the m john harrison blog

october 16, 2007

…the almost spiritual urge I’ve been feeling lately to make my home on a decrepit PBY Catalina flying boat moored somewhere in the Caribbean, drink Black Heart rum all day dressed in chino cut-offs, & play chess with other old guys on a rusty cargo boat. Every so often the ancient valve radio springs into life without anyone switching it on & a voice can be heard repeating your call sign patiently against a background of bad weather, interference & big band swing. You don’t answer.


I’ll be reading from my contribution to An Unreliable Guide, chatting about never knowing where I am in London & probably asking the audience how I get home, at Stoke Newington LitFest, get your tickets here etc.

This character wants connection with others, he’s just inept at choosing them. He’s led by his own passivity. He ends up on the edges of other people’s lives and relationships, drawn there by the obsessive-compulsive cycles of his own personality. His favourite pretence is that before the story began, before he met you, he had a life. He had momentum, which he lost through no fault of his own. We see right through that. It’s comically self-deceptive. He leans towards the normal, he’s optimistic he can achieve it: what he doesn’t seem to understand is that any context will satisfy him, however grotesque. If he’s lucky he can settle in a temporary unstable orbit around people who don’t need him for anything. He’s of no utility. He’s damaged goods. He’s the drowned man, the text’s corpse looking for somewhere to wash up.

(First published last June as “Any Port In a Storm”.)

IMG_0849This faintly disturbing object appeared on the garden table today. The possible alternatives being unthinkable, threatening and/or grotesque, we’re assuming it was dropped as part of the usual manna of sticks, cigarette butts, string and bits & pieces harder to identify, by a jackdaw. Or perhaps it’s the London Book Fair’s equivalent of the Black Spot, served for my failure to attend for the 40th year running. Other theories welcome, obviously.

Photo: Cath Phillips

coaching the modern game

Scene after scene in which writers try to squeeze life into affects they aren’t really interested in, to prop up characterisations the only purpose of which is to support the plot. In these passages of desperate over-writing, what you hear is the voice of an editor demanding motivation & relatability. But that’s not really what’s missing. What the editors don’t even really know that they want (because they have been coaching the modern game for so long they’ve lost, by erosion &/or denial, any knowledge of what makes character different from characterisation) is neither motivation nor relatability. It’s something–indeed anything–that bears the actual stamp of the human. No one at the book-doctoring level of the business has the slightest idea how to do that. They only feel the mysteriously complete loss of it at the heart of the produce-on-demand text. Still, I’d rather have generic formalism, however glib, outright, & Hitchcockian, than the equally-programmatic litfic/MFA version in which “emotional truth” is evoked as the basis of “strong storytelling” (ie, propping up a plot with affects you appear to have all the feels for).


IMG_0818Once the West London “research” had been done it remained only to go and look at leary old trees in Richmond Park. These two stopped moving the moment we tried to film them. Later, we watched a pair of ringnecked parakeets courting on a branch: same. They didn’t mind being watched, but they weren’t doing it for posterity thanks very much.

Photo: Cath Phillips.


It’s a little place in the south of England, with timber frame construction and thatch, so compact and self-satisfied it has a sense of being bigger inside than outside. This doesn’t last, of course; but it is a great special effect on a Saturday morning, and can be had in similar villages all the way down the river to the sea. A cat is sitting on a window sill staring across at the roof across the road. There among the chimneys and satellite dishes two large black birds are perched, staring back over their shoulders with their heads and bodies at identical angles. These, the cat says, are the Crow twins, Ugly and Serendipida. Ugly is the sensitive one. His sister would never have a feather on his head harmed. As she says, “You got to look after yourself in this life.” She remembers being less aggressive before they arrived here: unnerved by the very decency of the houses and little shops, frankly disoriented by a borough where no one carries a Colt, they are thinking of moving back to Detroit.


I’m rather enjoying AS Byatt’s The Children’s Story, although sometimes it’s a bit like reading about sexual trading in the power structure of a chimpanzee colony. Makes you realise how lucky you’ve been to live most of your life in atomised modernity. If the price is loneliness, that can be examined–explored, even celebrated–as it’s paid; & freedom from the relentless struggles of classic Victorian patriarchy/matriarchy is absolutely worth it. Large middleclass family dynamics aside, The Children’s Story is another interesting picture of the relations between fiction (as formalised wish-fulfilment) and “worldbuilding” in the actual world. A snapshot of the heyday of that sort of writing. Not perhaps as forceful or compact as Taylor’s Angel, but analytical & exhaustive.

To write anything you have to let go & descend floatily & yet at vast speed through terraced self-awareness, layer by layer, directly into a canyon wider at the top narrower deep down. No one ever hits the bottom anyway, a non-physics fact which I think Milton & others may have missed out on when they said the word “fall”. There really is nowhere to go, only the flutter of your clothes in the turbulence, which I take it base jumpers know more about than most.

nature study

A wren comes out to pick about among the pale green monbretia shoots along the base of next door’s fence, nipping & bobbing, posing tail-up like the wren on the old farthing. What could you emboss on a farthing to indicate it was the smallest unit of currency, now the wren has lost its symbolic function? For those younger people who’ve never seen a wren, it’s quite a small grey-furred mammal the elongated rear legs of which give it an energetic, hopping gait. It has a striking coloured breast often described as “pink” or “roseate”, but in fact much closer to violet. The male is slightly smaller than the female, more colourful & less active. Wrens are quite solitary but breed with enthusiasm in suburban gardens in late March & early April, rearing ten to fifteen “kits” in a litter. Predators include the magpie, or “English Parrot”. In the historical times it was a Boxing Day custom to hunt wrens and offer them on satay sticks at the tradesman’s entrances of the great houses.

(Originally posted as “Hunting the Wren” in January 2010.)


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