the m john harrison blog

Tag: fragments

hunting the wren

12 o’ clock the snow stops & a wren comes out to pick about among the pale green monbretia shoots & new snowdrops along the base of next door’s wall, nipping & bobbing, posing tail-up like the wren on the old farthing. What could you emboss on a farthing to indicate it was the smallest unit of currency, now the wren has lost its symbolic function ? For those younger people who’ve never seen a wren, it’s quite a small grey-furred mammal the elongated rear legs of which give it an energetic, hopping gait. It has a striking coloured breast often described as “pink” or “roseate”, but in fact much closer to violet. The male is slightly smaller than the female, more colourful & less active. Wrens are quite solitary, but breed with enthusiasm in suburban gardens in late March & early April, rearing ten to fifteen “kits” in a litter. Predators include the magpie, or “English Parrot”. In the historical times it was a Boxing Day custom to hunt wrens & crucify them on small sticks.

mexican death tv

My writing desk is a long, solid structure made of two thuggy planks– stained, knocked about, but having in places of high wear (the mousing area, for instance) a buttery patina–supported on a timber frame. It runs under the window for nearly eight feet, but I tuck myself into one end of that as if embarrassed or overpowered by such an executive allocation of space. It was originally a photographer’s bench, I think; equally, you could rebuild an engine on it if anyone did that anymore. It’s not mine, it was here when I arrived in 1998, but it’s the most satisfying desk I’ve ever had. My ideal is to keep it bare of everything but the engine of the Mac. No pens, paper, books, nothing to remind me of what I do for a living except the screen, the writing space itself; above all, no clutter. But I do not fool myself that this aesthetic is actually available. Stuff is all over, all the things mentioned plus: wires, dust, iPods, earbuds, hard drives, CDs, souvenirs including Mexican Death TV, two elephants, brass lizard, wire lizard, big brass tray of beach pebbles pine cones shells etc, a Thai fish, glass pigs & an ash tray with horses on it nearly 40 years old. I have some good photographs of the bench, & I would put one up here but they also feature S’s daughters, who were doing some tidying up at the time, & I would rather get everyone’s permission first. This morning I’m sitting here on an Ikea swivel chair ten years old–called a Ronni or a Bobsu or a Cummi or something–with the cloth peeled away to reveal rotting foam. I am wearing a Rab double-pile jacket over a merino wool base-layer, & my red Buff in its beanie mode. It’s cold. An extra roof has appeared in the street, a snow-covered Luton van leaning up against a tree like a container abandoned in the corner of a field. No one can park sensibly in West London, home of double-parking for an hour in a street already lined on both sides with 4x4s, your driver-door open & engine running while you chat in the porch of a nice little workingman’s cottage, your honking voices penetrating all the way to Hammersmith & beyond causing shivers of rage & terror in the poor people who don’t know how to push for the things they want or even look after themselves properly.

i like snow

It’s been trying to snow all day, an effort which intensified suddenly about three minutes ago. 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. I won’t pretend not to be elated. It’s 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, put my Innov8s on, pick up my head-torch & go running in 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. The best snow I was ever in fell during a long winter when I was sixteen or seventeen years old. I remember struggling four 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.


11am St Pancras/Sheffield. The man sleeping across the aisle from me has taken off his black leather shoes & put his feet on the seat opposite. The Telegraph has fallen off the table at his side. Bedford station wakes him up & he opens his briefcase and begins to eat from a packet of crisps or something like it, putting his hand into the case each time he wants some more. While he is eating, his hand flops down to the seat at his side. He is quite a young man, with lively eyes, but this way of eating has a curiously furtive effect, as if he is reluctant to admit that he is eating at all. He drinks more openly, from a carton of pineapple juice, sucking at it energetically. The flat Bedfordshire landscape races past his shoulder, green with summer, wired for electricity. He puts the Telegraph aside for a book. His toes twitch. The guard announces, “Ladies & gentlemen, Kettering station.” We are in HE Bates country. A white butterfly bobs up and down between the platforms, fluttering towards London along the down-line, fragile but compelled.

note made in a hotel bar, 1991

However dark it gets outside, the window is an imperfect mirror. Through it you can just see the billowing exhaust smoke of cars stopped at the junction, pedestrians in winter coats.

I’m waiting for someone. I’m reading the Gunn & Guyomard introduction to A Young Girl’s Diary— “Why from the moment one feels desire is there a mystery, an unsayable, a residue, an obscurity–call it what one will–that only vanishes when one’s desire subsides back into indifference? Or, finally: why is one only ever knowledgeable about things one no longer cares to know ?” Across the bar someone says, “I tried to be a beatnik when I was a kid but I got a rash from my pullover.”

If I look sideways I can see reflected in the window an old woman, sitting alone at a table behind me. The table is littered with half-empty glasses, full ashtrays, beer mats, crisp bags. The old woman is dipping her index finger first into a pint glass of Guinness, then into a gin & tonic, licking the alcohol off her finger each time with a satisfied, popping, sucking noise. She’s so absorbed in this game with someone else’s drinks. She’s chuckling and and whining to herself, making the little soft sounds of a baby or a lunatic. I turn round and look directly at her & find a little girl waiting for her mother & father. Perhaps eight years old, she has long red hair, a pleasant freckled face and pale lips.

When I turn back to the window I can’t see the old woman for a moment. Then I can. Waiting for my date to arrive, I practise toggling between the old woman & the little girl; while in my notebook I write, “The last two pages of this introduction are absolutely brilliant–complex, challenging, creative analysis of the diarist’s duality & double “loss of self”, the ambivalence of the text, the reader’s gain written into the writer’s loss.”

notebook entry, 1993

A Ghost Story

Ghosts, or fragments of ghosts, phantoms of partial vanished events, appear to have piled up in an old house until its new occupant, A, becomes sensitive to them. She is upset by a particular manifestation. She begins to track it down in local history records, piece it together. With each discovery, more of the apparitions in the house are brought in under the umbrella: everything begins to make sense.

Along with this comes an increased pressure on A to bring peace to the house: she feels that only she can understand what has happened–of course, it mirrors events in her own life–and that only such an understanding can “earth out” the psychic overload in the house. But one piece of the story–its conclusion–is missing: no local record can tell her what happened. She doesn’t know where to dig to find the corpse, the star-crossed lovers, the stolen birthright, or the evil object. A can’t right the wrong.

Balked, she becomes ill. In parallel, the hauntings become more horrific.

Worried all along by A’s skewed relationship to her house and its past, her friend B repeats the local history research, but across the whole life of the house. B discovers that the attempt to find a single historical explanation for the haunting has caused A to conflate events from two thousand years or more of occupation of the ground. The fountain of blood in the cellar comes from a different incident to the repetitive shriek in the attic. She has mistaken medieval manifestations for seventeenth century ones, children for adults, sex for murder, & strung them all together to make a story she cannot quite complete.

Once B has relocated each incident to its proper temporal place, he understands that the hauntings are not motivated. They are fragmentary, palimpsestic, meaningless. They are a record of habitation, not an explanation of the personal lives of particular inhabitants or a message to the future about some injustice so monstrous no one can have peace until it is righted. It is not the responsibility of the living to redress–or even facilitate the redressing–of wrongs in the past. The past is only the past: we do not owe it any guilt, we cannot even recognise anymore what constitutes it. The past is just some decaying, meaningless echoes. When we “learn” from it, all we are doing is rewriting it according to what we need at the time.

As soon as A understands this, she gets well. The hauntings stop. She has laid the past to rest not by understanding it but by consigning it to the past where it belongs.

the voice of reason

After all this time I should know the score. I should know who you are. I should know what we want from one another. I’m sitting here airside, thinking about that. I’m listening to the turbofans the other side of the glass, the grinding manoeuvres out on the tarmac that pass for action, the premeditated dashes & lunges that pass for freedom. My bag is by my leg. I’m in the smell of coffee & steam. I’m eating an almond croissant. I think: it’s the usual impasse. I think: it’s the customary inauthentic fuck-up. I wait & wait to hear from you, then when my phone rings I don’t answer. Why do you imagine I would, when everything you say, every assumption you make, has for forty years caused me to feel less than I am ? In two hours I’ll be away from here. I can wait another fortnight to find out what I’m worth during this phase of our negotiations, our cross-purposes. I’m sure I’ll be as calm as ever.

I once got a duty-free bag from Schipol airport on which was printed, SEE BUY FLY. Enlightenment, action, release. You would relinquish the first two options, I remember thinking, if only the third looked possible.

a dark fraught place

Mid day I walk up & down Church St, a street the business of which takes place at other times. I walk up & down looking in shop windows until I reach the Rose & Crown at the junction with Albion Rd. Three or four paces ahead of me a young woman tries door after door, but everywhere is closed. Clothes shops, toy shops, book shops, shops which stock just nicely-designed things. No one wants to sell her anything. She can’t understand that. Once or twice, we acknowledge one another, exchange a shrug. What can you do ? we seem to say. Is this London we find ourselves in ? & the unspoken conversation ends there because we have so little else in common. It’s pleasantly empty in the Rose & Crown, just a couple of old men with big white beards drinking beer & someone else ordering a whiskey & coke at the endless bar where it starts going away into the shadows & chalked wine lists. I have a Becks; a packet of crisps, Irish cheddar with onion chutney flavour. Though the contents have never been anywhere near cheese or chutney or Ireland, those things are a pleasant fiction we can all have a piece of. The word “flavour” is printed in smaller letters than the rest. I am really & honestly very content with that, & with the view down Church St, which hardly seems awake & which looks as if it ought to be at the seaside. It didn’t look like that last time I was here. It was a dark fraught place & I was in a poor state too. Those days I had little connection with the scenes in which I found myself. What connection I could manage was through a kind of terror. It was my condition then to believe that I was haunted: but I was the haunting, & understanding that eventually taught me a lot.

reduced territories

The garden bench stands in an area two feet by four, with old brick edges on the short sides and the ivy-covered wall at the back. The surface so bounded is covered with unevenly-bedded squares of old tile (nine inches on a side) and paving slab (perhaps eighteen inches on a side), up through the joins of which grows a spongy little plant with yellow flowers. The tiles are eroded–spalled or blown-out–in shallow, layered oval patches. The paving slabs are coined with a dull yellow lichen. Vegetation–I think campanula–has leached the mortar from the bottom three courses of the wall, then died of starvation, leaving the London stock blanched and powdery-looking, as if some absolute substance–some virtue–has been drained from it. Above that the ivy begins, dense, thick of trunk & inhabited. Dead leaves are scattered over the stones. Warmth comes up from them. I look at this and think it’s the most perfect space I’ve ever known, a micro-place which, like Spencer’s The Blacksmith’s Yard, contains more than a hundred percent of itself. An altar. The old cat sleeps there in the sun, keeping a wary eye on us in case we decide to use the garden hose, or take it into our heads to clip his claws. Once, thirty-odd years old, running on the moor above Holmfirth, I lost my house keys and had to drop down the valley & into Huddersfield to collect a spare set. When I got there, I thought, Oh, fuck it, & ran back instead of getting the bus; I did around 20 miles that morning. Now–for now–my territory is Barnes Common & the river, & 20 minutes is my limit. But I can still get more than a hundred percent out of 20 yards of sandy heath, 20 yards of singletrack with intermittent sunshine spilling in over the head high gorse.

invasion of Oxford under way

Just past mid day. Thirteen military helicopters grind over, line astern, west up the river. It’s been bedlam all morning. I phone someone, point the phone into the air & shout, “Can you hear this ? Can you hear it ? Thirteen military helicopters!” I turn on BBC 24 hour news-related fictions at the same time, but it doesn’t say Oxford has been invaded by alien machines that resemble airstream trailers reflected in a circus mirror in Arizona in 1958 etc etc, so I get back to work. Just as I start a new paragraph another helicopter trudges past after the others. It’s grey. It’s piecing up the air. It’s a long way behind but it doesn’t seem to be hurrying to catch up. You see a lot of helicopters when you live in Barnes.