the m john harrison blog

upon reading the measles statistics

I’m not interested in an embodied and localised knowledge. I had enough of it as a child in the early 1950s, among people whose top argument was, “Because I know better.” They didn’t want the NHS. They didn’t want vaccination. They didn’t want the kids that survived to waste their time on education. They didn’t want science. All sense was common sense: they were the well, and your role as a child was to drink what you were given. Anything else, from the welfare state to astrophysics, was a challenge to traditional hierarchies. After you’d tried, and had it drilled into you how worthless your fancy new ideas were, your ambition was to quickly and quietly exit their radius of control and enter the de-localised intellectual funfair of modernity, with its fantastically advanced concepts such as “abstract thought”. Your secondary ambition was to work on a politics that got shot of all that forever. That’s really what the 60s was about if you lived where I lived. It was a revolt about what kind of knowledge you could have of the world, and how you could get it. I never regretted running away from the Trump-like epistemics of postwar semi-industrialised, semi-rural England. All I regret is that we didn’t quite achieve full escape velocity and get rid of its limiting ideas forever, so they couldn’t crawl back and infect everything again. I never want to return to that nightmare, or sympathise with it, or “understand” it, or give it any more than this single paragraph of the oxygen of analysis.


shelf life

Books with thickened pages. Books that smell of a damp room with an unswept chimney. You’ll get rid of them the next house move because it will probably be the last. You don’t want a lot of books for someone else to deal with, drawing down moisture, thickening all the while. One or two you remember buying but you don’t remember why. One of them has a sentence you promised you wouldn’t forget. You’ll never write the essay that proceeds from it now. You read these books incessantly & didn’t learn one thing. They pointed in every direction but they don’t have a future without you. You imagine someone saying, “They meant such a lot to him, choose anything you like,” then, when everyone has gone, looking around at all the books still left & wondering what to do with them because the charity shops aren’t interested. You don’t want that. The fact is that books–including your own, especially your own–talk all night & you wish they’d leave you alone.

real histories

Thomas Sidney Cooper RA, 1803-1902, was so associated with paintings of cows that he became known as “Cow Cooper”. On his eightieth birthday he started the massive picture of cows you see here, completing it in six weeks. He seems to have painted it so large because he didn’t want anyone to buy it. Elsewhere this is an exemplary museum, repository of “all things stolen and stuffed”, its cabinets full of items that once had cultural significance and context but which now look sad, beaten down and really quite difficult to define. A Church of England primary school seems to have donated a mummified feline; or perhaps adopted it. You would do that out of sympathy, the instant you saw its minute teeth, though it doesn’t at all resemble a cat. There are various Victorian birds, along with their eggs, nests and environs; and, for the girls, many weapons! including “an armguard with dagger and pistols” (Madras, early 1800s), which looks like something from the cover of an astonishingly poor fantasy novel, early 1980s. An echidna is partly hidden beneath less indentifiable stuff. But then, suddenly and gloriously, these.Picture Cath Phillips

loft life

I once had two addresses. The way that came about, my friend had an empty flat he wanted to rent. When I said I might be interested he gave me the keys and told me to take a look. The flat was on the top floor of a purpose built block. There was a church at the corner and a launderette next door. There was a line of little shops. Inside it was two or three rooms a good size, with dormer windows and fitted carpet. There was a nice kitchen. A bathroom and a closet off the hall. Everyone in that building was in work. I stood there in the middle of the day and it was quiet. I stayed there for nearly an hour, standing in the different spaces, looking out the window. Then I locked the door carefully behind me and called my friend.

“I like it,” I said, “but I’m not sure.”

No one else was interested, he said. “Take as long as you like to make up your mind.”

The next day I went back and sat there for two hours. Soon, unknown to my friend, I was spending most of the day there, three or four days a week. I slept there. I had some of my mail delivered. It was calming to have this other existence and know that no one could find me unless I wanted them to. But it didn’t feel quite the same when I moved in permanently, so after about six months I opened the loft and dragged my belongings up there with a pulley and rope. Then I sublet to another friend of mine. He needed a bigger place. He had just got married, his wife was nice. I’ve lived here now for a good part of their lives. I come and go at night. I’ve listened to them fuck, eat, scream at one another. I’ve heard their two little girls grow up. I have a comfortable life, most difficulties of which turned out be easily solved.

One thing. You need to forget all the rumours you’ve heard about someone like me. Those factoids you learned watching movies in the 80s and 90s. The ideological cliches and convenient interpretations you’ve pasted on top of that as if it was the real world.

I’m not a voyeur. I’m not a stalker. I’m not the Cupboard Man. My life has been specialised, true. But am I going to descend one day from the loft and kill the family, or even leave one of them a birthday card? No. I’m not going to play cat and mouse with anyone. I’m not going to engage in a duel of wits with the police detective who’ll turn out to be cleverer–or less clever–than me in the end. I am not, in the end, going to be coloured by bleach bypass. You can forget all that. No one undergoes such inconvenience, no one lives secretly in a loft, for that. I live up here because the most extreme pleasure in life is to experience it on the edge of other lives. To be here and not be here: that’s where I’m happy. And if you think for a second you’ll realise that’s what you hate so much about me.

what you threw overboard

While you invent the book, the book reinvents you. Your life doesn’t appear to have changed, but the book is telling you it has. The book is a way of acknowledging more than one thing you already knew. Now you come to think of it, life’s been weird since you finished the last one. You couldn’t settle. You felt belittled, especially in your dreams: that’s always a conversation with the writer down inside. That thing inside knows more than you do. It catches on faster. It’s come to some understanding, it’s made some decision. Look around, there’s plenty of yourself you don’t intend to lose. But bridges are going to be burned. Not, perhaps, in one of those scary one hundred percent conflagrations of the past; but something’s got to go. Indeed, something’s already gone. Now you’re going to find out what. That’s what a book is for, finding out who you are this time.


the saturday interview

“I don’t fade, I don’t lose anything,” he says when you ask him to describe his condition. He seems happy and fit. He’s a tall man with a limp (the only sign of his accident, although he admits that he still gets tired). “It’s not a question of purchase on things. There doesn’t seem to be a down side.” This is accompanied by a rueful smile. “On the other hand, it isn’t much good for anything.” So, then, what is the experience actually like? It’s a question, you sense, that he’s often asked. The problem he has in answering it, he says, is that we allow ourselves only two possibities. “We only have the traditional guidelines: ‘A world of your own’, in which the detached ‘you’ has agency, but which contains no possibility of contact with others; or a world in which everyone else is seen, as if through glass, by an individual who has no agency: the choice between an empty world or a full one observed by a ghost.” He laughs. “But I don’t find it like that at all. I feel perfectly at home. I just have a new kind of subjectivity.” He stares out of the window for a while, as if he’s thought this through before and always come to the same conclusion. “Anyway, what are these kinds of questions to someone who can do what I can do?”

one of the best things about living in this house

instructions for a funeral

“Fistfight, Sacramento, August 1950″: two young men have a brief, savage confrontation, which for one of them leads, quietly and with small-town Springsteen stylings, to marriage with the girl who works in the drugstore. The newlyweds go on to mythologise the fight as the inciting incident of their relationship: “It was the secret of their future destiny. That’s what they liked to believe. That’s what they continued to believe for the rest of their lives.” The fight is observed hot, close up and in detail, the couple’s subsequent years from an increasing distance that makes the story somehow heartbreaking. Read the rest of my review of David Means’ new collection, Instructions for a Funeral, in the Guardian today.

One of his short stories also features in my Personal Anthology, alongside “The Same Dog” by Robert Aickman, Maeve Brennan’s “I See You, Bianca” and nine others, some you wouldn’t have predicted. Jonathan Gibbs’ project collects sharply-written recommendations by the dozen, from some very talented people. It’s a resource.

something was happening there & you never knew what it was

Every so often someone writes a spy or detective story in which they demonstrate that causal chains are never fully traceable and dependable. We’re to understand this as a subversion of storytelling’s central assumption, which is that a narrative can be both realistic and schematic. But demonstration isn’t subversion: it’s closer to celebration. All the writer has done is use orderly structures to point out in an orderly fashion that disorder exists; followed by a clever twist, mic drop and applause. Fiction like that is not subversive, it is reassuring. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, denying its own conclusions even as it drew them, produced the very opposite of the random churn it claimed to reveal. Even an interesting novel like Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Sand, while edging up to the possibility of epistemic failure, elucidates it rationally at the last; avoiding the implications of the subject matter out of a lack of faith in the idea or the reader or both.

real old albion

An old man in a back garden the size of a pocket handkerchief starts up a petrol driven lawnmower not much younger than he is. First he bends over it stiffly and does something that produces large volumes of white smoke. The smoke rises up and drifts first across the surrounding gardens, then across the houses themselves, in a thick obscuring cloud. The amount of smoke, its thickness and its whiteness, its chemical edge, has a real power to astonish. The old man begins to tremble. He stares down at the lawnmower, walks around it once, looks around at the blind windows of the houses, then goes inside his own house. For ten minutes the lawnmower sits in the middle of the garden while its engine runs up and down the power curve in a slow, queasy cycle, continuing to emit white smoke and make the amount of noise you would associate with a hovering helicopter. Then the old man emerges from his house again. He dodges in and out of the smoke with a square of towel about ten inches on a side. He is dabbing at the engine. Nothing changes. The engine continues to run up and down its power curve and emit very thick white smoke. The old man dodges and dabs. There is a sense that if he had been doing this even ten years ago, it would have resembled to the viewer a kind of dance: bend down, round and round, dodge in and out angrily, dab from a distance, dab from close up. Now he is too stiff and too slow for it to seem like that. After perhaps another five minutes, he sneezes and his nose and eyes begin to run so copiously the snot and tears can be seen clearly, so he uses the bit of old towel wipe the strings of snot off his face. Then he coughs until he is sick on to the lawn, and bends over until that stops. Then he begins to mow the lawn with the smoking lawnmower, the blades of which churn up the wet grass and pull it out of the ground in tufts, leaving a poached and tormented surface. When the lawn is mowed the old man switches the lawnmower off and leaves it where it stands, at angle beneath the rotary clothes dryer. The smoke begins to thin and drift away. The old man goes back into his house, through the house, and out of the house through the front door, and down the road, in a single movement full of lightness, confidence and energy, a perfect trajectory of intention beginning at the back door and ending at the Brittania pub where he spends most of his day. Soon he and his friends are laughing about something he did when he was young.