the m john harrison blog

Tag: england

alchemical

Blake, Peckham and “the tree of angels”. The sheer willpower needed to envisage something. Even a memory has to be forced back into existence, and for all your effort what do you get? An artefact if you’re lucky, something not quite right in the corner of your eye. The exhausting effort to understand exactly what it is you’re trying to see. The exhausting effort to keep focus. The mad daily struggle against all the side issues that offer themselves. The struggle to keep the symbology intact/exact. I don’t care about anything else in writing now, as long as I get that part right. Everything else can follow along, rag tag and bobtail. Everything else is better that way any way.

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

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.

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