the m john harrison blog

update: you should come with me now

YSCWMN is now in galleys, ready to be pimped up for concourse d’elegance day, which will be sometime at the beginning of October. It’s a strange bit of work, short fiction wrapped in shorter fictions, developing all the usual themes, for instance grimness, grimness and grimness. I wouldn’t call it a collection if I could think of a name for something with dimension-&-a-half between a collection and a novel. I mean: it’s a book. So we have some readings and bookshop events arranged–including a conversation at Housmans in London with Lara Pawson, shortlisted for this year’s Gordon Burn Prize for her extraordinary anti-memoir This Is The Place To Be–who in her other career interviewed weirder & more interesting people than me. Readings will include an evening at Warwick U, an institution which kindly adopted me a year or so ago, with perhaps a visit from a known Tsar of the Weird. Meanwhile I’m looking forward to the cover draft, and cover copy that will feature quotes from real writers Will Eaves, Olivia Laing and Rob Macfarlane, endorsements so persuasive that I would buy the book myself if I didn’t already know what was in it. Updates here, at Comma Press & on Twitter, @mjohnharrison, @commapress.

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images from a story abandoned in favour of a change of circumstances

All morning a curious kind of light, in which several colours were represented but only faintly, came and went the other side of the window, tinting the paper I was working on. Later: though the remains of the Roman city were closed, we could park up and enjoy an extensive view of the floods around Buildwas Abbey and Sheinton. Near Plowden at the south end of the Mynd, we were briefly lost in a geomorphology of mysterious wooded lumps in perpetual winter twilight. Who comes out of a place like that unchanged? The path over the Mynd has three names, the best of which, with its implications of commerce to and from some inland quay thirteen hundred feet above and a hundred miles away from the nearest present sea level, is the Port Way. As you shuffle along it in the cold low cloud, little cries and farm noises come up, and you are made aware of the drowned lowland villages off to the west.

at the see-not gate

Waking out of a foul dream to gently hectoring telephone calls from her daughter, Anna Waterman allowed herself to be persuaded into one last session with Helen Alpert.

The doctor had spent much of the morning arguing with a Citroen parts supplier in Richmond and was pleasantly surprised when her client arrived carrying take-out lattes and almond croissants for them both. Had Anna lost weight since her previous visit ? Perhaps not, Helen Alpert decided; perhaps it was in fact a postural change. “That’s very thoughtful of you, Anna,” she said, though she never drank coffee after eight in the morning.

On her part, Anna felt ashamed of herself. It was like being the one to break up a relationship. Prior to buying the coffee she had spent half an hour on Hammersmith Bridge, gazing down at the brown water at some people learning to scull, miserably trying to bring herself to face the doctor. After that, the consulting room, with its cut flowers and tranquil light, seemed such a zone of peace, and Helen Alpert so welcoming, that she didn’t know where to begin. For years, she explained, she had lived in a kind of suspended animation. That seemed to be over now. During the last few months, life had been waking her out of a sleep she didn’t want to relinquish, forcing her to take part again.

“That’s what I haven’t liked about it.”

“No one likes that,” the doctor agreed.

“No. But they want it anyway.”

“Anna, I’m interested in the way you put it, life ‘forcing’ you to take part again. What sort of thing do you mean ?”

“For example, Marnie’s not well.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I found that I welcomed it. I know that sounds odd.” Having admitted Marnie to the negotiation, Anna became unsure how much space to allow her. “Anyway, it’s time someone looked after her for a change.”

“You feel she’s been the parent for too long ?”

“And something else has happened,” Anna said, “which I’d rather not talk about.”

The doctor smiled. “Your business is your business.”

Given their circumstances, Anna considered this the cheapest of jibes. “Actually I just want to live my life,” she heard herself say, with somewhat more emphasis than she had intended.

“Everyone wants that. What exactly is wrong with Marnie ?”

“She’s having tests.”

There followed a silence, during which Dr Alpert played with one of her gel pens and made it clear that she was expecting more. Anna considered describing the visit to St Narcissus–the women shackled to their symptoms by the hospital system and to their lives by mobile phone; the fatuous receptionist; the cancer-shaped stain on the ceiling–but preferring to avoid the interpretive bout that would inevitably follow, in which she would feel compelled to take part out of simple courtesy, said instead, “I never wanted to examine my life, I just wanted to be inside it.” This had the nature of a bid or gambit, she realised. “Not,” she qualified, before Helen Alpert could take it up, “that I never had a point of view on myself. Of course I did. Look,” she said. “The fact is, Helen–you’ll understand me, I know you will–I’ve met someone. A man.” She laughed. “Well, more of a boy, really. Is that awful ? Michael is dead, but I feel alive again, and that’s what I want to be. Alive.”

This much denial filled the doctor’s heart with rueful admiration. “I’m delighted,” she said, though it must have been clear that she was not. She wondered why she bothered. She reached across the desk and put her hands over Anna’s. “Tell me what you dreamed last night,” she said, “and I’ll tell you why you mustn’t stop coming here. Not yet.”

“Do you know, I didn’t dream at all last night,” Anna said. “Isn’t that odd ?”

–from Empty Space, final book of the K-Tract trilogy, 2012

frost & fog

“This mite’s sins are nothing to some I’ve had to swallow,” boasted the sin eater. He was a dark, energetic man of middle height and years, always nodding his head, rubbing his hands or shifting his weight from one foot to the other, anxious to put the family at their ease. “They’ll taste of vanilla and honey compared to some.” No-one answered him, and he seemed to accept this readily enough–he had, after all, been privy in his life to a great deal of grief. He looked out of the window. The tide was ebbing, and the air was full of fog which had blown in from the sea. All along Henrietta Street, out of courtesy to the bereaved family, the doors and windows were open, the mirrors covered and the fires extinguished. Frost and fog, and the smell of the distant shore: not much to occupy him. The sin-eater breathed into his cupped hands, coughed suddenly, yawned. “I like a wind that blows off the land myself,” he said.

–from “The Sin Eater”, 1983.

victoria’s house

“It’s very Brexit up here,” she wrote later to Short. “Eight pubs in a mile and deep surrounding woods. I already think of it as my Broceliande, although the High Street seems to have been deforested as early as 1307.” She was sleeping on the sofa again, she told him. “But now I have candles and everything.” Inside one of the boxes she had found a brand new edition of The Water Babies. She amused herself copying out passages for him. Little Tom was naughty. He ran across the fells, by Hartover and Lewthwaite Crag, to the river; he arrived at the water on his own legs but he was desperate to be a fish. “Forty pages in, he’s already an evolutionary joke, the Victorian fantasia of metamorphosis and transition camouflaged by a morality. You see,” she finished, “you should read my emails. I bet your life’s less exciting than little Tom’s.” She knew she would never press Send: but writing was enough to give the effect of being in a conversation. It calmed her down. “I might be keeping my mother’s furniture,” she admitted. “I sold all mine.” This made her think of the house again and she looked around and shivered with delight.

climbing is weird

I told R we were doing so well I was thinking of trying to find a way back into writing about it. I forgot that with climbing you don’t need to do that. You only have to wait. We went to Froggatt. Sunday morning, around ten. A fine drizzle in drifting patches, with proper rain forecast, had kept the car parks empty. We found the crag empty too. Soon, people would start driving over from Stanage, which was piss wet through. For now everything was eerily silent and belonged to us. Not an experience you expect in the Peak District in June. The rock was bone dry, with lots of friction; we’d gone to do really easy routes but after an early success, got tempted by Sunset Crack. R floated up; while my memories of the 1985/95 decade, when routes like that were still a soft touch, earned me the quiet, careful slap I deserved: I stayed aboard but only just. I felt every year of my age. Gritstone is always in charge, even in the lower grades. Gritstone decides what you’ll feel, what kind of fun you’ll have, what kind of lesson comes along with it. That’s why some like it & some don’t. When we got down we found, on the warm shelf of rock under the start, this tiny dead thing.

Apart from being dead it was still in perfect condition. It was laid out with two foxglove bells, something yellow & a couple of bits of greenery (which R moved to take the picture). Had it been there all along? Or had it been put there while we climbed? Neither, or even both, was his opinion. Some kind of different physics was in operation. I’m not quarrelling with that because he’s the physicist. On the way back we went to Brookside Buttress–which, unfrequented and unpolished, with turf still growing on the easy way down, sitting in a mossy gully next to its own little water feature, is the perfect Gothic crag–and did a route neither of us had ever been on. What more can you ask?

photo: Richard AL Jones

hard boiled

I thought we should put the laundry out despite the weather forecast. After all, I said, it wasn’t going to rain in secret. We could always run out & bring it in back in. I was at that time more worried about the noise the washing machine had started to make. It sounded like an entry-level Mazda coupe being retuned for the son or daughter of a small businessman. No washing machine should make a noise like that, I said. But if I’ve learned anything from life since, it’s that they all make a noise like that in the end.

Solstice in the provinces. It’s hot. There’s no government in the country at the moment. To get the air moving, I have an old black rucksack holding open the study door. Every time I glimpse it out of the corner of my eye I mistake it for a cat I used to have. It’s too big to be a cat, but I never owned a dog. Outside, a man has parked a low-loader so that it blocks the little roundabout at the top of the High Street and left it idling there while he makes some sort of decision more important than anyone else’s that morning. Every so often he returns and moves it ten or twelve yards back or forward, always keeping it on the curve of the roundabout, always blocking as many exits as possible. Then he sits in it with his thick hands on the steering wheel, looking straight ahead while the engine runs. Around him the year tips over into whatever’s coming next.

dream

I was living in a house I didn’t know in a city I didn’t know. The people who lived there were young. They were cheerful, although their faces had a certain toughness, a certain wariness. The house had a lot of rooms. I left objects of mine, including my personal identification and a laptop with new work on it, in various of them. While I was anxious about this I wasn’t worried. I kept track of my things by rehearsing their positions in each room. I visited every room regularly to check that everything remained in its place. Everything was fine until I began to notice that the house was badly built. Living spaces had been constructed out of what had clearly been a condemned building. Then I began to forget where my things were. As I went from room to room looking for them, the house revealed itself as even more badly built. Some of the rooms had collapsing floors. Ceilings and walls seemed solid but were made of draped tarpaulin. The stairs moved under you. First I forgot where my belongings were. Then I realised that I was beginning to forget the layout of the building too. I wasn’t sure which rooms I had visited and which I hadn’t. The structure was increasingly unstable. Lath and rafters showed through. The rooms trembled and wallowed as I moved. My panic increased. I had lost all my objects. I had lost all sense of where I was. I had lost all my identifiers. I didn’t recognise anyone in the house. When I looked out of a window I realised that I had forgotten what country the city was in. I went out there and began to wander about. At first I was absolutely certain where the house was.

transcript of an interview

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