the m john harrison blog

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notes for a debriefing

Don’t say: “Riding my intelligent cool-looking polar bear to do battle with evil.”
Do say: “The arctic sea-ice isn’t freezing this year.”

Don’t say: “Dog with head-balancing skills becomes star.”
Do say: “We blew antibiotics.”

Don’t say: “Swipe it straight into your mouth.”
Do say: “Pence at Hamilton was theatre in the theatre, a deft, clinical reframing of the opposition’s theatrical space, utilising the media as proscenium.

My review of Christopher Priest’s haunting new novel The Gradual, up at the TLS today.

I thought I might just reblog this once a year at around the appropriate time

…then, after a wonderful morning at the cenotaph we decided to go for a walk in the woods, which was rather spoiled by their being so muddy underfoot & our meeting a man not wearing a poppy. After Father had pointed out to him the disrespect inherent in this gesture, what did he do but harangue us for half an hour about some complicated political grudge he held? In the end, Father, indicating each of us in turn, gently asked him if he thought it right to bully innocent women and children in this way, & that seemed to be enough to calm him down; though he remained rough & humourless. Little Jenny, only eight years old, cleverly got his address from him, as a result of which, later, we were able to report him to the police.

Originally blogged November 9th 2015, as “the next war”. Last year, this still seemed to have elements of humour, now [shrugs].

the missing

As soon as I start watching it I’m exhausted. Something about the way the scenes are overweighted with meaning–implications of subtexts which the material itself is simply too ordinary to support–almost as if, through editing & dubbed dialogue, someone has tried to write a more interesting story on to the unfolding images. Some of it, I know, is that I don’t really care about any of the characters in what’s just a TV thriller bloated up to “significance”. Some of it is because I don’t understand why the returned girl has to look like someone’s mistaken memory of a zombie from the vastly superior Les Revenants. Some of it is because I don’t understand why the investigation of a civilian kidnapping in Europe should be led by the UK military, except to centralise and pump up the UK military in the eyes of UK viewers. And when people call it “the best of British drama” I think: yes, overloaded, overacted & convinced of its own importance in the face of the evidence.

on the white road to carleon

In 1923 Arthur Machen calculates that writing has earned him six hundred and thirty-five pounds in forty two years. “That is, I have been paid at the rate of fifteen pounds and a few shillings per annum.” So he wasn’t writing for the money. As for the rest of what the trade might be about, you never really write what you hoped you would, not so much in terms of quality as in terms of content and structure: in the end, he admits, it’s never quite the story you intended to tell. Why do it, then? Well, to provide interest in a bland life, much the way mountaineers “expose themselves to horrors, miseries and the instant risk of death on the most desperate mountains of the world”. Life is “cold mutton”, he says, intolerable without sauce. If this seems to us quite a bland response in itself, not to mention (especially given what we know about the single-minded ambition and sheer personality disorder of mountaineers) an evasion or cover-up, well Machen isn’t going to show any more of his cards. Except of course to suggest that perhaps what we call life isn’t really life at all. My review of Machen’s Things Near & Far and Catherine Fisher’s Machen’s Gwent: A country hardly to be known in the TLS today (£).

terranauts

Ecosphere 2, a sealed multi-biome habitat in the Arizona desert, is a dry-run for life off Earth; an experiment in closed systems living sunk by sex, hunger and competitive tensions; and a two-year reality show and visitor attraction set in a popular-science theme park, the gift shop of which offers soft-toy bush babies “at $14.95 a pop” “It wasn’t a stunt,” one of its occupants admits, “And it wasn’t theatre. But certainly those elements were present… Call it science-theatre.” Something we’ve seen plenty of this week, as “all eyes” were turned to Mars etc etc, and will see plenty of again as the publicity of science becomes more important than the science of science. My review of The Terranauts, TC Boyle’s blackly comic novel, not quite a new Tono Bungay but a savage enough pisstake of contemporary techno-boosterism, up at the Guardian.

may time

HE Bates is good at people dying puzzled after a life lived without interrogation or protest and an old age that has reduced them to the human equivalent of a salmon after breeding, coming to pieces in the upstream pool. The absolute triumph of modernism was to make it clear that, while you have to accept the reality of death, you don’t have to accept anyone’s description of the “realities” of the life that precedes it. We should cling to that understanding as Theresa May moves us gently but firmly back to small town English life in Bates’s 1920s.

late style

Late style arrives when you realise that you are: competent enough to write those things you wanted to write when you were twenty five; impatient enough to have one more go at going all the way; angry enough not to allow anyone else to persuade you to do something else. At the same time late style is cold, amused, contemptuous and savage about everyone you have been or ever tried to be. Late style is when the monster down there has finally had enough. Late style is when the people who have all your life jumped in front of you–waving their arms No! Careful!–jump out one more time to encourage you to run them down.

A day suspended from interpretation to interpretation, hung between guesses. It’s late when you look up. Something in the street. Bassline oozes from a passing car. Rain between here & the night. You close the shutters, switch on the light, read, “Lost cities found.” Read, “This attempt to see a future that leaves us all exhausted.” Read, “A pure, gargled emotional demand.” The cat walks round the room. Purrs briefly by the door. Your phone is trying to remind you of a name you don’t know.