the m john harrison blog

Tag: england

love & perspective

I’ve spent the whole day writing about Love for Lydia, and now I wonder why. Bates isn’t a writer anyone’s much interested in any more. Love for Lydia‘s not even his best work. I start out adoring it and end up angry with myself for being pulled in. A bit like Richardson himself, I suppose. It was published in the early 1950s, when I was a child in Warwickshire, and it seems to catch that time better than it catches the time it’s set in. This post, Lost Worlds, from four years ago, suggests I’m picking up on that:

…when I began to read HE Bates, my memories of the town of my birth, Rugby in Warwickshire, became fatally enslaved to Bates’s fictional Evensford. How to free them, except with care & hard work, image by image ? They were far too similar. Black sticks of reeds where the towpath has collapsed into the canal. A dead cat in a gutter in melting snow. The movements of people through streetlight, projected faintly on to the ceilings and upper walls of a bedroom; their laughter. The bang & squeal of trains coupling and decoupling in the night. A constant sense of the dry cold winds of the early part of the year, on building sites, on the corners of the streets down by the railway, under bridges, across pond ice, over the vast empty expanse of the cattle market with its moveable metal dividers. How do you begin to retrieve a landscape you spent so much of your life forgetting ? Not by using satellite maps, that’s for sure. All they record is its absence. To separate Evensford & Rugby, I need a psychic splitter, & it is uncertainty. Evensford is a place certain of its feelings–certain anyway that feelings, whatever turmoil they create, are the point; that even coldness and despair are part of human warmth & hope; that human mess is nothing less than human. I can read that out of the pervasive combination of love & perspective Bates imparts to every story. But everything I felt–everything that was communicated to me–in the very similar social & geographical spaces of postwar Warwickshire was simultaneously clouded and sharpened by anxiety, cancered-up with stealthy growths of alienation.

Though I didn’t read it until the mid-1970s, Love for Lydia trapped me in what’s become a weird, 60-year double loop, a tangle of memory, landscape, politics, emotional politics. I’ve never been clever enough to reason my way out. It sums me up, somehow. Inexplicable.

poor souls’ light

6024417 Here’s the first scene of “Animals”, my contribution to the Curious Tales Christmas anthology, Poor Souls’ Light

“In late June, Susan rented a cottage for a fortnight. It was tucked away at the seaward end of a lane; beyond it there was only flat light on the sand dunes and open beach. The paperwork required her to collect the keys from a Mrs Lago, who lived at the other end of the lane where it joined the road. Mrs Lago turned out to be sixtyish, frail-looking but active, with watery blue eyes, bright red lipstick and a selection of cotton print dresses two generations too young for her. During the summer her grassy front garden, across which had been scattered some round white plastic tables, did duty as a cafe. She was in and out all day, carrying trays of cakes, fitting umbrellas into the sockets in the centre of the tables to keep the rain off. In the evening the onshore wind blew everything about, and it lay in the rain looking shabby.

“Susan called as instructed and found the garden full of sparrows. They gathered round her while she waited for the keys, cocking their heads right and left. They ate cake crumbs, first from the ground, then the chairs, then the very edge of the table. Then they took off all at once and one of them flew through the open door into the house, where it fluttered inside the window just above the sill among the china ornaments and little vases. Its panic was terrible. Mrs Lago went inside and after some reckless stumbling about appeared with it in her hands at the door. It was squawking and cheeping miserably. As soon as she let it go it shot off across the garden.

“‘I thought it was going to break my lucky horseshoe,’ she said, looking at Susan in a vague but excited way. ‘It’s been broken once before.’

“’Has it ?’ Susan said.

“You were always the junior partner in a conversation with Mrs Lago, your responses limited to, ‘Yes. No. Isn’t it ?’ and, ‘I did!’ Listening to yourself make them was a bit like listening to one end of a telephone conversation. She had a curious lurching walk. She owned two or three dogs that sometimes got out and ran up and down the lane, surprised by a freedom they couldn’t seriously exploit.”

give us a tune, uncle!

Uncle Zip returns. He’s on the horizon. He’s in the room. He’s wearing his cheap sunglasses. “He’ll give us a tune on the old squeeze box!” He’ll give us a tune from his old song book, & send us home again. (All the tired clones gather round & a single Christmas orange falls from the naked sky.) The gifts of the Uncle.

living with particulates in NO2

But we love the N02 postcode! Only your father, who lives in the country and is therefore guilty of all the usual historical crimes, ie for instance of being your father, wants fresh air! Country air’s not so fresh either, is it? Full of all that poo. In fact there’s no fresh air left anywhere in the world if you come to think of it and none of us is dead! Just look at this article from The Lanarkshire Times in 1342, “Thee eyre beeing no langyr frish, lyffe if not worth th lyvynng of’t.” See? Every generation ever has thought the world was fucked! But that’s just change! The only thing that’s certain is that things will change, Zizek or someone said that. I believe it and that’s why I love living with particulates. Here’s YouTube of our daughter hyperventilating some on a bike ride round the recently reclaimed Cadmium Park. Is there anything wrong with that little sweetie? I tell you what, I wish her more “pollution” not less! And I hope she has a fantastic life full of the craft beers with clever aggressive names and really exciting urban experimental music it brings. Where’s the toilet here?

what it looks like now again

You sit over a one-bar electric fire in a rented room. As soon as you feel recovered from the commute you’ll boil some potatoes on the gas ring, then, three minutes before they’re done, drop an egg into the same water. You can hear the family downstairs laughing at something, some dressed-up cats or something, on the internet. After people have cooked, they can often get use out of their gadgets–join a world building game, preorder the gadget they want next–although the load soon precipitates a brownout. During the day you work in a 7th floor office in the Strand. Publicity for a fuel corporate. It’s nice. All very heads-down but worth it to have the security. Last year you got involved with an East Midlands junkie who claimed to have a telepathic link to another world & to be able to control a 3d printer with their mind alone, & they turned out to be seventeen not twenty seven as they said, & after their staffie/mastiff cross, which they were looking after for a friend in rehab, bit two fingers off your ex’s left hand when he came back from an oil-exploration contract in one of the ‘stans, you forget which one, they fitted all the lights in the house with blue bulbs then tried to commit suicide in your bath in an excess of adolescent self-disgust. It was a cry for help. They’ve gone now–last you heard they were with a grindcore musician in Peckham–and you’re glad, but you miss their smell, which was instantly exciting; & their dysfunctionality, which you remember as “character”. The sex was tremendous, if a little full on & tiring. Outside it’s minus ten & you have no idea what’s happening on the old housing estates by the river. “Welcome to London,” someone in the office said today. That got a laugh. “Welcome to the managerial classes.” All he really meant was that like everyone else he would do anything to stay this side of the line.

a day in the country

People with a European 4×4. People with an Asian 4×4. People with scarves. People who think they have a sense of direction. People wearing a complete outfit of rural fashion clothing– including identical oiled cotton jackets and hats– and carrying a peculiarly long kind of walking stick, who ask you if you’ve “been through the cattle” as if it’s a crime, or a rite, or the adventure of a lifetime. People with a “working dog” they can’t control. People who are telling each other as you pass, “Of course it’s still very Catholic round here.” People who, in the coming days, will have a wall knocked down in their Richmond home and find a great hoard of household rubbish–broken beds, cheap soiled mattresses, used unpaired shoes stuffed into plastic bags–which has been bricked in by a former owner, and for whom there will be no psychic upshot or metaphysical learning curve, only the end of the story. Or so you expect.

best wishes as ever

Southern England just doesn’t seem as nice as it did, dear, so your father & I are moving north before Thames Valley prices drop even further. We were thinking of somewhere in the Harrogate area. Above 100m, obviously, and with a bit of ground for the dogs. It will be such fun for them, especially Pinnie. The fact is, darling, your father and I are rather surprised that this has happened to people like us. You do see why some of the Somerset people complained, don’t you, but I think we’ll always vote Tory. Anyway, best wishes as ever, and I’m sure you’ll do well with your little wellington boot shop.

royal estate

The palace turned out to be a stuffy, disappointing warren that just reeked of dogs. The Queen showed us around lots of small low-ceilinged rooms with fitted carpets, not what we were looking for at all. No real Elfland values or internal architecture left, except for that rather gorgeous river-frontage. She kept saying that she & her husband had been going to make this or that improvement, but everything was interrupted when, “They came back”. At one point she said, “We were going to sell up, go to the Deep West, but they came back. They came back, you see, & what can you do?” She never said who or what they were. There was an old labrador sleeping outside the back door. They also had a really quite smelly chihuaha, always gazing up at you, & when you petted it, “Oh she’ll go to anyone, that one. When you’re shopping she’ll go straight in your bag.” Meanwhile, honestly, Eldranol just sat there in the front room, watching US cable TV on satellite & in the end we decided no matter how close it was to the Evening Harbours it just wasn’t for us.

All the Elf Land here.

october

Seventeen jackdaws were conducting a meeting in their invisible boardroom between the pub chimneys. I felt a bit thin on the ground that day so I took the green slot up through the woods. My hearing was back in my left ear. Welcome home baby, I said, but I wondered if my affair was over with the binaural world & we were only going through the motions. The pylons made a sound like a bottling plant in the distance. There were church bells. Half-tuned motors snarled up from the garage in the valley like dogs behind a security fence. Sounds of an English village. Later, rain slopped off the front gutters of the closing shops in the twilight. Dark before seven, TVs on before eight; front rooms full of flickering light. The ads don’t even seem to be selling anything anymore, just updating, reprocessing their brand in the light of current consumer perceptions, fine tuning the engines of consumption. It’s less important that you buy our stuff than you buy any stuff. Soon be winter in a strange house.

street etiquette

Two people get out of their cars, slam the doors and greet each other– “Orright?” –in unison but an octave apart. The knack of “Orright?” is to pitch it as if the other person is at the far end of the village, even when they’re three feet away. It should sound cheerful, with a little musical lilt, but also imply that you have errands.

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