagination.”

In this narrative, Frank spends his wild years stealing cars and mopeds and racing around the city, learning “the knowledge” by accident as a way of avoiding arrest. Then he makes a socially acceptable, civilian use of what he’s learned, by becoming a cab driver. Finally, in later life, he places himself at the heart of the embodied space, as a kind of human map. He has become not the city but an expression of the city, not a user of the knowledge so much as the knowledge itself. The austere beauty of this developmental arc is that it can exist only to the extent that you have followed it: you can’t achieve state three without having first been through states one and two. This was very much the point of the relationship between the narrator and his mentor Sankey in Climbers; or the relationship between the middle class students of metaphysics and Yaxley the magician in The Course of the Heart.

the deep road

This post, from 2008, seems to have growing relevance for me–

You have to look at the major transitions of your life with a metaphor that makes aesthetic and emotional sense. That metaphor has to be waiting there in your unconscious to become available to you. You might be offered any number of public metaphors, but only the private one is of use. What parts of the transition are you prepared to label?

what we talk about when we talk about Viriconium

The houses up here, warm and cheerful as they are in summer, become in the first week of September cold and damp. Ordinary vigorous houseflies, which have crawled all August over the unripe lupine pods beneath the window, pour in and cluster on any warm surface, but especially on the floor near the electric fire, and the dusty grid at the back of the fridge; they cling to the side of the kettle as it cools. That year you couldn’t leave food out for a moment. When I sat down to read in the morning, flies ran over my outstretched legs.

“I suppose you’ve got the same problem,” I said to Mr Ambrayses. “I poison them,” I said, “but they don’t seem to take much notice.” I held up the Vapona, with its picture of a huge fly. “Might as well try again.”

Mr Ambrayses nodded. “Two explanations are commonly offered for this,” he said:

“In the first we are asked to imagine certain sites in the world–a crack in the concrete in Chicago or New Delhi, a twist in the air in an empty suburb of Prague, a clotted milk bottle on a Bradford tip–from which all flies issue in a constant stream, a smoke exhaled from some fundamental level of things. This is what people are asking–though they do not usually know it–when they say exasperatedly, “Where are all these flies coming from ?” Such locations are like the holes in the side of a new house where insulation has been pumped in: something left over from the constructional phase of the world.

“This is an adequate, even an appealing model of the process. But it is not modern; and I prefer the alternative, in which it is assumed that as Viriconium grinds past us, dragging its enormous bulk against the bulk of the world, the energy generated is expressed in the form of these insects, which are like the sparks shooting from between two flywheels that have momentarily brushed each other.” —-A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium.

various news

For a project, I’m collecting fictions that appeared here but didn’t make the cut for You Should Come With Me Now. If you have favourites, suggest them below. There’s a Selected Short Stories in the planning stage, so the same goes for that: leave your picks below–the whole motley lot will be considered, if anyone can find a copy of The Machine in Shaft Ten & Others, although I don’t actually promise to include anything from that. In other news there are three gigs forthcoming in October–two in Sheffield, one in Kent. One of them is with a Famous Person–exciting details here & on twitter nearer the time. The new novel is down to three chapters of 4000 words each but they are crucial & then there will be Overall Structural Adjustments, so expect silence, hysteria, panic, bad behaviour. I have no idea how to describe this book, although I predict that others will manage fine & I have a fairly clear idea how. Nothing new there then.

yes I am talking about fiction

A paragraph is a unit of meaning, with links fore & aft to the argument of the piece. (The piece does not, in this sense, “contain” any given paragraph: because it emerges as a consequence of all of them.) A paragraph is a piece of meaning, with its own argument, its private internal flow and logic and perhaps even grammars. It should have unity in that way. A paragraph is about one thing, but there’s this: once you’ve learned to write a paragraph, you can begin to syncopate, so that though the meanings contained by the paragraphs still roll through, assembling the meaning of the piece as they go, they now come in waves and counterwaves, out of step, leaking from paragraph to paragraph. New connections form. Everything is alive then and rhythmic and deeply funk.

photo: Cath Phillips

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