the m john harrison blog

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country matters

The bothy, a long single-storey wooden structure which had once housed the unmarried male servants of the local fox hunt (an institution known in its heyday as “the Ampney”), stood in the middle of a field next to a few courses of brick and an overgrown cobbled yard. It was a shed, really, already cold in the afternoon, its untreated cement floors polished by decades of use. There was a kitchen at one end, a storage unit full of rusting bed frames and plastic-wrapped supermarket pallets of dog-food at the other. Between them, five or six empty rooms opened off a narrow windowless passage lighted by a single twenty watt bulb. To the extent that he had any, the boy had moved his belongings into the kitchen, where it was relatively warm. Two shelves held packets of cereal, tins of baked beans and 8%-proof lager. A single bed was pushed up against the wall in one corner. “I don’t need much,” he said. “I was never much for things.” There was a paraffin heater but no kettle. He made tea using lukewarm water straight from an ancient Creda heater mounted on the wall above the sink and paid his rent directly to “them down the fields”, who had acquired the bothy in some cash-free transaction he didn’t understand, and who sometimes dragged a bed into one of the other rooms for weekend use.

“It’s cheap enough,” he said.

The only contemporary thing in the kitchen was a reconditioned laptop from the early 2000s, wired into the overhead light socket through a brownout-protector. “It’s all in here,” he said, with a kind of shy irony: “My life.” He showed as much pride in the machine as in his uploads to YouTube. These unsteady, ill-lit glimpses, caught on a pocket camcorder, didn’t even seem cruel, only difficult to interpret. Jittery ellipses and smears of whitish light appeared and disappeared suddenly in a black rectangle. They picked out a hedge, a patch of long grass in a field, a fence post at an odd angle. Something zigzagged into the light and out of it again. Something else turned and turned and vanished suddenly into a hedge. At the end of each clip there was the boy, an ethereal smile on his face, holding up dead rabbits by their ears. Once, the dogs put up a deer, which stared at them then walked slowly out of camera. He had set some of the videos to contemporary pastoral music, others to thirty-year-old Death Metal. Watching them galvanised him all over again, the way a passing scent had once galvanised his dogs. He sat on the bed next to Anna. There was nowhere else to sit. She could feel him trembling with excitement. “What do you think ?” he asked her. ”What do you think of that!”

Once she had got over her distaste, Anna felt bored. She was glad when he turned off the computer and with a smile half diffident, half sly, pushed her down. “Let me get these jeans off you,” she said. She laughed. “They could do with a wash.” And later: “You’re hurting me a little bit.” He went on without seeming to hear and soon she had forgotten, the way you forget the creak and bang of the bed or the people coming and going in the corridor outside a hotel room. To fuck at all is a blessing. He wasn’t Tim Waterman, but he wasn’t Michael Kearney either, and he got hard again as quickly as most boys.

Anna fell asleep. When she woke the bothy was cold and the boy was standing naked by the window gazing out across the fields towards the village. The light had begun to fade. Wisps of mist were already coming up over the river. He’d had enough for the moment, she could see. His back, whiter and thinner than she had expected, seemed vulnerable, illuminated from within. Anna watched him a minute or two, then gathered her clothes and began to get dressed. When she thought the time was right, she said:

“I’ve got some work I need doing.”

The boy made a movement with one shoulder, a shrug or perhaps a wince. He wasn’t looking for work, he said. He had enough work.

“What kind of work is it ?” he asked.

It wasn’t much, she said. It was just some painting.

He had enough of that kind of work, the boy said.

“I need someone to look at my bathroom,” Anna said. “I don’t live far. If you called later in the week, you could do the work I need.”

He moved his shoulder again and kept looking out of the window. “Those dogs of mine were company til the grey hare got across them.” Anna, receiving this as “grey hair”, had no idea what he meant. “That spoiled everything. I could talk to them until then.” As she was leaving he turned round and said, “I’ll come and see you though ? I’ll be coming to see you ?”

Anna touched his arm and smiled.

“Put your clothes on,” she said. “It’s cold in here.”

The lane outside had filled with mist, yet if you looked directly upward you could see the stars. Anna turned towards Wyndlesham, walking as briskly as she could. Once or twice she raised her arms in the air, or smiled for no reason. She wondered what had really happened to the dogs. Those lovely, lovely animals. Perhaps he’d sold them. Perhaps he’d just grown tired of them. I can’t imagine what Marnie will make of him, she thought: although it’s none of her business. She looked for her phone, couldn’t find it; stopped suddenly, brought both hands to her mouth and laughed. I can’t believe myself, she thought. When she looked back, the bothy seemed to hang without support in the gathering dusk. Everything it represented was history. Since the banking meltdown of 2007, the stable-block itself–built by John Ampney in the late 18th Century from locally-sourced brick and pantile and not then intended to house the hunt–had tracked closely the declining economic curve: redevelopment, first as prestige office space, then as a paintball “shoot house”; a decade of squatting and abandonment; finally, annexation by the local authority as Kent and Sussex struggled to contain thousands of Chinese economic refugees washing up in the old Cinque Ports; after which it had been allowed to fall down.

–from Empty Space, 2012

argument from experience

Recent turns in my life, not directly related, make this, from 2009, seem worth repeating–

I went to one of the infamous Dylan concerts–Leicester de Montfort Hall, I think–as a raw, betrayed, left wing folkie, ready to heckle as soon as that sell-out reneged on his roots, denied his past & picked up an electric guitar. My girlfriend of the time, too. Two funny, smooth, unmarked, optimistic little faces turned up at the stage ready to defend our values, ready to defend our hero against his own bad decisions. By the end of the accoustic half of the show, I couldn’t bear my own anxiety & had dissociated as a defence.

Then a minute into the first electric song, I was electrified too, & so was she. Everyone around us got up & boo’d; but we got up and cheered & danced & kissed each other’s amazed faces. It was Love Minus Zero No Limit & it went through me like a crack in a mirror, & if I played it now–what? 40-odd years later?–& they have been odd years–I would just cry & cry & cry.

So, actually: fuck “Play some old!” Play some old is just very bad advice, which comes from chipmunks & children already afraid of time. Go on! Go where your work takes you, & don’t be forced into yesterday’s postures–already looking strained & meaningless–by an audience scared to move along with you.

Original post, June 6 2009, here.

“Mornings go slowly, then the afternoon seems to rush away. I was besotted with this house. It was a love affair. Now I’m anxious and afraid again. I see every imperfection, every chip and dent. This morning I found dirt on the kitchen table. It wasn’t there the night before. It was the kind of dirt you find in a flower pot, dark, fibrous. My desk is out of true with the wall and two or three inches away from where I arranged it. That happened overnight. After we had been here three months I looked up in the bedroom and saw that the loft entrance was disarranged, just slightly open. The only conclusion I can come to is that someone else is living here with us.”

broken circuits

He has two new shoulder joints, an elbow replacement and one wrist that doesn’t articulate. He got that falling off the town Christmas tree one year, while he was setting up the lights. He can still use a screwdriver with that hand. He had bowel cancer, which they fixed, but he thinks his cough is asbestosis. We’ll need a rewire, he says, because we have a lot of rubber in the lighting circuits. You only need to touch that old, perished rubber and you’ll have it flaking off. But he’s optimistic. There’s plenty of good new neoprene in there too. Never anything that can’t be fixed. Can we just unplug the wi-fi router a moment?

ruby dip on kitsch & trash

Ruby’s unreasonable anger at Renoko, it turned out, stemmed from an argument she had with him one lunchtime in the Faint Dime diner. It concerned the nature of kitsch. Renoko felt that kitsch was a product of an event he named “the postmodern ironisation”, prior to which it could not exist: before that, the objects you could now describe as kitsch were actually trash objects. “Without the operation of irony on trash,” he maintained, “there would be no kitsch.” To him, the postmodern ironisation was like the Death of History or the coming Singularity. “Everything was changed by it. Nothing could be the same again. It had the irreversibly transformational qualities of a Rapture.”

He believed it had those qualities even now.

Ruby’s committment to body-art and collectible tambourines couldn’t let this go unchallenged. Prior to the age of irony, she thought, kitsch was already established. “It was low art’s idea of high art,” she said–the aesthetic of people with no taste. Its keynote was sentimentality, not simply in conception but in use. Trash, for her, was another thing altogether, and it was with trash she found herself at home. A true low art, trash was the aesthetic of people who had no aesthetic, and in use it could almost be described as utilitarian. “In all its forms,” she insisted to MP Renoko, “and across every media platform, trash is the art of demonstrating, celebrating–and above all getting–sex. It is a Saturday night art.”

Fat Antoyne scratched his head.

“What happened when you told him that ?”

”What happened then was that a fist fight followed, which it soon drew in the entire lunchtime clientele of the Faint Dime diner, becoming a legend in its own time.”

“It doesn’t seem enough,” he said.

“That, Fat Antoyne, is the big difference between us.”

Because of the weird grimness of the work they do, Ruby believed, quarantine dogs live their opinions hard and proud: so it was predictable Antoyne wouldn’t see such things as intensely as she did. Perhaps because of that it was good that their liaison retained its temporary nature.

–Empty Space, 2012

Tuesday already has a waxy surface, as if they applied some very modern coating to it at about half past seven this morning. Look across the valley at Workhouse Copse, the wind and the late March sun are a kind of laminar flow around everything, a fixative made of air. It reminds me of some way of landscape painting but I can’t remember whose. I come back from a walk full of ideas but feeling rearranged in some way I can’t make use of. I’ve experienced that feeling a lot recently.

a million-year-old starship from another galaxy

He was thinking about these things when the shadow of his friend fell across him. One monitor wasn’t enough to display her; she hung there in high aspect ratio across three of them, allowing the K-tract to paint her tip feathers mint blue and rose-pink.

“Hey,” Imps breathed.

“What do you want,” she said.

“You look beautiful today.”

“You broadcast every frequency. You call me up. You stare into the dark until you find me there. What do you want from me?”

Imps thought.

He felt he should tell her, “My day is crap when we don’t talk,” or, “I think you’re lonely too,” but both of those were too close to the truth. So he decided to say the next thing that came into his head.

Sometimes he made lists of the places he might have come from. For instance he liked the sound of Acrux, Adara, Rigil Kentaurus and, particularly, Mogliche Walder. But Motel VI was his favourite. Motel life, as he understood it, wasn’t too demanding. It was a lot closer-in than empty space, but still comfortably on the edge of things. It sounded like a good compromise between what he experienced now and some sort of full humanity. He wanted to ease himself into that. He had downloaded a brochure entitled Mobile Homes of the Galaxy, which also featured dwellings based on the classic Moderne hamburger joint–all pastel neon, pressed and ribbed aluminium–set against sunsets and mountain dawns. He showed her some of these.

“I want you to help me go back,” he said.

“You came here of your own accord.”

“Did I?”

She considered this. “Now you want to go back where you came?”

“I came too far,” he said.

“You thought this was what you wanted.”

“Peer pressure brought me here. It would be too much to suffer the disapprobation of my friends.”

Rig and Emil and Fedy von Gang, hacking busily away at the mysteries in Radio Bay; Ed Chianese who, it was rumoured, had himself plugged into a K-ship, as dumb a thing as anyone had ever done. The entradistas, the sky-pilots like Billy Anker and Liv Hula. People who called their ship Blind by Light, or Hidden Light, or 500% Light, or anything with Light in it. People who left a note by the bed, a message in the parking orbit: Torched Out. Who were wired up wrong from the first. Whose engines cooked with hard X-rays. Who went out unassuagable and came back rich or mad, towing a million-year-old starship from another galaxy. Rocket jockeys the Halo knew by their first names. Imps shrugged. He excused himself and got a beer. When he came back to his seat she was still there, and he said: “Out here thirty years, and I find I was never like them. Whoa! What’s this? Imps, you want to go back, find your home? Stop loooking in the dark for stuff no one’s ever going to understand?”

“You came too far,” she mused.

van Sant didn’t know if she was agreeing with him, or what. When he looked up at the monitor again, she had vanished.

Empty Space, 2012

Fifty years looking out of trains at night. The lines of lights, the distant neon, the way everything is laid out across a landscape you can’t see but which is somehow implied along with all its concomitant failures. Lights stacked on top of one another. Lights outlining buildings. Traffic lights glimpsed going through their cycle at empty junctions. Motorway boards. The tragic patina of light falling into a box room or a ground mist. The lives lived in it appear just like real lives. I don’t know what I mean. What can you mean, stationary again in some brownfield site on the edge of Wolverhampton, some nowhere, eleven thirty at night, late home again to an empty house?

the water house

Later, a succession of squalls swung in across the north bank and obscured the river. Hand sat in the remains of the garden shed, listening to the rain and watching the tide rush down the narrow defile between Oliver’s Island and the southern shore. “I’m just going into the garage!” he called into the house, but the old woman had turned up the TV and didn’t answer. In the garage he pulled the dust cover off the bonnet of the vehicle he kept there. Its bodywork glowed in the greyish afternoon light, rich with wax polish and chrome. Hand smiled. He checked the other items he kept in a rucksack under some rubbish in the corner. Everything was still dry and good. He had one more look at the car, then pulled the dustcover back over it and left. On his way back through the house, he called, “I’m going now.” No answer. He thought she had fallen asleep in front of the film, but she was waiting for him in the hall. “I know what you’re doing,” she said.

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