the m john harrison blog

steady down

Why are genre writers so desperate to convince? Treat ’em mean keep ’em keen seems to be lost advice. The result is chapter after opening chapter of needy, to which the experienced reader is only going to react with contempt. There’s a terrible lack of self-confidence out there. Panic won’t relieve the conditions of the buyers’ market; only exacerbate them. Readers know the weakness of your position. They’ve passed the groaning tables at the front of the shop. They’ve heard all your desperate lines. They’ve seen you do the little dance. What else can you show them? Even as they ask they’re walking on by, looking for someone who knows the product but has the dignity not to oversell it.

first footing

Here’s a little bit from the new novel–

Wet days, he stayed inside, listening to the rain on the river. He watched Netflix, or scrolled through his emails, among which he would often find one from Victoria Nyman. Victoria had made good her threat to leave London. “Well, it’s done,” she wrote. “Goodbye Dalston. I took only what I could get into the little car. Everything else went into storage. As you can imagine, it was goodbye to the priceless antique carpets and family silver.” Or, sent from her phone: “Help! Lost in the Midlands again!” She approached the whole business as obliquely as the rest of her life. But she was making friends, she said: she was enjoying herself at last. She was cleaning two old chairs with white spirit and “linseed oil the colour of Lagavulin”. It was a running commentary. Shaw looked forward to each new installment, but always felt he had missed a pivotal message. Where had she actually gone? What was she doing now?

“Anyway,” she wrote, “Like all the other losers, I cashed out for the provinces. Lots of love. Hope you are enjoying your fish, and that, just as importantly, the fish is enjoying you.”

In fact, he had decided to give it to his mother.

The reasons for this he would have found difficult to explain. If you picked the fish up and encouraged the streetlight to angle off its hand-etched scales, it seemed more Deco than Peru, more 1930s than nineteenth century; to confuse matters further, the hallmarks were Spanish. A tiny bashed pentagram indicated, so Google advised him, silver of .915 purity. These failures of alignment between the facts of the fish and Victoria’s narrative of it only seemed to echo a deeper cultural disconnect. There was a curious, halting feel to its aesthetic–as if the artist, in the attempt to kitschify the ethnic product of one culture, had stumbled on evidence of a completely different culture hidden inside it. Under the lamplight the movements of its cleverly-articulated body fell just short of sinuous.

It was too like a fish. Its rubbery lips and accusing blue eyes dismayed him, especially when he woke in the night, disoriented by the noise from the room next door.

–happy New Year.

this is late but I’m not apologising

Despite the growing sense that we might have an actual Left again, politically 2015 was one of the darkest years I can remember. Not because of any specific incident, although there have been plenty, but because of the feeling you had of the Tories steadily & blatantly rolling us back on a broad front to our 1850s future–the return of religion, nationalism, militarism, press baronage & deregulated business, first creeping and stealthy, now open & determined. Personally it’s been equally weird. I had a couple of blocked arteries cleared by angioplasty in March, at the London Chest Hospital. That was a trip. You’re awake the whole time & the team wear what appears to be urban-camouflaged radiation protection. Thanks, guys–I’m saying that from the heart. Thanks also to the nurses and physios of the Royal Shrewsbury Cardio Rehab unit, who got me into good enough shape to walk up Snowdon four months later on my 70th birthday (during which I threw a fit of such absurd bad temper I want to apologise deeply to everyone involved). It’s been an interesting experience, a noticeable wake-up call and I got a good little short story out of it. Optimism can lead you up some depressing paths though. Don’t, for instance, look for the short story collection any time soon. I refer you to the publishing industry on that one. As a result, for the next year at least, if you want to actually buy volume fiction, you might be better transferring your attentions to another author. I can heavily recommend Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood. Indeed, for the best novel I read in 2015, it was a toss-up between Perry’s intriguingly attenuated Gothic and Lucy Wood’s pastoral haunt, Weathering. Running them close, & the best novel I had for review in 2015: A Cure for Suicide, Jesse Ball. I also enjoyed Amy Hempel’s short fiction, scoured out to a whisper in Reasons to Live; Katharine Faw Morris’s equally eroded but blunter short novel, Young God; Bodies of Light by Sara Moss; Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox; Dave Hutchinson’s dryly pertinent sequel to Europe in Autumn, Europe at Midnight; the fine, quiet Clade by James Bradley; & Richard Beard’s beautifully engineered Goldsmith’s Prize contender The Acts of the Assassins. Best autobiography, Jonathan Meades’ Museum Without Walls, although if My Brilliant Friend were to be rebadged, Elena Ferrante would leave him in the dust–slow to start, gripping by the end. Best “travel book” (far & away the wrong term but it will have to do): Norman Lewis’s humane, wry Voices of the Old Sea. It was a full year for re-reads, & for catching up on books that everyone else read when they were eight, including the immensely powerful Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr. I haven’t quite understood why the rediscovery of Lionel Davidson is focussed so specifically on Kolymsky Heights, which always struck me as a bit threadbare compared to his classic thriller The Rose of Tibet. Books I loathed, mainly because their humour seems founded on an unbreakable smugness: 10.04 by Ben Lerner; the whole of David Sedaris. I thought of using Miranda July’s The First Bad Man to bulk out that list of shame, but in the end decided to leave it off because I found its conclusion genuinely upsetting. Nonfiction: disappointed by The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew Crawford, and Susan Neiman’s Why Grow Up?–both of which promised insight into ideas that really interest me but proved superficial. I washed the taste of failure away with George F’s rebarbative and in the end heartbreaking memoir of London squatting, Total Shambles (published by one of the liveliest of the UK’s new small publishers, Influx Press, who also do the comprehensive and mind-blowing Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson). Nonfiction book of the year, though, would be David Winters’ collection of reviews and essays, Infinite Fictions, the introduction to which alone contains more interesting ideas about writing & reading than most entire books.

flooded

“Who has time for a shower?” the Guardian asks today: “How busy people get ready.” One celebrity lays the breakfast table before bed; another seems to “slip on her children’s tracksuit bottoms”, which to be honest seems ambiguous if you only read the lede. But what is the secret of a good morning routine? Well, ask the people who live in Tadcaster or Glenridding and they might say: “To not be flooded & have a sewage tidemark in your house.” Nothing illustrates the middle class entitlement to safety–or the idea that built environment sustained by an ideology can supply it–better than a lifestyle article. Will people get this at last? No. And it’s a bit late to get it now anyway; my sympathies go to those who got it fifty years ago and wore themselves threadbare trying to be heard. Might as well just have popped the bubble up around them and got on with consuming their lives like everyone else, because nothing except a proper old fashioned disaster was, or is, going to change the outcome. Meanwhile–aside from the lifestyle game, in which everyone’s just so busy they can’t be expected to take anything else in–they’re all queueing to get their slice, score their points, lay the blame, act out their ideological position for the public: the politicians, the army, the religions, the media. Have I missed anyone?

If I had a familiar it would resemble less a nervous exotic animal than a chipped enamel sink. You would not find it on my shoulder but in its natural environment at the bottom of a derelict canal in the industrial Midlands. Our connection would be the source of my special powers, which would neither mimic nor metaphorise its qualities but be unmistakably sink-related. I would feel no emotion towards it even when events caused us to be separated and tortured. A sink can feel nothing. That is the baseline or default quality of a sink. But wherever I went I would know that out there, bedded beneath the slow black water, never more than a mile or two from my present location, its energies focussed, site-specific and calm, there my sink would be.

surprising gift

Warwick University have been decent enough to award me an honorary DLitt, which I’ll accept in January. At that time, I don’t doubt, my so-called friends will distribute plenty of incriminating photographs of the hat and gown. Luckily, the acceptance speech has to be short. What do you say? “This is the last thing I expected.” It actually is. Anyway, in case I decide to read three minutes of self-composed Dadaist verse instead, I’d like to thank everyone at Warwick in advance. I’m unfamiliar with everything academic, so this feels like a really quite strange, surprising gift, genuinely unlooked-for; I’m touched and grateful.

orright then?

DSCF7532Suicide Coppice, on the south side of the Gorge. It’s all rain all the way through. Straps, belts and bleached ropes of every kind dangle from the branches. The trees lean away down the scarp to the decommissioned power station. You can see the river but not the opposite bank. Folks have been doing away with themselves up here for nigh on two hundred years; doing away with yourself replaced the earlier industries of lime and charcoal burning. You can still hear them asking one another, “Orright then?” “Orright.” Even the dogs look unhappy.
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I’d kill myself too, but on a morning like this it would seem like imposter syndrome.

a drive in the country

It’s somewhere between the late 50s & the mid 70s. A young man from the lower middle classes, English, early adopter of university education, somehow finds the money to buy a sports car. It may be something interesting or worthwhile, a Jaguar or Lotus, or it may simply be a high end MG, one of those new products just expensive enough to make you a player. Anyway, it’s enough to get him a date with a young woman a little further up the provincial class system. It’s enough to convince her. On their date, he drives her out for an evening, or he takes her for a drive after a dance, or he drives her out into the country, or to the sea for an afternoon–let’s say for convenience it’s the sea–and the car runs out of petrol, or breaks down, on an abandoned-looking stretch of B-road facing out across the estuary at some, I don’t know, gasometers or oil tanks or whatever, on the other shore. There’s no phone box near. There are, of course, no mobile phones or anything like that. In the silence that ensues, you can actually hear the wind whistling over the wing mirrors of the car. There’s a kind of half-industrial, half-salt smell in the air. The young man shrugs, does up his shortie car coat and goes for help. Twenty minutes later he’s back, with petrol, or a mechanic, or a tow truck, and the couple are able to drive back to town. He’s quite pleased with how quickly it’s all been managed, but she doesn’t speak much on the drive back; and after that, she never speaks to him again. The reason, he’s astonished to hear through a third party, is that he was ungentlemanly enough to leave her unattended in a car for twenty minutes in a lonely place.

Not sure if I’ve made this up, or heard it as a pub anecdote so long ago I’ve forgotten the circumstances; or if I’m half-remembering a pivotal event from some UK Angry Young novel or film or TV production from the period? If it’s the latter and you recognise the source, please leave a comment below and put me out of my misery.

…& I am also a novel by “M John Harrison”. Hi.

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