the m john harrison blog

Tag: fragments

today she finds a few gold snowflakes

Today she finds a few gold snowflakes in her purse, relics of last Christmas or the one before. “I don’t know where they came from or what they’re for!” she tells us delightedly. Then: “I can never remember where I’ve put things these days.” Memory is both curse and blessing. She always offers the loss of it with a smile, not as an explanation but as a habitation, the place she’s speaking from. Her kitchen doorway is crawling with ants. A robin whirs out of the garden to eat them, then makes itself at home, on the doormat, on the refrigerator, on the back of a chair, its little dark eye cocked sidewise at everything. The robin is sharp as its own beak. Its memory is unlike hers. Its sense of ownership of its own time–the same busyness she used to have–is acute. Get ants, the robin thinks, if it can be said to think: Then get more.


armful of poppies

Sodden heaps of earth in a field. Crows beating southwards against a blustery wind. Mist blowing across the hilltop copses, threadbare pine trees on exposed slopes. A mass of chamomile and tiny orange poppies in the brown grass. She felt like gathering a whole armful of poppies, sweeping them up, wet and hairy-stemmed, petals already beginning to fall. Her arms would be covered with wet petals. She thought of orange petals floating on a dark green stream in some preRaphaelite painting, and shivered with pleasure. She remembered driving to one of those small towns, with names like Ilminster or Ilchester. Rain blowing in all directions through a haze of sunshine and exhaust smoke.

“the shop’s closed”

For today’s Guardian books podcast I read a little bit of The Course of the Heart, mined out of this section from Chapter One–

For twenty years he had lived in the same single room above the Atlantis Bookshop. He was reluctant to take me there, I could see, though it was only next door and I had been there before. At first he tried to pretend it would be difficult to get in.

“The shop’s closed,” he said. “We’d have to use the other door.”

Then he admitted:

“I can’t go back there for an hour or two. I did something last night that means it may not be safe.”

He grinned.

“You know the sort of thing I mean,” he said.

I couldn’t get him to explain further. The cuts on his wrists made me remember how panicky Pam and Lucas had been when I last spoke to them. All at once I was determined to see inside the room.

“We could always talk in the Museum,” I suggested.

Researching in the manuscript collection one afternoon a year before, he had turned a page of Jean de Wavrin’s Chroniques d’Angleterre–that oblique history no complete version of which is known–and come upon a miniature depicting in strange, unreal greens and blues the coronation procession of Richard Coeur de Lion.

Part of it had moved; which part, he would never say.

“Why, if it’s a coronation,” he had written almost plaintively to me at the time, “are these four men carrying a coffin ? And who is walking there under the awning–with the bishops yet not a bishop ?”

After that he had avoided the building as much as possible, though he could always see its tall iron railings at the end of the street. He had begun, he told me, to doubt the authenticity of some of the items in the medieval collection. In fact he was frightened of them.

“It would be quieter there,” I insisted.

He sat hunched over the Church Times, staring into the street with his hands clamped violently together in front of him. I could see him thinking.

“That fucking pile of shit!” he said eventually.

He got to his feet.

“Come on then. It’s probably cleared out by now anyway.”

Rain dripped from the blue-and-gold front of the Atlantis. There was a faded notice, CLOSED FOR COMPLETE REFURBISHMENT. The window display had been taken down, but for the look of things they had left a few books on a shelf. I could make out, through the plate glass, W B Yeats’ The Trembling of the Veil–with its lyrical plea for intuited ritual “Hodos Chameliontos” –leaning up against Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. When I drew Yaxley’s attention to this accidental nexus, he only stared at me contemptuously.

Inside, the shop smelled of cut timber, new plaster, paint, but this gave way on the stairs to an odour of cooking. Yaxley fumbled with his key. His bedsitter, which was quite large and on the top floor, had uncurtained sash windows on opposing walls. Nevertheless it didn’t seem well lit. From one window you could see the sodden facades of Museum Street, bright green deposits on the ledges, stucco scrolls and garlands grey with pigeon dung; out of the other, part of the blackened clock tower of St George’s Bloomsbury, a reproduction of the tomb of Mausoleus lowering up against the racing clouds.

“I once heard that clock strike twenty one,” said Yaxley.

“I can believe that,” I said, though I didn’t. “Do you think I could have some tea ?”

He was silent for a minute. Then he laughed.

“I’m not going to help them,” he said. “You know that. I wouldn’t be allowed to. What you do in the Pleroma is irretrievable.”

He fished two cups out of a plastic washing-up bowl and put tea bags in them.

“Don’t tell me you’re frightened too!” he said. “I expected more from you.”

I shook my head. I wasn’t sure whether I was afraid or not. I’m not sure today. The tea, when it came, had a distinctly greasy aftertaste, as if somehow he had fried it. I made myself drink it while Yaxley watched me cynically.

“You ought to sit down,” he said. “You’re worn out.”

When I refused, he shrugged and went on as if we were still at the Tivoli:

“Nobody tricked them, or tried to pretend it would be easy. If you get anything out of an experiment like that, it’s by keeping your head and taking your chance. If you try to move cautiously, you may never be allowed to move at all.”

He looked thoughtful.

“I’ve seen what happens to people who lose their nerve.”

“I’m sure,” I said.

“They were hardly recognisable, some of them.”

I put the teacup down.

“I don’t want to know,” I said.

“I bet you don’t.”

He smiled to himself.

“Oh, they were still alive,” he said softly, “if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“You talked us into this,” I reminded him.

“You talked yourselves into it.”

Most of the light from Museum Street was absorbed as soon as it entered the room, by the dull green wallpaper and sticky-looking yellow veneer of the furniture. The rest leaked eventually into the litter on the floor, pages of crumpled and partly burned typescript, hair clippings, broken chalks which had been used the night before to draw something on the flaking lino: among this stuff, it died. Though I knew Yaxley was playing some sort of game with me, I couldn’t see what it was. I couldn’t make the effort, so in the end he had to make it for me. He waited until I got ready to leave.

“You’ll get sick of all this mess one day,” I said from the door of the bedsit.

He grinned and nodded and advised me:

“Have you ever seen Joan of Arc get down to pray in the ticket office at St Pancras ? And then a small boy comes in leading something that looks like a goat, and it gets on her there and then and fucks her in a ray of sunlight ?

“Come back when you know what you want. Get rid of Lucas Medlar, he’s an amateur. Bring the girl if you must.”

–It isn’t the best reading I ever did. But the interview that follows has its points.

an autotelian journey

Goods wagons full of freight speed through the main station, which is underground. This has an eerie effect, as if you saw a trainload of wood, stone & new cars rush past a London tube platform; as if for some reason freight were being moved in secret down the tunnels. These Autotelian trains are wide, boxy & plain. Most seem to be painted maroon. They look shabby, but they are much cleaner, quieter and smoother to ride in than ours. They have one huge glaring headlamp on as they come out of the tunnel; they have a yellow stripe down the side. Back on the surface they rush between suburbs, past houses of a hundred shapes, sizes & colours. Wet tin roofs gleam in the morning light. The suburban stations are built from the neatest, most uniformly coloured, most sharp-edged bricks I have ever seen–architect’s bricks, not builders’ bricks. Designer bricks. Out in the country at last the train runs through steep cuttings under piled white cumulus clouds. The horse chestnut candles are going out, dim and pink and dignified. May blossom is showing in the hedges: after a while you begin to smell it–or imagine you can smell it–inside the carriage. Lilac bushes bulge over the garden fences, drenched suddenly by unpredictable showers. Fifty or sixty miles later, stands of sparse mixed woodland colonise the sandy soil; grow dense & full of unfamiliar blue flowers like smoke; then thin to heath, where the lanes are narrow, the bridges made of dark red stone, soft in texture. Eventually the woodland becomes continuous. It’s full of curiosities–a strange black urn on a plinth, rising above the trees with no clue as to what it might be, no sign of a park or a great house to which it might belong. Then a shallow pool with enchanted, intricate shorelines in complex intimate curves, out of which protrude hundreds of blanched dead trees. The forest ends suddenly. Long granite spines break up the landscape. The line starts its long shallow run down across the farmland to the coast. The train’s heading into cloud, full-bodied and firm, but for a moment the sun still blesses us: it spills & foams off a weir, turns the ploughland luminous against a darkening sky. We smile out into it, eyes half shut, expressions at once pained & cheerful, difficult to interpret.

postcard from Autotelia

The whole of the beach is artificial, white sand trucked in from somewhere else to complete the ruler-straight concrete strip with its fringe of mostly ghastly hotels, lowrise apartment clusters & restaurants. It receives a lot of traffic in the early & late summer but the rest of the year it’s like this, empty, exhausted-looking & scattered with objects you can’t quite understand. If you walk round the point at the south end, though, you find a different kind of beach altogether–rocky, terraced, without beach umbrellas or tourists. You have left a sullen, humid day, with a sort of hidden light coming through the cloud, for sunlight & abrasive air. A brisk inshore wind drives the sea up over the tide pools, the water is a murky detergent of grey and green, & a huge bank of black weed has formed on the tideline. A few hundred yards behind the beach lies the town crematorium, a curious truncated cylinder decorated on the outside with a huge mural like a 1920s woodcut: dead people silhouetted by the invisible sun & weird perspectives of the afterlife. One warning: when they offer you “Tiny Fishes” in the beach cafes, they are not. For me, whitebait are tiny fishes. These fishes are three inches long. On the whole, they eat like whitebait; but tiny is a misnomer. “Quite small” would be better.

notebook picked up off a hospital floor

First page:

    Contents of an A&E cubicle, beginning at righthand wall (pale grey) at entrance, then moving left. Plastic bin, yellow, labelled CLINICAL WASTE ONLY, on a brushed-metal trolley. Wall now stands proud by 5 inches and changes to blue. On this panel can be found, in a row at around five feet up, from left to right, Purrell Hygienic Hand Rub; York extra-Mild Liquid Soap; York paper hand-towel dispenser. Below that: ADAMS HYDREX DISPENSER; sign reading “West Middlesex university hospital NHS WASH your hands. Control of infection.” Below that: Sign (circular, black) reading, “Don’t forget CLEAN YOUR HANDS BEFORE AND AFTER EVERY PATIENT CONTACT.” Sign reading: “SIX STEP HAND WASHING TECHNIQUE,” with photographs. Below that: white basin, elliptical, with faucets. Next left, on floor: a rectangular metal pedal bin, grey, labelled DOMESTIC WASTE ONLY. Above that, a Damicentre glove dispenser, offering small, medium and large disposable

This crossed out with a single strong diagonal line & “abandoned as boring” written underneath. Then, in a different-coloured ink:

    It’s been five hours since I called 999.

Fosse Quay, 1995

Gulls, green weed, a cat in the sun among the trees: Fosse Quay, held in a crook of earth & wood. The tide is down. It’s October. The light is so bright on the mud you can’t look at it. The trees tumbling down the opposite bank of the inlet vanish into a corona of reflections where the stranded multihull boats rest like insects tired after some long intense flight to mate. Ten in the morning. It seems earlier (in July everything would look & feel like this at six or seven a.m.). Sun & shade seem like equal things. Both are a kind of illumination. Both fall ungrudgingly across the ground-ivy, the spider web, a blue loop of discarded hose, the withered hawthorn leaves of a dry summer. Both are a potential. As for you & me, we sit here–grounded, webbed, discarded, shrivelled up–& yet with life still ahead of us–& turn our faces up to whatever we might receive next, sunshine or shadow. A man is sawing wood in the next boatyard along. A toddler is laughing.

south london, 1991

Dark green wainscot, poster red walls. A longhaired cat sleeps on the floor in front of the gas fire. Everything looks old but new. There are mint-looking tins of baked beans and black treacle stacked artfully on the shelves behind the counter. A whole fruit cake and pork pies under the glass. A postcard rack (clipper ships against a tinted sky), a chessboard with a game in process. Studiedly retro, yet believable. The tall middleclass girl behind the counter is addressed as “Lewis” by her boyfriend, a man in a black leather jacket & round wire-framed spectacles, who arrives at 7:00pm. The cat rearranges itself round his feet while he drinks a glass of rum. Then he & Lewis exit briefly for a smoke, banging the door behind them and leaving the rest of us–the cat, two customers & me–with the radio jazz, the warm air and faint smell of spirits. None of us looks out of place, although I wonder what I’m doing here waiting for someone I don’t know & probably never will. Lewis returns alone, cigarette half smoked, looking slightly less middleclass. We’re all middleclass now; we all aren’t. “I”ve got my love to keep me warm,” sings the radio. We’ve got Calor gas, which works quite well if the cat is anything to go by. Examining my reflection in the mirror behind the counter I decide that I look neither as old nor as unhealthy as I feel. What am I up to here ? Granted, my life fell apart earlier this year: but now I’ve been offered at least the appearance of stability. Why am I risking it like this ? Jazz & crockery, piano & cutlery. Old-fashioned sounds for a book I’ll never write.


The light has a warmer quality, which has brought out the biscuit colours of the gable ends along Grove Road. For days the street has been full of children on bicycles taking their proficiency test. Tucked into yellow safety wear & pink helmets, they cycle back & forth with attentive expressions & a careful lack of elan. Points are awarded for the proper use of the hand signal, but this morning I can’t seem to get worked up about that. Down towards the river the street trees are shocking green again, glowing & roaring as they suck in the sunlight to re-emit it at outlandish, artificial-looking wavelengths. You would not eat that colour if it came as a fast food, although it might win you over if they baked it on to the fat alloy tubes of a new bike. Or you might just be curious enough to Google for it with some heartbreaking search string like “high speed jets of matter”. Whatever it is, nature has no right to it except at the extreme end of things where stuff only just hangs together. & this is on a tree, in a street near you! It comes in a bad colour, but it’s life. There’s no life at all on my balcony, only induviae: pots of rotten brown sticks folded over & streaked with black; the strange, silvery, papery transparencies of the remains of flowers. I go out & think about pulling some of this stuff up, but end up staring into the street at the lines of cyclists. When they spot the kiddies in their yellow safety wear, even the white van drivers slow down. Curious, amiable, collapsed expressions come on their faces, as if they are trying to remember how to be human.

my kind of porn

Dave TV is running old episodes of helicopter rescue programmes. I switch on straight into footage of the 2004 Boscastle flood. Machines from different services edge nervously round each other in the sky, trying not to run into one another, or into any wires or hills. Boscastle has aged suddenly, taking on the visual status of a ruin falling back into the coastline, a deserted mining village in a brown & white photograph. “It’s mayhem down there,” someone’s dispatcher remarks, looking at the floating cars banging off buildings and bridges on their way down to the sea. Then he adds thoughtfully, “You’ve still got those powerlines off to your left.” Normally, one of the helicopters would fly up to 5,000 feet and from there co-ordinate the operations of the others. But the continuing storm prevents that. So they land gingerly on the local football field and negotiate. There’s so much custom for them in Boscastle you get the feeling they’re embarrassed. In programmes like these there are always plenty of numbers. In 2004, for instance, 76 cars were swept through Boscastle and ended up in the sea. I’m not here for the statistics. I’m here for the helicopter porn. A red and white Coast Guard Sea King is fastened above the greyish-brown turbulence; only the water and the rotor blades are moving; the machine has a body-language of intense attentiveness, as if it is fishing. Adolescent holidaymakers are the more usual subjects of rescue. They become separated from their bodyboards, or fall off a cliff drunk or go too far on a rubber dinghy. “There’s no let up for Whiskey Bravo,” the voiceover tells us. The crew of Whiskey Bravo wouldn’t want one. They want to work. I deeply admire their calm concentration & their quiet, especially practical argot, the rhythms and stresses of which return language to something worthwhile (from what I know it as, anyway, something you can never trust even–indeed especially–when you made it yourself). “The downwash is right underneath us. Steady. In contact. Steady, steady. Just over the surf line, two feet on the main gear on the right.”