Travel Arrangements by M John Harrison

Started dipping into Travel Arrangements by M John Harrison again yesterday. SO glad I did.

The first time I read it, straight after Mike gave me a copy some 12 months ago, I enjoyed snatches of it but found it hard going, couldn’t quite find any hand-holds, kept drifting off… My mind just wasn’t in the right place. I think that home and job and travel and… life combined… had left me brain-dead. This time around is different, I am going through a phase of curiosity and exploration – every time I hear of something that’s unclear to me I scuttle off and research it and so expand my knowledge. I lapped up the short stories of the book and luxuriated in their sentences. My mind still kept drifting off – little writing ideas of my own, an event in the book sparking off similar memories in myself – but by the time it returned to the page everything was still in context.

And what little ideas I had! Jumble Wood, a wood in Northern England, smaller than it looks from the outside, took me back to a bluebell wood near Ilkley – the pungent crush and slime of bluebells underfoot. The one word “vetch” concentrated the essence of every flower casually mentioned by an author but which I can’t put a picture to… and also every flower I see in my travels but can’t name. And I started generating random invented flower names of my own – dog-sable, myrmille, common saxifrage (oops, that one’s real!), wood camponie, goldbell, downy haresbell, maid-of-the-vale, pusanor, camfragion, star pernemmion,….

And finally, menion of Gravesend reminded me of my few trips to the opposite extremities of Kent, heading towards Dungeness, Romney marshes, the Rother Levels. I’m can almost taste the kind of prose Harrison would write about that part of the country, escaping the M25, passing through a stretch of twee home-counties and then suddenly, like crossing a causeway, you’re no longer in the garden of England, not even in England, but another country where the sea is a cruel ruler playing at benevolence. The Kentish niceness of woodland, hills, knolls passes into a drab grey-greenery of salt-flecked hardy sea-grasses, grey waters, skinny fence-posts keeping nothing in and nothing out.