the m john harrison blog

Tag: autobiographical notes

authenticity waifs

We believed objects shouldn’t arrive along normal pathways. They should bear a freight of difference. They should be the result of some event. If you needed a cup it wasn’t enough to go out and buy one. Artificial flowers in a thin tubular brass vase: injection-moulded plastic stems bulge into crude shiny buds & calyxes, but their silk petals are delicate enough to remind you, in some lights, of cornflowers & small poppies. I kept them in front of my desk on a bookcase, so I could see them whenever I looked up. The bookcase was interesting in itself. Someone had banged it together out of oddments of softwood. It was slathered with shiny tan varnish. Nails stuck out where the corners didn’t meet. Attracted like children to second-hand shops, builders’ skips, piles of stuff at street corners–anything other people had grown out of or away from–we had found it on waste ground in Camden near St Pancras Way, 1970. That was the last time you could be that kind of authenticity-waif. I was glad to leave it behind when the time came. Everything becomes a symbol in the end anyway. There’s no need to work at it. I kept the vase–it’s in need of a polish–but the flowers got lost somewhere.

a kind of glue

I watched The Man From London. I enjoyed the drawn-out opening scene at the dock; the dance to the accordion with the chair & the billiard ball; & the man in the hat eating bony soup in the bar. I liked everything about it except the parts directly imported from Georges Simenon. Simenon always set my teeth on edge. As a teenager I wanted to get him in a corner & scream in his face, “I don’t fucking care what happens to these people!” I felt much the same about Alfred Hitchcock & Patricia Highsmith. Suspense defers narrative for the sake of it. To write suspense of that traditional, formalised kind is to play anxiety games with the reader based on values, identification & expectation. Suspense bored me because all I wanted to know was what happened, not what gluey, simplified, slow-motion psychological game it resolved; or what typical moral identifications & affiliations of my parents’ generation it was masturbating. I couldn’t make the necessary value judgements about the relationship between interior & exterior behaviour. I didn’t care enough about the ideological underpinning to feel pleasurable tension. Only a vast excruciating impatience.

on the rock island line

When I was young we had three shelves of books. I remember Little Brother to the Bear and Coral Island. Most of the rest were popular military histories. World War Two was still alive in our house: my father had The White Rabbit; memoirs of Operation Market Garden; biographies of General Montgomery, one of his heroes. The rest of his heroes being engineers there were engineering biographies too. Rolt’s Isambard Kingdom Brunel, an expensive birthday present from my father to me, I could read only under supervision. I didn’t mind. I found it lacked the sadistic punch of The White Rabbit & the calming qualities of Little Brother to the Bear. My father’s record collection was small, we listened to a lot of Chopin. My 78 of Lonnie Donegan’s Rock Island Line had to be played while he was out; when he caught me dancing to it he was confused & angry. That would be 1954, 1955.


What I liked about Climbers was its one-to-one relationship with stuff. My first climbing rope was braided polyprop. They told us: don’t, whatever you do, buy a polypropylene rope & top-rope on it. So we all went out & got polyprop & drove down to the sandstone & top-roped on it. 100 foot of polyprop cost about £3.00 at the time. Nobody was daft enough to do anything but top-rope on it.
So I top-roped my first route at Bowles on three turns of polypropylene rope round the waist. There was a really neat way to tie a bowline on 3 turns, which I probably don’t remember now. My polyprop was blue & in better nick than the string in the picture above. I did a classic abseil on it the same weekend while wearing shorts & a T-shirt & burned big grooves in myself. We weren’t supposed to abseil yet, but I had a book with a diagram in it.

friday 13th

Every morning between nine and ten, especially if it’s raining, Barnes is full of diesel Renaults & Peugots, minicabs called to the high rise flats around the pond. The drivers, who won’t get out of their cars, switch off their engines, turn up the radio & beep their horns. The women, mainly the wives of international bankers & entertainment executives, lean out of a fourth floor window & shriek, “Cammin dahn! Cammin dahn!”, to appear later in a black leather coat, dragging a fractious toddler.


“Cammin dahn!”


“Cammin dahn!”

Beep. Beep. Beep.

“Cammin dahn.”

Inside, the cab is equipped with No Smoking signs & Halfords air-fresheners. The blue-grey nylon fur upholstery has soaked up all the characteristic smells of affluent west London from Chiswick down to Richmond, kebabs, sweat & some expensive perfume you can’t name. “AH. FORKEY,” says the despatcher very loudly. “Is anyone near Church Street ? FORKEY ? Church Street, anyone do me Church Street ? GRON,” & is lost in a burst of static.

“Where you want to go ?” the driver asks eventually, with a kind of neutral exasperation. He drives with his eyes fixed on something in the top left hand corner of his windscreen, especially at junctions. He is able to repeat the words “Kings Cross” as if he has never heard them before. Rain shatters the light on the windscreen. You eye the A to Z on the front passenger seat. Suddenly he says, “Cabalists speak of the breaking of the vessels. The World being unable to contain the Godhead, there was a kind of overflowing: there were ‘sparks in everything’. This is the central issue of the Lurianic Cabalists.”

“I think we need to avoid Hammersmith,” you say.

“It has clear implications for your book. Both phrases would make excellent chapter titles. The second would also make good dialogue.”

“I did once imagine a vast lion crouched on top of the Lloyds building.”

we’ve all wanted to do it

Robert Ferrigno: “Time was compressing into a dense moment, an instant around which the rest of their lives would revolve.”* I flash on something from childhood, some feeling, too brief to identify, of entrapment by one’s own choice. Writers write to find out who they used to be, then predict who they might be next. When prediction dribbles away into description, it’s time for change again. Sometimes it’s hard to see just what a fiction does predict. 1986: I thought I was the recipient of the haunted book, but I really knew I was the donor. For a while I comforted myself, “Perhaps I’m both.” But when I looked outside I didn’t really see the mystery island, or hear the soundtrack of my life playing from the dashboard of a white car. In 1986 I hoped I’d been saved from my own rage & obsessiveness: why then dream of writing stories about “starved children in Leeds, bodies in such ungainly attitudes that they already look mummified, limbs dried-up & leathery, as if they have just been dug up out of dry earth, as if they were killed by their circumstances long ago, their eyes empty & puzzled, their mouths open silently in horror & pain” ? It may have been a more complicated nexus than I thought. Restaurant dialogue overheard around that time: “Let’s face it. Cannibalism. We’ve all wanted to do it, haven’t we ? Well come on. Haven’t we ?” The UK we have now was already completely predictable then; what I would be next was harder to see & still is.

*The Horse Lattitudes

your skin is not so tough

Some stories have such an excessive sentimentality that as soon as you’ve finished writing them you’re ashamed & wish you hadn’t; in fifteen years time you see their value. Other stories feel hard & pure at time of writing but fifteen years later seem so smug, wilful & aggressive-defensive that you’re full of shame & wish you hadn’t even started them. & some stories written fifteen years ago seem to have been written by someone older & a lot less lively than you are now, which is a puzzle.

in the garden

The robins don’t want the goldfinches on the niger seed dispenser–too close to their nest. A pair of blackbirds, prospecting the thick ivy further along that wall, don’t want them either. The goldfinches enact “puzzled”, “good-natured” & “unprepared to squabble”. They slope off: the dispenser is almost empty anyway. I wonder how the robins, who lost a brood to a squirrel last year, will cope with their own aggression if the blackbirds actually move in. Meanwhile, nearer the back door, all the signs of Spring: some lengths of plastic draught-excluder discarded when Terry from Bristol put in the new back door; the rear wheel from a 1993 Marin Palisades Trail, which C was using to keep squirrels out of her tulip bulbs over the winter; a litter box discarded by the cat as too small. But it’s only when I notice the two bald scrubbing brushes in the corner by the fall pipe that I realise the year is waking up at last.

swords of the infinite

I had to explain recently that I don’t have an archive, or any papers. Unless someone can track down the rental housing in which I left deposits of a few hundred books & two or three mouldering Eastlight boxfiles at roughly ten year intervals along a painstakingly self-destructive biographical curve, there remain only a few damp 1970s manuscripts in storage somewhere in Islington. If you found those drafts they would prove to be obsessively neat & lacking in added value, because they were as much the result of an invisible process as any published book. Typed single-spaced, no margins, 1000 words to a page on sheets of coloured paper slightly larger than foolscap, with a very few corrections in longhand over TipEx, which was a bit like trying to write on icing sugar, and with only the odd sellotape join, now brown and dessicated, to remind people that cut & paste used to mean exactly that, they say nothing about how they got the way they are. Or they’re the opposite, all process without issue, & feature a single sentence, typed out mercilessly over & over again, each version on a one-inch strip of paper carefully torn from the top of the page while it was still in the borrowed Olivetti, different by a single word, or perhaps not even different by that, as many as fifty of them, far too many for a sentence in a seven thousand word story which would appear in a collection called Swords of the Infinite! & for which the author would be paid thirty dollars. The only thing I keep is the journal on which Climbers was based, because that has other meanings for me, being a record of a life and the decade-long sewing together of a piece of work which, though it ended up being less than the life, tried to be more. A bit like the suit the killer is trying to make from the skin of his victims in all those serial killer thrillers. & of course, while the journal on which it’s based survives, complete with additional evidence in the form of some strange looking polaroids, the book itself is out of print; an interesting reversal of the process described above.

those who know gifco

Those who have failed to regulate the self. Those whose behaviours enact a medicating fiction. Those who flew to the Canary Islands on a cheap ticket in December 1991 & left the remains of their personality in the apartment hotel. Those who ran from everything in a zig-zag pattern, so fast they never found the transitional object. The unsoothed. The dysmorphic. The unconditional. Those who were naive enough to take what they needed & thus never got what they wanted & whose dreams are now severe. Those who were amazed by their own hand. The confused. The pliable. Those who look at the sea & immediately suffer a grief unconstrained but inarticulable. Gifco is coming. Gifco you are always with us. Gifco we are here!

Photo: the other Nick Royle.