the m john harrison blog

Tag: landscape


Now the dust has settled I can see that my 70th birthday books haul includes: A Philosophy of Walking, Frederic Gros; Henk Van Rensbergen’s superb Abandoned Places; The Illiterate, Agota Kristoff; The Slate Sea, poems & photographs, ed Paul Henry & Zed Nelson; Britain & Ireland’s Best Wild Places, Christopher Somerville; Dusk, Axel Hoedt; and The Near Death Thing by Rick Broadbent, interviews with Manx TT riders. To help me navigate this complex territory I have in addition a 1930s quarter-inch map of North Wales & Manchester. I’m going to start by running Gros & Broadbent concurrently.

ag wars

–take a slice of your commission–take a slice off everything–if you look where their depots are–it’s dog eat dog out there–the tractor business is a different one–it’s coast to coast–it’s about cleaning up the balance sheet–run it as a franchise then run their own stuff on the side–did some things you probably wouldn’t agree with–the way of the world–they do a lot of tractors–80 to a 100 tractors, about 3%–I say I can’t quite believe that–he figures the whole area’s running 6 or 7%–the whole market looks worse–it’s not good–suddenly ag machinery looks worse, right out to the coast–suddenly you are just way way outnumbered–

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


The collection:

Lost & Found
In Autotelia
The Walls
Rockets of the Western Suburbs
Imaginary Reviews
Entertaining Angels Unawares
Elf Land: the Lost Palaces
Royal Estate
Last Transmission from the Deep Halls
Places you Didn’t Think to Look for Yourself
Not All Men
Dog People
Jackdaw Bingo
Earth Advengers
Keep Smiling (with Great Minutes)
The Crisis
The Theory Cadre
Recovering the Rites
Anti Promethian
In the Crime Quarter
The Good Detective
Name This City
The Old Fox
Awake Early
Explaining the Undiscovered Continent
Self Storage
A Web
Back to the Island
Cave & Julia
Alternate World
At the Seaside
Getting Out of There

‘“to thaw” is to ungive

“There are experiences of landscape that will always resist articulation, and of which words offer only a distant echo. Nature will not name itself. Granite doesn’t self-identify as igneous. Light has no grammar. Language is always late for its subject.” Robert Macfarlane in the Guardian today, as exact as ever. I read him & I think, “No contest.” I’ve no idea what I mean by that, except that at his best he somehow obviates the collision–the war–between prose and things: even when, as here, he’s confronting it, admitting it (both admitting to it and inviting it in). This is everything you want from an essayist and landscape writer. I can’t wait to read Landmarks.

voices in the hills

Attempts to deliver outside as inside, to convert the landscape into a kind of built environment and our interactions with it into a confusion of messages and mission statements. Interest groups that deliver the outdoors to us are not the outdoors itself but by mediating the experience they turn it from an interaction with the outdoors into an interaction with them. Structural intrusions into the landscape market limiting messages about how it can be used. Loosely-associated entertainments draw a family demographic, playing into the hands of direct commercial exploitation. Landscape as backdrop, as ever. Signage & architecture intrude, multiply and move steadily towards the spectacular. 2050, the thing has become the picture of the thing, the plan for the thing: “Wind, stones, light trapped in the fast cold air along the hillside. Edwardian sunrise. We leave the bunkhouse hopeful, return tired from a day of voices in the hills, the hard winter crossing of the Interpretation Room of the Ogwen Visitor Centre.”

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.”


However complete a fauxthentication is, it can’t actually be a world–-therefore the criticism, “This novel is still not fully & properly fauxthenticated” is always possible. The constant bolstering of the “world” constantly reveals it not to be one, ie reveals it never to be complete the way the world is. This seems to say more about the limits of writing & the act of suspension of disbelief (an immersion which can clearly be brought about in other ways) than it does about the actual need for a world to seem to be present in front of the reader. Also, it strikes me as a bit mad to be a fiction writer if you have to struggle so desperately to pretend you’re not. There’s some kind of guilt trip behind that. Fauxthentication seems like an attempt to deny your position as someone who makes things up.

poor soul’s light

Further developments at the Curious Tales site. Good to see another tribute to Robert Aickman in this anniversary year. Part of “Animals”, my contribution to the project, was originally told to Lara Pawson, Julian Richards, Dan Jones & Cath Phillips in a spooky house overlooking Treyarnon Bay in Cornwall in, I think, 2005. Or perhaps it was 2006. Lara & Dan told stories too, as a result of which I had difficulty sleeping for the rest of the week. There’s another story–involving kites, Fulham-on-Sea & something called “balsamic cream” –to be made from the same holiday; but at nine years & counting it’s a bit slow in coming together even for me.

nant ffrancon



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