the m john harrison blog

Tag: outdoors

orpheus in the underland

There are so many good books around at the moment. Will Eaves’ Murmur, obviously, which won the Wellcome prize a few days ago, a triumph not just for the author but for Charles Boyle’s CBEditions, one of the smallest publishers in Britain. The Dollmaker by Nina Allen, reviewed here. Sandra Newman’s glitteringly imaginative time story, The Heavens. Coming soon: Homing, by Jon Day, a calm, artful meditation on home and returning, navigation and orientation, which, in addition, will leave you knowing everything you always wanted to know about the Columbidae; Will Wiles’s rebarbative Plume (also, in a sense, bird-oriented); Helen Mort’s Black Car Burning, also, in a sense, about home, as the place you structure out of the things you do; and Salt Slow by Julia Armfield, her debut collection.

Then there’s the Underland, which opened its maw this week.

Every time he writes, Robert Macfarlane performs several extraordinarily deft acts of focus, by which he interleaves layer upon layer of landscape and mindscape. At the same time he never fails to give you the sense that the book you are reading has self-assembled from its own imaginary, which is in turn composted and churned from the substance of the world and his relations with it. Even if he only thought about things, and wrote them down, Macfarlane would be a significant, persuasive writer—he has perfect control of the skill, or art, or quality of mind Brian Dillon described in Essaysim. But Macfarlane has been there too, and looked, and this is what he saw; and this is what he did; and this is what emerged from the experience. This is what it means to be a contemporary landscape writer. Macfarlane made the book, you understand, with its cunning millefeuille of themes and imagery, deep human history, cycles of politics, poetry and myth: but you also understand that it developed under its own impetus, out of the deep relations of the things of the world. Or, in the case of Underland, the things under the world: from its deep time geological underpinnings, up through layer after labyrinthine layer of cultural and economic connection, to the shallow scabrous subsurface litter of the things we know and are trying to forget—the things our species is trying to hide and hide from—the things we’re burying as we bury ourselves alive.

“While writing Underland,” he said in the Guardian recently, “I have come to think of claustrophobia as one of the distinctive experiences of the Anthropocene: a sense of time and space running out; of being in the grip of Earth forces triggered by human actions but exceeding human control…” Underland takes us inside that experience, and is a genuinely frightening catabasis as a result. But Macfarlane keeps singing to the end and gets us back into the light.

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in real life

Along with the imminent publication of Rob Macfarlane’s masterpiece Underland, this retweet by Andrew Male reminded me of something. I’ve always been fascinated by the praxis and professionalism of cavers. Especially cave divers. A friend of mine gave up climbing to do that activity for a while. He supplied me with some fine anecdotal material. In the late 1970s I had written part of a sci-fi/horror novel in which a team of contemporary cavers and climbers, prospecting the Irish karst for new routes in their separate disciplines, rediscovered the remains of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland. Their subsequent exploration of the associated geology would have had all the predictable results and in addition allowed me to make a critique both of the Hodgson novel and Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls”. It was also my idea to catch the reader up with contemporary caving and climbing techniques and attitudes. (The “exploratory value” would be seen being absorbed into the new values of risk sport, for instance, a transition later touched on in Nova Swing and Empty Space.) I dropped the idea because it seemed too ordinary, too direct and too glib. All that’s left, apart from perhaps ten thousand words of yellowing draft, is the short story “The Ice Monkey”, which I cut out of it. “The Ice Monkey” started me off in a completely different direction and led to Climbers. I stopped trying to literalistically incorporate my real-life interests and experiences into fantasy fiction (see Tomb the Dwarf’s solo of the first pitch of Medusa, Ravensdale, or Alstath Fulthor’s trail-run up from Hadfield via Yellow Slacks up on to Bleaklow, across the Woodhead and then down by Tintwhistle Low Moor in A Storm of Wings) and instead began to let the two kinds of content and technique blur together, in search of what the result could tell me. You can see that immediately you look at the stuff. You can also see that I became happier and more comfortable with the way I was doing things. You can call these very self-aware metafictional explorations of the exploratory value and its inevitable structures “the Weird” if you like. I call it being the kind of writer I started to be in 1979.

a little of what you fancy

A couple of paragraphs from the construction site, just because I like you–

Victoria emailed Short.

“It’s very English Heritage up here. I expect I’ve told you that before.” As soon as you entered the woods, a dozen footpaths, signposted at the will of competing conservation bodies, went off busily in all directions, running precipitately into one another, stumbling over brand new stiles, toppling into an overgrown quarry and out the other side. “They’re offering access. They’re offering so much access you don’t know where to go for the best.”

In fact, she often ended up beside the pool where she had watched Pearl bathe, and stood there wondering how she could make herself go in. She took off her sandals. She took off some of her clothes then, believing she had heard someone call their dog in the next field along, quickly put them back on again. She was puzzled by herself. On the surface, something seemed to splash and turn lazily; below it, the yellow flowers still lay preserved. They maintained their leaves, and a brittle look, and except for their curious habitat they were quite ordinary. On the way back she heard church bells. The day already had a waxy look, as if some very modern coating had been applied to it at half past seven that morning.

At home she sorted her mother’s things: small framed prints slotted as tightly as old vinyl into cardboard boxes, top edges furred with dust; an ashtray with horses on it; seashells in a jar. This to go, that to stay. Nothing she could place securely in her childhood, or in some later house.

Among the prints she discovered a Felix Kelly capriccio, about eighteen inches on a side. It was already framed. Victorian chimneys confronted self-satisfied Jacobean architecture across a placid lake; trees leaned out from wanly-lit surrounding heights. In the background, Wales had somehow been brought too close to Shropshire. She wiped the glass, knocked a nail into new plaster; stood back to look and saw, predictably, her own reflection. “Why does that always happen?” she wrote to Short. And: “I don’t expect you to have time to answer, between the demands of the gig economy and the heady bustle of metropolitan life. Well, here it’s been raining since 1301.”

Storms had in fact swept up from Powys for a week: after each one, rain slopped off the front gutters of the closing shops, while refreshed jackdaws conducted their meetings in the invisible boardroom between the roofs. It was still summer but it didn’t quite feel like it.

“I don’t know what to think about Pearl,” she admitted suddenly, as if Short was in the room and was someone she could talk to.

When we meet him, Buckmaster has been living in an old barn for a year and some months. He arrived “shoeless, over the moor from the east”. Since then he’s cleaned, repaired, caulked the gaps with anything he could find. He’s made it his own. His intention is “To be open, to be in fear, to be aching with nothingness”. This, he says, is the only life. Nevertheless, he’s not sleeping much. He dreams of a hare with human eyes. Awake, he’s hallucinating. There are patterns on the moor; and when the tourists go home at night, “All the centuries drop away, and I am in the presence of something that does not know time.” Something is coming towards him, he doesn’t know what.

–My review of Paul Kingsnorth’s new novel Beast, in the Guardian.

from empty space to stanage edge

I’ve got two slots at Edge Lit in July, it seems. For the GoH “speech” I’ll read a new story & maybe answer questions about the forthcoming short story collection & the novel in progress. For the other one, an item on writing landscape, I’ll probably do something like this–

Landscape in fiction is never just background, or you’re wasting your opportunities. Let the landscape do as much of the work of informing the reader of your intentions as possible. Entangle your ideas & meanings with the setting. Fold them into one another.

Empty Space: the Funene Golden Hour, a landscape derived from photography of the Namib coast. Ad-image pseudo-sublime. What is the difference between awe & oh wow? The reification of an aesthetic judgement, a play on the use of the term “landscape porn”. Woven into the trilogy’s general position on neoLiberal postindustrial spectacle–the transformation of real sites into sites of public art, ie leisure heritage.

Climbers: “The moment you step into a landscape it becomes another one.” But also, the gritsone edges as a kinaesthetic abacus on which you “tell” your life. To what degree–& in how many lives–has Stanage served that purpose–emotional touchstone or pivot, hermitage, site of psycho-addiction sought out at points in your life, abandoned at others–but also the sense that the gritstone landscape can in some unforgiving way abandon you & you may never be allowed to go back…

Come prepared to ask: What’s the difference, then, between a real landscape & a fictional one? & its various obvious corollaries.

mapping

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.

we can deal with this

Tall old guy in running gear–not new, not old, perfectly neat but on the perfect edge of shabby–which says, “These clothes are thin but I’m thinner”–standing on the apron of the Ogwen Interpretation Centre looking out at the rain. We exchange the old guy look, which is often accompanied by a minute shrug & in this case means, “What the fuck is an Interpretation Centre, other than Euromoney turned into the lousiest architecture and emptiest content you’ve ever seen? What is an Interpretation Centre, other than an expensive drying-room in which these sodden D of E kids can cluster, drip and shout while they stuff down the hydrogenated fats?” Then he gives me a good-natured smile, as if to add, “We know all this and don’t begrudge it. We know all this about the weather in Idwal, dirty weather streaming down the slabs, slopping in your shoes, blackening the lake, one seagull in the saturated air, & yet we’re still here, still in Ogwen though Ogwen no longer quite represents an experience of itself we understand.” It isn’t a weak smile, it’s a frail unbreakable one, as strong and languid as his running style, a smile that’s learned such a lot, waiting all these years for the rain to stop.

Tuesday already has a waxy surface, as if they applied some very modern coating to it at about half past seven this morning. Look across the valley at Workhouse Copse, the wind and the late March sun are a kind of laminar flow around everything, a fixative made of air. It reminds me of some way of landscape painting but I can’t remember whose. I come back from a walk full of ideas but feeling rearranged in some way I can’t make use of. I’ve experienced that feeling a lot recently.

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.”

getting out of it

I started hillwalking in the early 1970s because as soon as I got near a hill I could relax. In fact I couldn’t relax any other way. I’m not overstating this. It was a feeling that might be lost later in the walking day for any number of reasons, but for me the venue itself–the upland outdoors–acted like a tranquiliser & an antidepressant. Later in the day–whatever had happened in the interrim: you might get soaked, you might get lost, you might get blisters, you might experience a little low-wattage sublime–tiredness took over & provided another kind of chemical cosh. This never worked for me in towns & cities, or in lowlands. The built environment offered an anxious trudge, a failed yet persistent attempt at leaving yourself–or more likely the venue–behind. Exurban lowlands I just found uninteresting–I’m not saying that’s true now, & I’d rather walk on agricultural land, which I hate with a passion because it’s so clearly owned, than not walk at all. It’s the sense of ownership/not ownership, in the end, that makes the difference to me. I know rationally that I’m not “free” on access land: but at least, for the moment, no one can stop me being there.