the m john harrison blog

seed banks

Katherine Carlyle is a frozen embroyo. Eight years later, she’s born. 19 years old, she’s living in Rome alone, receiving what she thinks of as “messages” from the near environment–a fifty-euro note (folded) found while crossing the piazza Farnese, a “small grey elephant with a piece of frayed string round its neck”. She’s leaving messages too, at least in a sense. For instance she’s having sex in a hotel on the via Palermo with a man she met five minutes ago, who smiles and calls her Mia piccola strega. Even her friend Dani thinks this a gesture too far. But soon she’s hearing a new, powerful message–a conversation in a cinema in which she picks out a name and the word “Berlin”. So now instead of going to Oxford university, she’s leaving for Germany. She’s erasing her computer files; she’s throwing her smartphone in the river. It’s time. Read the rest of my review of Rupert Thomson’s new novel, Katherine Carlyle, in the Guardian…

Friday is not my house
I’m coming round yours midnight
& steal the cats I love so much.
You can have your same old problem
Get one-up on those detectives
In the workplace, it won’t
Keep me off the case
Or cure the actors of acting.

signs of relief

The Gollancz reprints of The Course of the Heart, Signs of Life and Things That Never Happen are up at Amazon UK, with a release date of 8th September 2016. Pre-orders are encouraged. No images available. There was some interesting art & design for the covers, which I saw way back at the end of 2014, but I believe that’s been toned down a little now. Even so, they should look quite grown up. If this is good news to you, you can’t be any more relieved than me. Along with Climbers, these books have a central place in my heart–the idea that they’d never be in print again was gnawing at me a bit.

speaking of ghosts…

…this notebook entry from 1993, first blogged in 2009, is seeing new traffic:

Ghosts, or fragments of ghosts, phantoms of partial vanished events, appear to have piled up in an old house until its new occupant, A, becomes sensitive to them. She is upset by a particular manifestation. She begins to track it down in local history records, piece it together. With each discovery, more of the apparitions in the house are brought in under the umbrella: everything begins to make sense.

Along with this comes an increased pressure on A to bring peace to the house: she feels that only she can understand what has happened–of course, it mirrors events in her own life–and that only such an understanding can “earth out” the psychic overload in the house. But one piece of the story–its conclusion–is missing: no local record can tell her what happened. She doesn’t know where to dig to find the corpse, the star-crossed lovers, the stolen birthright, or the evil object. A can’t right the wrong.

Balked, she becomes ill. In parallel, the hauntings become more horrific.

Worried all along by A’s skewed relationship to her house and its past, her friend B repeats the local history research, but across the whole life of the house. B discovers that the attempt to find a single historical explanation for the haunting has caused A to conflate events from two thousand years or more of occupation of the ground. The fountain of blood in the cellar comes from a different incident to the repetitive shriek in the attic. She has mistaken medieval manifestations for seventeenth century ones, children for adults, sex for murder, & strung them all together to make a story she cannot quite complete.

Once B has relocated each incident to its proper temporal place, he understands that the hauntings are not motivated. They are fragmentary, palimpsestic, meaningless. They are a record of habitation, not an explanation of the personal lives of particular inhabitants or a message to the future about some injustice so monstrous no one can have peace until it is righted. It is not the responsibility of the living to redress–or even facilitate the redressing–of wrongs in the past. The past is only the past: we do not owe it any guilt, we cannot even recognise anymore what constitutes it. The past is just some decaying, meaningless echoes. When we “learn” from it, all we are doing is rewriting it according to what we need at the time.

As soon as A understands this, she gets well. The hauntings stop. She has laid the past to rest not by understanding it but by consigning it to the past where it belongs.

a story of ghosts

The structure of the story, as it is engaged by the reader, should have a similar effect to that of discovering a puzzling selection of items in a container of unlabelled material from someone else’s life. The end of the story, instead of providing closure, tries to recreate the moment in which some fragments of evidence–which might not actually be evidence–flicker together to suggest the possibility of a pattern that might never have been there anyway. Glimpses of emotional meaning that shift with the light, framed by uncertain nostalgias. The sense of briefly understanding or failing to understand emotional states that you might, anyway, have invented. The aim of the writer is not to become an exhibitor of found objects, but instead to not quite succeed in curating that which might or might not have been there in the first place. There is, obviously, a politics to that. & it always produces, by definition, a story of ghosts, if not an actual ghost story.

the last Viriconium story

Strictly speaking, “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium”, with its demented hedge magicians and their puzzled late-modern ephebe, is the last Viriconium story, in that it gives to the series what might be laughingly referred to as closure. But now there is this other item, which is the last Viriconium story in another sense, written 30 years after the fact just to see what I’d produce in late style–to see what this burned-out other me, affect flattened by age, voice bleached out to the faint, destroyed tones of Dr Petromax, expectations drastically lowered and genuinely de-romanticised, would make of the typical Viriconian material–but perhaps more importantly, of himself. Well, it’s done, it’s the customary four or five thousand words and it will be available to view, more or less soon, depending on the vagaries of the publishing industry. And it’s good, in that it’s odd, it unearthed plenty of stuff and it isn’t too badly written. So: result. But in the end what it makes me think about most is how an individual’s lifetime identity, personality and emotional history can be determined by early reading. I am not talking here about “influence”, on a “writer” but about the formative years of a person. I read LP Hartley’s The Go Between in 1963 or 1964: watching Jim Broadbent and Jack Hollington play Leo in the recent BBC version, I now see that my life was almost as wrenched by the book’s emotional demands as Leo’s is by his encounter with Marian. Hartley was so desperate to get over his warning–and as a reader I was so desperate to signal to him that I’d understood it–that I took it on and acted upon it the way Leo never could. Reading can induce, or encourage, such vast parallax errors. I feel now that parts of my life have probably been a disaster as a result of learning too well the lesson Leo doesn’t seem to learn at all. Other books that formed or wrenched me in other ways: The Flight From the Enchanter, Iris Murdoch; Pincher Martin, William Golding; A Fine Madness, Elliott Baker; Mooncranker’s Gift, Barry Unsworth; Love for Lydia, HE Bates. I’m sure there are fifty others. Please don’t go away and use these authors to “interpret” what I write. You would have to have known me very well for a generation or two for that act of divination to have any force at all. And–again as a result of my formative reading–I can, sadly, be certain that you haven’t.

teasing the dog

View from the cafe window: a part of the railway bridge, trees, a car parked with its nearside wheels in a long puddle. Some hikers come past with their trousers tucked into their socks. The cafe dog, a big alsation, looks up. Half a dozen climbers are eating out there, grouped round the weathered grey tables in the ten o’ clock sun. A boy nineteen or twenty years old stands out from the rest. His hair is dyed dark red and worn in plaited rats’-tails down his back; his arms are thin and white, and will show no muscle until he locks them off later in the day soloing Quietus Stanage, which he nearly falls off; he has on elegant dirty fatigue trousers and a T-shirt with the sleeves torn out. He is teasing the dog with the remains of his breakfast. “Look at this!” he shouts. And then to the dog, “Hey!”, snatching the food away at the last moment, offering it and snatching it away until with a look of understanding the dog loses interest and moves away.

From Climbers, 1989

a tempting fate

It’s the end of a December afternoon. The tourists have gone back to South Korea for the winter, leaving empty all the little low pedestrian bridges of Cotswold stone. From outside I watch you step to your window and, one hand raised to the curtain, look down at the ducks busy in the wide shallow stream, and think for a minute: “It is rather beautiful,” and, “We are rather blessed,” and then close the curtain and step back into the room and go back to your life, because privilege never likes to be aware of itself, or acknowledge itself, in case of tempting fate.

clean air: act

The VW scandal is the least of it where loss of basic health protection is concerned. I’m always astonished to hear children put forward as the be-all and end-all of life at one end of a middle class dinner table, while the other end is boasting about having the filter and chip modified on the school run diesel. You know it makes sense. One of the real successes of neoliberalism has been its quiet encouragement of regulatory laissez faire, corporate cheating, local business greed and individual stupidity: welcome back to 1950. Soon it’ll be as if nothing ever changed.

night after night

“Fuck off, I’ll fucking kill you.” Then a pause. Then: “I will fucking kill you.” And: “The fucking lot of you. You’re dead. You’re fucking dead.” Banal threats rendered pathetic by their own resonance in the deserted street. & of course there was always plenty of laughter and squealing, broken bits of karaoke. Among all these cries, we sometimes heard a sound with something of the interrogative in it, & something of a challenge, but also something of an attempt to attract attention; though it was, in the end, somehow too detached and too practiced to be any of those things. It was like the human version of a mechanical bird call, repeated over and over again, given rhythm by a pauses a different length to the cry itself. It was mechanical but really quite communicative. We heard it night after night, just down the road, we thought, from one of the bars; or in the street outside one of the bars. We stuck our heads out of the door but saw nothing. We walked down the street looking in one place or another, but all we heard from inside was laughter. It was always further away. Only when we had closed the front door behind us would it start up again, and then neither immediately nor predictably.


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