the m john harrison blog

Tag: running

everything gilded

Richmond Park. Cold & clear but no frost. An argument about how few cyclists are out this morning–C rightly points out that all we can know is that there is one cow in Scotland & one side of it is black. We run downhill at first, round a wood, along a stretch of bridle path slightly up hill in sand. Stags regard us with momentary irritation from the bracken, then go back to honking & clearing their throats at one another like theorists. It isn’t the Peak District but I feel good just to be outside & not in a street. Later at the hot snacks stand, two men chat about computers. “Of course, of course,” they agree. They laugh. They’re knee deep in terriers, one of which–a Border bitch dubbed “Maisie” –is very clever with a stick. The sunshine looks as if it was applied to every individual item during the night, like gold leaf. It’s as if someone worked so hard to make things nice for the people who come here from Kingston, Richmond, Barnes, East Sheen, as far away as Clapham. Later, Billy the bloodhound arrives, queen among dogs. The Saturday trade is mainly in bacon sandwiches, although one boy eats a frankfurter with thick squiggles of mustard & ketchup at 8.30 in the morning before he gets across his rather beautiful road bike.


enter this landscape this way

Slow runs in Spanish heat. Campolivar: a patch of waste ground which used to be farmland before the urbanisations & gated communities arrived. Scrub, bleached wiry grass, little hills. Paths cut into the dusty soil, littered with stones and broken rock. It looks as if motorcycles have been over it. Valencia: take the drained riverbed through the city in the middle of the day, your body parting the heat trapped by the embankments, trying to stay under the shade trees. The air gelid with light, the paths tramped down hard. Evening in the Serra near Barraix: cooler but still warm. The car park is deserted and though the hill roads teem with cyclists, no one seems to run or walk up here at this time of day. A steep short slope to start with, on ground broken by decades of walkers. Up to S’s usual picnic spot, then down a shattered hill to a strange, shuttered barn or cottage. Then shallow dips and rises to the lookout point, which S calls “the Pier”. We move easily in the warmth, a little out of breath to begin with, then steady. I always wanted to enter this landscape this way. Thick smells of some herb or shrub neither of us knows the name of. Then late sunlight falling between trees into the tall dessicated grasses–the illusion of an even more beautiful world.

answers to a questionnaire

I came late to this “Questionnaire of the Weird”, but here are my answers:

1: Write the first sentence of a novel, short story, or book of the weird yet to be written.
“It was a Saturday afternoon, about 2:19.”
2: Without looking at your watch: what time is it?
3: Look at your watch. What time is it?
4: How do you explain this—or these—discrepancy(ies) in time?
There is no dispcrepancy.
5: Do you believe in meteorological predictions?
I think it’s weird you would ask that. You don’t even know me.
6: Do you believe in astrological predictions?
No, I’m not fooled by all those false-colour images of gas clouds, & Prof. Brian Cox calling it the “You-in-Ee Verse”.
7: Do you gaze at the sky and stars by night?
Not in London.
8: What do you think of the sky and stars by night?
I think they’re the last place God made.
9: What were you looking at before starting this questionnaire?
“A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit; then my friend S’s face, in dark, impasto-looking tones on Skype, which made her resemble a Munch madonna. Munch’s madonnas are, as someone once put it to me, “the Anima on a stick” & a great deal weirder than anything wilfully weird.
10: What do cathedrals, churches, mosques, shrines, synagogues, and other religious monuments inspire in you?
“Inspire” is a bit like “gaze” to me, the way you’ve used it in Question 7 above. I don’t really get it.
11: What would you have “seen” if you’d been blind?
I don’t know. But there are plenty of things I would have missed seeing. Dogs. A girder. Two or three larks going up & down like elevators over some upland landscape. Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site. Windmills, linocuts, bees. A bus. A wrist. The list is endless.
12: What would you want to see if you were blind?
To start with, at least, I would want to see some indication that I wasn’t seeing: so, darkness, maybe, or like that. Weirdly enough, my cat went blind not long ago.
13: Are you afraid?
I have deep & constant anxiety.
14: What of?
I was afraid of the dark until I started night-running on moors & hills in the late 1970s. Once you become anxious about putting your foot down a hole in the dark & breaking your ankle, you stop being anxious about just the dark; the vague & generalised is replaced by the actual & practical. Now I’m afraid of the usual things, loneliness, pain, death.
15: What is the last weird film you’ve seen?
Scorcese, No Direction Home.
16: Whom are you afraid of?
I am afraid of everyone.
17: Have you ever been lost?
See answer to Question 9, but also I am an expert at it (see answer to Question 14). At least as much of an expert as Rebecca Solnit, although she is a great deal more articulate about it than me.
18: Do you believe in ghosts?
I don’t.
19: What is a ghost?
A ghost is content. It is subject matter, or grist to your mill.
20: At this very moment, what sound(s) can you here, apart from the computer?
Quite complex tinitus, left ear. A high-pitched whine, like the one you hear after a loud gig. Under that, a sort of hiss such as you might have heard from a valve radio knocked off-station in 1953. Behind that, quite a long way back, various bangs & rumbles I take to be the circulation of the blood, or perhaps a small unacknowledged war taking place a mile or two off in East Sheen.
21: What is the most terrifying sound you’ve ever heard: for example, “the night was like the cry of a wolf”?
I don’t think I’ve ever experienced terror. Certainly not from a sound. But I have a well-honed startle reflex, see answer to Question 13, & any high-attack sound will stimulate it.
22: Have you done something weird today or in the last few days?
No. But I have done uncanny things.
23: Have you ever been to confession?
24: You’re at confession, so confess the unspeakable.
“Weird” is a word for a kind of content or subject matter I often visit, though I have no personal relationship with the weird now except to make metaphors. I went through a period when I couldn’t have HP Lovecraft on my shelves. If I had him on my shelves I would read him. If I read him I wouldn’t be able to sleep. The same was true of Arthur Machen, although it was never true of Robert Aickman because by the time I got to Aickman my life had steadied me down a little. In a sense, he’s too clever to be frightening; in another sense, something like “The Swords” is so uncanny that you know you are probably avoiding the issue so as to remain calm.
25: Without cheating: what is a “cabinet of curiosities”?
Perhaps it’s a cabinet in which you keep curiosities. Have you read “The Hare with Amber Eyes” ? It’s the history of 264 netsuke, displayed for part of their life in a cabinet in Vienna to show off the taste of their owner–to make their owner interesting by association. It’s been quite a bestseller but I found it, in the end, to be a sort of bland imitation of WG Sebald. Anyway, perhaps that’s what a cabinet of curiosities is: a place to keep the things which make you look interesting by association. Or comparison.
26: Do you believe in redemption?
I do, but I don’t know why. For me, redemption is like some aspects of the sublime: I try not to revisit or acknowledge them, in case I taint them with the anti-sublime.
27: Have you dreamed tonight?
I believe so.
28: Do you remember your dreams?
Not always.
29: What was your last dream?
I don’t remember.
30: What does fog make you think of?
I haven’t seen any really high class fog for a long time. The kind that, if it’s in a city, sets everything at one remove and makes it so interesting again; or the kind that, if it’s on a moor, you think: shit, which direction was I going in before this happened, see answer to Question 9 ?
31: Do you believe in animals that don’t exist?
Do you mean made-up animals ? Why would I believe or not believe in them ?
32: What do you see on the walls of the room where you are?
Skull Radio & Mexican Death TV.
33: If you became a magician, what would be the first thing you’d do?
I haven’t any idea.
34: What is a madman?
One of the people in charge of the asylum.
35: Are you mad?
All I’m sure of today is that I’m not in charge of the asylum.
36: Do you believe in the existence of secret societies?
It isn’t really necessary to believe in the existence of secret societies for them to exist.
37: What was the last weird book you read?
“A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit.
38: Would you like to live in a castle?
Yes. I would also like to live in a beach hut.
39: Have you seen something weird today?
I haven’t. But I keep wanting to call you “darling”. For instance, in answer to Question 54 below, What goes on in tunnels ?, I wanted to reply, “I don’t know, darling. I’m so rarely in one.” Isn’t that odd ? I find it odd.
40: What is the weirdest film you’ve ever seen?
Do you mean weird ? Or do you mean Weird ? Anyway, I will always have a soft spot for the Brothers Quay’s Institute Benjamenta. I several times tried to watch it with a girlfriend when it first came out on DVD, but we kept having sex halfway through & I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen the end. But it certainly looked weird.
41: Would you like to live in an abandoned train station?
Curiously enough, I addressed this question a year or two ago, here.
42: Can you see the future?
I can, yes, & it works.
43: Have you considered living abroad?
Once or twice.
44: Where?
Spain. Mexico.
45: Why?
Because they are warmer & more human than London.
46: What is the weirdest film you’ve ever owned?
Repo Man.
47: Would you liked to have lived in a vicarage?
Not especially.
48: What is the weirdest book you’ve ever read?
“The Flight from the Enchanter”, Iris Murdoch.
49: Which do you like better, globes or hourglasses?
I wouldn’t have any use for either. I don’t know what the weird has to do with the mildly bizarre or whimsical.
50: Which do you like better, antique magnifying glasses or bladed weapons?
I’d rather have a new magnifying glass if I needed one. I own an entry-level survival knife. I would like an ESEE-3MIL with a carbon steel blade & a sharpened back edge. But my favourite knife of mine is a 465 Puma Backpacker, circa 1980, which I have managed not to lose all those years. I climbed with a guy called Jeremy who used to be a butcher, so he sharpened everyone’s knives for them. Worried by a certain vagueness he sensed in me, he kept mine blunt.
51: What, in all likelihood, lies in the depths of Loch Ness?
A layer of very cold water.
52: Do you like taxidermied animals?
Sometimes. But I don’t find them weird, & I don’t find myself weird for liking them. Generally I try not to associate myself with things as a way of gaining some of their presumed eros, see answer to Question 25.
53: Do you like walking in the rain?
I don’t dislike it.
54: What goes on in tunnels?
I don’t know, I’m so rarely in one.
55: What do you look at when you look away from this questionnaire?
Mexican Death TV.
56: What does this famous line inspire in you: “And when he had crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him.”?
Nothing much.
57: Without cheating: where is that famous line from?
Is it famous ? How inappropriate of me not to remember.
58: Do you like walking in graveyards or the woods by night?
Apart from Pere Lachaise, and the really unheimlich two-level cemetery on the A628 outside Tintwhistle, Greater Manchester, I can take or leave graveyards. Running in woods at night can be as entertaining as running on moors at night, especially in the snow. Although I have to admit I haven’t done it for a couple of years. Some woodland is almost ludicrously Aickmanesque: that patch under Rhinog Fawr, for instance, into which you descend if you follow the Roman Steps path all the way east.
58: Write the last line of a novel, short story, or book of the weird yet to be written.
“I wish I’d kept those old clothes.”
59: Without looking at your watch: what time is it?
60: Look at your watch. What time is it?
It’s always 2:19 in here.

bring it on

When I was running in the early 80s, a kind of cold focus would come over me. The centre of the thing was that you were on your own. Perhaps when you started out you didn’t feel particularly well; or–more often–your life was chaotic & unproductive; or–most often–you were angry with yourself & everyone else. But after a mile or two in the wind, with the first long lift out of the way & the back of your own reluctance broken, this moment of focus would occur. It was a little like tilting your head to one side & measuring everything; it was like collecting yourself before you make some major decision. It was taking aim. Once you had taken aim, you could spill yourself back down the hill, mile after mile, & the worse the weather was the better.

writing about writers

Sometimes in late November the urge to pour Jack Daniels on your breakfast is difficult to resist. Today I biked to Richmond Park & ran up & down the same hill for 20 minutes instead. It’s not Sintra; but there’s a lot of mud & bracken to struggle about in; &, out on the perimeter path, a fair few hair-thin hoity toity ladies-who-run (East Sheen’s equivalent of ladies-who-lunch, or ladies-who-write). You should see them doing their stretches, in their technical training clothing & hundred quid shoes. They’re married to Andrew Marr or someone like that, but that isn’t to say they don’t very much have a life of their own.

Reading: Last Evenings on Earth. Bolano was exemplary, but I wish he hadn’t written so much about writers & writing. I’d have liked something to do with refrigeration engineers & their world.

Leigh Blackmore’s essay on “anti-consolation” in Light & Nova Swing is up at Scribd.

this month’s shoe porn

Innov8 Flyroc 310–


It’s all I can do not to steam them very lightly & eat them for lunch.

running down

September. The season can’t make up its mind. Will it clutch at summer or declare the death of history & move on ? I remembered that running always gets harder for me in September. Even at 30-odd, with the whole Peak District outside my front door (to be strict, my only door at that time), there was a kind of reluctance. There was a new voice outside. I was listening to it, but I wasn’t ready to rush out & embrace whatever was going on. Autumn was going on. On Barnes Common, autumn going on means more dog walkers. It means oak mast crunchy underfoot. It means dry leaves filling the woodland singletrack to give you a feeling from a Hugh Lofting frontispiece. Today it means in addition horse chestnuts exactly as bright & polished as chestnut horses. I think about scooping some up to take home, but can’t work out a way of doing it on the move without falling over. So I just try to avoid treading on them instead. Falling over in front of the dog walkers would induce a near-fatal loss of dignity. Descending what I think of as the back side of Ingleborough Hill in the late 70s, I lost both shoes to a stretch of bog, in front of three shepherds, several of their clever dogs & about a million sheep. It takes time to recover from a defeat that extensive. One minute you’re belting along, windmilling your arms, leaping down the soil-creep terraces, with a fairly good opinion of yourself; the next you’re slinking back up hill to pull your box-fresh New Balances out of the peat.

I like it now, this period of indeterminacy; but I want October. We’ve all made up our minds by then. October is ok. Hormonally, it’s get things done. It’s last chance for fuel. It’s hi to winter.

fear & loathing by the rochdale canal

She has so many emails from writers, the bookshop owner says, that sometimes it’s hard to get any work done at all! In those few words the Calder Valley clamps down on you as relentlessly as it did on any Victorian loom operator & you’re deformed instantly by some geographic-claustrophobic metaphor for the whole Ted thing, or the whole Sylvia thing, or both–or, just, it would seem, the whole writing course masterclass booklover thing. With a frisson of fear you feel Ted & Sylvia perch on your shoulders, their claws down to the bone, their raucous cries filling shop, town, valley, this whole Darwinian arts initiative zone between the owl-haunted moors. Soon, like everyone else here you’ll get work operating one of the new cultural machines–like say an interesting cafe bar in an old woollen mill, or an old woollen mill converted to sell woodcuts. Terror causes you to grab the first thing you see that you could bear to be seen with–The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler–& pay, & exit the shop. But there’s nothing to fear! the valley will not fold shut on you! Because you can always go into some woods somewhere & run the steep little leafmould tracks between tree roots like black wet plastic cable & gritstone slabs at angles & the sound of your breath like someone shovelling coal in 1952 & everything coming at you in short perspectives bounded by beech & holly slopes. Tannin colours in the stream below.

(But in the end it would be safer to go somewhere else. & when you get home you Google the wood just in case Ted or Sylvia ever wrote anything about it, because it would just be so embarrassing to discover that.)

barnes common

Some humidity leached out the air in the night. Barnes is cool again, under the willows by Beverley Brook & in the little narrow tracks between bramble & waist-high nettles. Then as you emerge from there you feel the London summer thicken on your skin. The heath light could pass itself off as early morning, but you’re soon looking forward to the next shade. Right shoe a little loose. Today for some reason you don’t care. Feeling that bit of heat in your heel is just another way of being in your body. Scuttle across Mill Hill Road in front of the commuter traffic & you’re in the woods.

Reading: Western Grit, Chris Craggs & Alan James. Reviewing: The Shieling, short stories by David Constantine. Looking forward to: a few days–& a few more easy trad solos–in the Peak District from Thursday. Also looking forward to: reading Brian Evenson’s collection, Fugue State. (Interview with him at Bookslut.)

Oh, & there’s this. I don’t know what to make of it, but it reminded me I was hungry. (via Indigenous Firepower).

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.