2020. John Harrison’s career demonstrates the frailty of our literary categories. The 77-year-old’s writing has spanned (and spilled over the edges of) science-fiction and space opera. He composed perhaps the best ever novel about rock climbing. More recently, Harrison authored The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, which won the Goldsmiths Prize in 2020. His new book, Wish I Was Here, brings the same defiant sensibility to memoir (or, as per Harrison’s subtitle, ‘anti-memoir’).
The book’s title, toying with a certain epistolary cliché, signals Harrison’s way with memory. Who is wishing? Where is here? Harrison’s recollections are fragmented and dissociated. He draws on diaries, blogposts, and an archive of what he calls ‘nowts’: unprocessed thoughts kept in spiral-bound notebooks that, years later, take on a ‘new, often uneasy semblance of life.’ We learn something about Harrison’s childhood (an ‘entry-level middle class’ household in the Midlands, truancy, a first job shovelling manure) and about his early adulthood (the time of ‘heroin pavement-waif chic’ in 1960s London, where Harrison got his start in sci-fi). But there are no ‘characters’ in this book. Even Harrison isn’t here. The closest we get is a writer friend, Beatrice, who (aptly enough) believes there is ‘no such thing as character.’
“Harrison captures the stultifying and generative landscape of post-industrial England better than perhaps anybody else.”
The motifs of Wish I Was Here are familiar from Harrison’s fiction. There pervades a sense of ‘haunting’: something beyond (or far beneath) consciousness which is nevertheless constantly at work. Harrison calls this ‘the Weird’, and his musings on the concept provide some of the book’s most intriguing passages: ‘The Weird stands for the unwritten, the unwritable: that which, the reader must sense, lies behind the text.’ If this sounds slightly maddening, and playfully like post-1968 French theory, that’s because it is. But it is also very much grounded in another of Harrison’s primary concerns: that of place.
Harrison captures the stultifying and generative landscape of post-industrial England better than perhaps anybody else. Its finest expression, 1989’s Climbers, haunts this book (so much so that it is the only novel summoned by name). Harrison describes the process of writing it, with beguiling naivety, as ‘one of the happiest and most productive times of my life’. Rock climbing requires complete attention, but it is also intimately connected to the landscape, its history, and the people who occupy it. Based on his decade climbing in the North of England, Climbers answers Harrison’s confounding question: ‘What if places can haunt places?’ He discusses the ‘edge zones’ which the post-industrial North typifies¸ issuing a warning: ‘We need to live in the ruins; forget them; then live through them all over again, as whatever the landscape makes of them.’ Harrison, we learn, misses climbing terribly. He is trying to get back into it. We can only hope that he writes about it again.
The fragmentary nature of Wish I Was Here means that it offers the greatest rewards to those who know Harrison well and share this hope. The book will, however, enrich all readers who feel drawn to the singular and strange.
Words: Eve Hawksworth
Wish I Was Here