Now to M. John Harrison, one of the very best writers (mainstream or genre) working in Britain today, and in particular to one of his very best stories. This column, about the difference implied by the change of title from ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’ to ‘A Young Man’s Journey to London’, first appeared in Vector 267, Summer 2011.
When I first read this story (which, by the way, I consider to be among the four or five best things M. John Harrison has ever written) it was called ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’ (Viriconium Nights, VN, 1985). When I reread it most recently, it was called ‘A Young Man’s Journey to London’ (Things That Never Happen, TNH, 2003). In this column I want to look at the impact of that change.
To begin with, let me point out the extent of the change. Every occurrence of the word ‘Viriconium’ has been changed to ‘London’. Nothing else has changed. Thus, the first mention of the city, on the first page of the story, originally read: ‘“We all want Viriconium,” Mr Ambrayses was fond of saying. “But it is the old who want it most!”’ (VN, 139). In the later version we read: ‘“We all want London,” Mr Ambrayses was fond of saying. “But it is the old who want it most!”’ (TNH, 159). It seems a simple substitution, as though there is an equivalence between Viriconium and London. We are talking about people wanting to get away, in one instance it is to a place we know to be imaginary though it is assumed to be real within the context of the story; in the other it is to a place we know to be real and assume to be real within the context of the story. The transformation of Viriconium into London, therefore, would appear to effect no substantial change in the character of the story; as I shall point out, it is not really as simple as all that.
Viriconium is a city that has gone through many transformations in its history (reflected in a number of variations on the name, such as Vriko or Uroconium). It first appeared in Harrison’s The Pastel City (1971), and subsequently in A Storm of Wings (1980), In Viriconium (1982) and the stories that make up Viriconium Nights. And it is not consistently the same in any of those works; anyone attempting to find a coherent geography or history in them is doomed to disappointment. It is, in short, a convenient name for whatever Harrison’s gloomy, sour or playful imagination might conjure.
London, by contrast, is real, a city many of us will have visited. It has a long history and its geography has changed over time, but it remains London, a city that has a magnetic pull upon our imaginations (from Charles Dickens to Peter Ackroyd, there are novelists who have written repeatedly about the place, though their inventions have not undermined its solidity). The city seems to exhibit a similar magnetic pull upon the young, certainly runaways tend to gravitate there, though, despite what Mr Ambrayses says, the old do not appear to desire it quite so much.
It is tempting, therefore, to say that the difference between the two versions of the story is the difference between wanting to run away into a fantasy and wanting to run away to somewhere real. But that is not how the story plays out, for two reasons: first, in the earlier version of the story, Viriconium does not play the role of a fantasy; second, in the later version of the story, London does not play the role of a reality.
Let me deal, briefly, with the place that Viriconium occupies in the story. We need to start by forgetting that we know Viriconium from other fictions by the same author. In ‘A Young Man’s Journey’, Viriconium is a destination not a setting, and that is a very different function within the story. Indeed, other than in a brief and possibly apocryphal account (for Harrison does not write stories that invite us to trust either his narrators or, even more, those who tell tales to his narrators), we do not see Viriconium in this story. This is a tale about the north of England, the action revolving around Buxton, Manchester, Leeds and Huddersfield, real towns, yes, and within the story they feel particularly so because it is Harrison’s familiar landscape of decay and defeat. Places that are described in a gritty and downbeat way tend to come across in fiction as more real than those that are described in a romantic language, though of course there is no reason that this should be the case, and Harrison’s Huddersfield is no more real than his London.
What we have here is a story that purports to be about the here and now, about characters who, as so often in Harrison’s fiction, survive on hopes that are only half understood, hopes that have long since faded. That’s the mood that is presented right from the start, when Mr Ambrayses tells us that it is the old who want Viriconium most. The old tend not to be dreamers after impossible places, people who wish for fantasies; it is the young who want to get away to a better place. What Mr Ambrayses tells us, therefore, is that Viriconium is the name for his fading dreams and for those of another old man who is central to this story, Dr Petromax. These two shuffle about these northern town centres following an arcane pattern that is entirely within their heads, and in a very Harrisonian variant on the pathetic fallacy their cityscapes are tired and run down because they are tired and run down. In a statement that seems to encapsulate the very spirit of Harrison’s fiction, he tells us: ‘People are always pupating their own disillusion, decay, age’ (TNH 169); the three go together, we can no more escape the approach of disillusion and decay than we can escape the approach of age. For old men, particularly old men as out of touch with their own environments as these two seem to be, what comes next is death. Viriconium, therefore, becomes a representation of death that they are always striving towards yet never really wish to reach. And in the brief glimpse we have of Viriconium, it proves to be unwelcoming, rejecting them as thoroughly as they have rejected the world, so wanting and being unwanted merge into a delicious uncertainty that informs the entire story.
But that is if we accept the stories of two strange old men who clearly have their own agendas, even if those agendas are never made clear. However, ‘A Young Man’s Journey’ (and what an ironic title that is when you think about it) is the story of our unnamed narrator, who may or may not be young (‘“I’m not old,” I said’ (TNH 160), though how much should we trust such a protestation?), but who is clearly as disaffected, as detached from his environment as Ambrayses and Petromax. That is why they latch on to him, infect him with their dreams, for they see a kindred soul in the making. And for our narrator, Viriconium can only ever be a whisper in the air, like Egnaro in another of Harrison’s stories which has very much the same affect. Yet the narrator is as disaffected from Ambrayses as he is from his environment; we know all the way through the story that if he were presented with the opportunity to reach Viriconium he would not take it, for that would entail a decisiveness of which he is incapable. For him, therefore, Viriconium may be real or unreal, but it always belongs to someone else, and from Dr Petromax’s story it would seem that it is no better and no worse than the world he already knows; it is not the object of his desire. ‘A Young Man’s Journey’ is not about his fascination with the fantasy that is Viriconium; rather, it is about his fascination with the desire for Viriconium that is displayed by Ambrayses and Petromax.
If I claim, therefore, that Viriconium does not play the role of a fantasy, how can I claim that London does not play the role of a reality in exactly the same story, when all that has happened is that one name has been substituted for the other? The point is that Viriconium has the affect of fantasy but within this story plays firmly against it; London has the affect of reality but equally plays against that. Here, ‘London grinds past us, dragging its enormous bulk against the bulk of the world’ (TNH 161), which already says that this is not part of our world. And when he quotes ‘a famous novel’ about someone going to London, our narrator comments ironically: ‘You can’t just fly there, of course’ (TNH 162). You can, of course, fly to the London we know outside this story; I have done so, many thousands of other people have done so; specifically, hundreds of people do so every day from Manchester, from Leeds-Bradford, from other airports within the realm of Harrison’s story. But the world our narrator sees in York and Matlock, a world shaped by his own defeats and by the tales of Ambrayses, cannot exist in the same continuum as London, whether real or imagined; there has to be a perceptual as well as a geographical shift. From where our narrator sees things, you really cannot fly to London; and so the city is removed from the reality of the story, which means that it is equally removed from our reality.
In another sense, it was never in reality. Of an apple tree, Mr Ambrayses says: ‘It bears no flowers in London … There, it stands in a courtyard off the Plaza of Realized Time, like the perfect replica of a tree.’ (TNH 166) In Viriconium, such specific place names as ‘The Plaza of Realized Time’, though clearly romantic, do add to the verisimilitude of the place. In London, not only do we know that there is no such reference in the A-Z, but we also know that a name like that would be out of place among London addresses. So what adds to the overall sense of place when talking about Viriconium detracts from any sense of place we have when talking about London. And that is just one of a host of geographical references that litter the story. Ambrayses points out a woman who ‘dreams at night of the wharfs of the YserCanal’ (TNH 166); which she might do if she were dreaming of Viriconium, but not if she were dreaming of London. (Ambrayses is often ascribing such perceptions to people who never speak within the story. To the narrator it is a ‘grammatical device which allowed him to penetrate appearances’ (TNH 166); to us, it could as easily allow him to ascribe his own fancies to someone else.) And when Petromax finally tells of his visit to London, he reveals: ‘We lived there for three months, in some rooms on Salt Lip Road behind the rue Serpolet’ (TNH 171). Viriconium, as a literary construct, was made up of influences from many nationalities and times, part of its particular character was derived from the fact that it merged Mediterranean and Northern, Victorian and modern characteristics, so a rue Serpolet would not be out of place there. But roads in London are not called ‘rue’, so to find a rue Serpolet in London would be to identify London as a city in which these varied cross-cultural influences are at work. In other words, it would identify London as a city that has been made up on the same imaginative model as Viriconium.
London, therefore, raises expectations of reality but plays the role of fantasy. At one point in the story the narrator recalls being taken to a Manchester café by his grandmother.
Along the whole length of the room we were in ran a tinted window, through which you could see the gardens in the gathering twilight, paths glazed with drizzle giving back the last bit of light in the sky, the benches and empty flower beds gray and equivocal looking, the sodium lamps coming on by the railings. Superimposed, on the inside of the glass, was the distant reflection of the café: it was as if someone had dragged all the chairs and tables out into the gardens, where the serving women waited behind a stainless steel counter, wiping their faces with a characteristic gesture in the steam from the bain marie, unaware of the wet grass, the puddles, the blackened but energetic pigeons bobbing around their feet.
As soon as I had made this discovery a kind of tranquility came over me. (TNH 168)
This recollection, of something similar to the stage magic effect known as Pepper’s Ghost, comes at roughly the mid-point of the story, and it is the image about which the whole work turns. It renders real Manchester, a city whose particular urban affect might be said to place it slightly outside the small town North of Harrison’s imagination, as a place where the real and the magical co-exist, a place thus half way to London or Viriconium. More significantly, this double image of inside and outside superimposed upon one another, this mirroring, provides our most explicit metaphor for how we should see London or Viriconium. We have already been told that the way into London that Dr Petromax found was through a mirror in the lavatory of a restaurant in Huddersfield. ‘The mirror itself was so clean it seemed to show the way into another, more accurate version of the world. He knew by its cleanliness he was looking into one of the lavatories of London. He stared at himself staring out’ (TNH 165).
London is not a reality, Viriconium is not a fantasy: they are ‘a more accurate version of the world’. More accurate than what? Than what we see around us? What does that mean? All that Ambrayses can mean by ‘more accurate’ is a world that more closely conforms to his dreams. And all that may be is an image superimposed upon the world. Yet even that reflection seems to take some courage to face. Petromax says one member of his expedition tried to turn back part way through the mirror. ‘On the right day you can still catch sight of him in the mirror, spewing up endlessly. He doesn’t seem to know where he is’ (TNH 171). Yet when the narrator finds the right mirror in the right lavatory in the right restaurant in Huddersfield: ‘Except perhaps myself, I saw no one trapped and despairing in it’ (TNH 177). Except perhaps myself: anyone looking for a way out, into the reality of Viriconium or the fantasy of London, will see only their own despair, the disillusion, decay and age we have already been told is pupating within all of us.
London, like Viriconium, is a destination not a setting. The story is not about what might be found at that destination, but rather it is about the desire to get there, wherever there may be. And it is a desire that can never be fulfilled, because even if you did manage to reach London, it would not be the London of your imagination. When I first encountered the retitled version of this story I was unhappy with it, I felt that London could not match what was implied by Viriconium. But in the course of this examination I have come to recognize that Viriconium may be more explicit, but London, because of that very disconnect between reality and fantasy, tells us more about the true subject of the story.
Quotations taken from ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’ in M. John Harrison, Viriconium Nights, London, Gollancz, 1985, pp137-158; and ‘A Young Man’s Journey to London’ in M. John Harrison, Things That Never Happen, London, Gollancz, 2004, pp159-177.