the m john harrison blog

snow day, late 2000s

Buggy tracks. Spindrift blowing off the roofs. Silhouette of a labrador dog hauling the silhouette of a woman across Grove Road, detail from a Lowry of the West London suburbs. Meanwhile the van from Bathrooms At Source–a constant visitor to this pleasant street–ploughs its way responsibly towards the river, first-responder to the morning’s soft catastrophe. Everything is so hushed as he makes his way down! In Barnes, bathroom commerce, second only in religion to kitchen commerce, must go on. He’s closely followed by Bespoke Carpentry.

Bigger flakes fall thick & slow. It has the feel of a phase-change. Everything goes quieter. The air seems fractionally darker. Spaces gain depth. The houses over the road recede but become somehow more solid, more delineated. The light complicates & recomplicates itself, reflecting from the surfaces of every falling flake. Nothing will be the same after this. The phenomenology of this snow is that it is the real thing, which exists only in your earliest memories of snow & puts all your ideas to shame for good. I won’t pretend not to be elated. It is the most tranquil, the most mystical time; the most transient however long it lasts. Snow falling at the end of the short winter afternoon. A bird, its grey silhouette vague & busy, is making heavy weather of it fifty or sixty feet up, tail flared, wings fluttering, slow progress. I can’t know how that feels, but if this fall continues I’ll wait for dark, pick up my head-torch and jog through the woods. By then, they’ll be woods, not just a few acres of dissected scrub in an upscale suburb. They’ll be endless.

The best snow I ever saw from a window was at Ferihegy airport, Budapest, in February 1991: but the best snow I was ever in fell during a long winter when I was sixteen or seventeen years old. I remember struggling for miles along unlit Warwickshire lanes under very bright stars, between fluted tongues, volutes and gargoyles of snow where the wind forced spindrift through the gaps in the hedges. Some of these structures had begun to shift like dunes, or elongate themselves across the verges and into the lane. I was elated, moment by moment, very aware of myself as being alive in this landscape. My toes and fingers were numb. My breath was in front of me.

I’ve inherited one of those liquid crystal thermometer cards British Gas distributes to pensioners. It’s installed near the desk. At the moment it doesn’t even say, “You are at risk of dying of hypothermia, you silly old fool! Put on more clothes! Turn up the heating you can’t afford! Eat some of that good high-calorific horse meat!” It is registering below that. In fact it is registering below the scale. The room is so cold that the pensioner thermometer can’t even patronise me. If I was a proper old person I’d be in the shit now. I’d have to spend two hours convincing the emergency services to come out (not including the means test); then, having failed, get myself into a taxi anyway & go die of neglect on a trolley in a packed annex somewhere off the semi-decommissioned National Health Service, while volunteer health workers struggled through their workload towards me. I’m glad not to have the bother of that, obviously: but I’ve already defaulted to a cup of tea and a pair of dayglo orange duvet slippers from Spain and suddenly I feel a bit privileged to be able to turn up the heating.

From the start, Jenni Fagan’s new novel gives the feel of a legend or fairy story. It’s 1910, on an unnamed island in the North Sea. Jessie Macrae and her father have had a falling out, and now he’s dead; or, given that he’s the Devil, he may still be alive. Jessie, who has been growing horns herself of late, launches into the surf in the coffin he forced her to sleep in – perhaps as a stark reminder of her mortality, perhaps as a harbinger of it – and begins to row. Three days later she lands on the Edinburgh shore, where she finds herself at 10, Luckenbooth Close, a tenement building on nine floors, “with catacombs below”. There she’ll meet Mr Udnam – gangster, property speculator and, surprisingly, minister of culture – and his wife; and become the surrogate mother of their child. She is pregnant within hours, or perhaps minutes, as you might be in a folk tale. The spiritual disaster thus ignited – the torn seam between the supernatural and capitalist reality – will haunt the tenement and its subsequent inhabitants for the rest of the century. Read the rest of my review in the Guardian here.

october 2014

Disused quarries filling with water as autumn sets in. Trees. Light rain. The power station siren. Various mud. Fallow deer in the wood, running down a narrow salient between two overgrown pits. I don’t know who was more startled, me or them. All I could do was watch. It’s one thing to see deer in parkland, another to have them flicker past you in and out of the trees on some business of their own. I come home and melt frozen soup for lunch. It slips out of the container with the polished surface of an object machined from rock. How do you continue to write about the world when it’s stopped being mysterious?

My working rule just now is, “Trust yourself.” That’s not entirely true. There are two other rules & they are, “Always flatten it off;” and, “Don’t say too much.” With regard to the latter: a science fiction editor once told me, over lunch in a not very nice restaurant (an act of language in itself), “There’s a perfectly good plot behind your novel, it’s just that the author has taken most of it out.” How perceptive, I thought, until I realised it wasn’t supposed to be a compliment. That was before I moved on to the stage of not putting most of it in.

year 75

Happy New Year, everyone. My 2021 resolution is to go through the doors that open & on the ones that don’t, daub a symbol.

always already

What Ballard nailed wasn’t the future but the impulse behind it, nakedly visible in the present. In this 1977 piece for Vogue, he demonstrated his method in a paragraph, beginning with the deep psychology of the class which would read the article, then taking a punt on what the nascent technology could do for their emergent major driver, self-centredness. This manouevre, which is essentially satirical, does not start with the technology, it starts with a bet on which trait-clusters already in the population will make the most of the technology as it develops. It depends on the character of human beings, and the selective, self-serving character of their uptake of the new. It shows the past deciding what the future will be, and demonstrates that all futures, even the ones that actually arrive, are in some Gibsonian sense essentially obsolete. What counts in his example is not the videotape; it is the narcissism. Satire is one of the central “extrapolative” techniques of science fiction, although it rarely satisfies the optimistic genre models of the relationship between technology and people, or people and futures. But by 1977 Ballard had been bored with the genre models for two decades. That he had his own concerns and wasn’t really interested in anybody else’s was part of his bet and part of his problematic charm.

you’ll love this one weird reason why reviewing is good

to do. The successful review is often a search you don’t remember pursuing. A week, a month, a year later, reading back, you suddenly understand that even when you didn’t recognise what you were looking for, your review did. A book is good if it draws such useful unconscious work from you, whatever you thought of it during the reading phase. A review, like every other kind of writing, is the search for what you’re speaking about. Also, & perhaps separately: unless you deal with them, consciously or unconsciously, review books will lodge a barb in you—some organic sharpened hook that will get inside you without your knowing, some quality that, like a repressed memory, will deal with you.

list of projects

Project Trap: Project Trap was never completed. Project Soul Gem was a project to collect “evidence-free innuendo”. Soul Gem was wound down in 1945 upon the birth of the resource (see notes). Several similar projects wound down naturally with the resource itself. Eat Cake, a hardened version of Soul Gem 2: the Eat Cake abstract promised abjection, violence, denial. Eat Cake was unlisted. Various other projects: Project 92 (see appended material). Mex Lite, Max Eight & Lite Core were clean product generated during varied initiatives and test runs. “Initiative B” ran successfully until 1978, when it was replaced under the Dark Stork programme. Project Veil Grain was an unsuccessful add-on to the Main Stem series. Vague Heart: Project Vague Heart remains partially operational but is identified under recent initiatives as “2020”. Resource appears to have retained motility & limited function.

Project 121 is the shadow of something much larger.

originally published January 2014

3 steps to heaven

From the absorbing and enjoyable Cyclogeography, by John Day, of a London cab driver who retired to become the dispatcher at a bike-courier operation–

“But after a few years on the road [Frank] realised that he preferred his mental map of the city to the real thing, and so he retreated to the office to live in it at one remove, traversing London vicariously in his imagination.”

In this narrative, Frank spends his wild years stealing cars and mopeds and racing around the city, learning “the knowledge” by accident as a way of avoiding arrest. Then he makes a socially acceptable, civilian use of what he’s learned, by becoming a cab driver. Finally, in later life, he places himself at the heart of the embodied space, as a kind of human map. He has become not the city but an expression of the city, not a user of the knowledge so much as the knowledge itself. The austere beauty of this developmental arc is that it can exist only to the extent that you have followed it: you can’t achieve state three without having first been through states one and two. This was very much the point of the relationship between the narrator and his mentor Sankey in Climbers; or the relationship between the middle class students of metaphysics and Yaxley the magician in The Course of the Heart.

published as “wild epistemologies” in 2018

an escape

It looks like a Bruegel but features only burning bridges & it’s empty of people except here & there in the distance, doing panic repairs to a fence. There used to be a pub in the bottom left hand corner but its windows are boarded up & muddy now as if from decades of passing traffic; & the sign, when you finally decipher it, says: Never Where You Thought It Was. It’s coming on dark & you’re going to wake up in the morning to find the gate’s open again & that damn goat is on the hill. It’s all yours, the goat, the pub, the sound of hammers. The picture frame is yours. The man leaning in through the frame says he always knew the bridges were down, he could smell the smoke before he arrived. “Ten mile back,” he says he could smell the smoke: “Ten mile back,” & you ask him how did he get here then if the bridges were down, because you have a real interest in that.

Meanwhile, Quentin Lewis goes to the heart of You Should Come With Me Now –that is, the actual subject matter of its stories–with the kind of clear, thoughtful, non-parochial assessment you hope to get from inside the genre but so rarely do.