John Harrison Writers' Rooms

John Harrison | Writers’ Rooms

John Harrison is a writer and adventurer whose first travel book was a Sunday Times book of the week highly praised by Jan Morris. His second book won the Wales Book of the Year 2011, and his history guide to Antarctica won the 2013 Wales Book of the Year Creative Non-Fiction Award, and the 2014 British Guild of Travel Writers’ best narrative guide book award.  He has twice won the Alexander Cordell Travel Writing Competition. John Harrison’s current book 1519: A Journey to the End of Time is available now from Parthian.

John Harrison Writers' Rooms
John Harrison’s writing space

I am often asked if my study has a view to inspire me. I’m pleased to say it doesn’t. It is on the first floor of my partner Celia’s house, and looks out at the terrace opposite, though this being London, it is called a mews, and the top story of the grand townhouses whose owners these servants’ quarters and stables once served, peer over the top of my neighbours’ roofs, like butlers checking up on the staff. The grand houses present a formal composed formal terrace to Albion Street, while the rear is the repository for a ragbag of clumsy bolt-on mansard roofs, unaligned windows, soil-pipes, satellite dishes and TV aerials. If I go to the bedroom above I can see the chimneys of 18 Albion Street, the former home of William Thackeray; writers must have been paid better then. But I don’t want that kind of view: external.

‘No furniture so charming as books’ said Sydney Smith, so my study is the best furnished room in the house. Mild bibliomania also contributes. My travel books are driven by research, and I operate on the iceberg effect: the more knowledge I have below the surface, supporting the visible material actually in the book, the higher it will float. For my latest book, on Mexico, 1519 A Journey to the End of Time, I built a library of 200 books as well as reading a similar number in the British Library and the Royal Geographical Society. I make notes on nearly all of them, anything from a paragraph to twenty typed pages. It might seem a luxury to buy so many books, and have to find a home for them, but it isn’t possible, until my book is well under way, to know exactly what use I will make of them. Reading one book affects how you see another. They may support each other, contradict one another, or, ideally, spark off new lines of thought that aren’t developed in either one. I back-track, refresh, consult and reinterrogate. It’s little use, if an idea or a query is triggered during the writing, to have to ask the British Library to bring back a book from its York storehouse in forty-eight hours’ time.

Objects can encapsulate memory. On the edge of one bookshelf behind me stands a ten centimetre square of carved fine shale mottled with dark shades of rose madder. The boy who sold it to me outside the temple of Chavín de Huantar in the Peruvian Andes told me he himself had inscribed. If so, he had expertly copying the original, the squat fanged god whose hair trails down as serpents, and his only tool was a nail. Chavín was a name I noticed for the first time when reading about the coastal civilisations. Every time I tracked the taproot of a religion in this region, its thin white thread led me down into dark time, it led to Chavín, a narrow high valley near the watershed of the Andes in central Peru. The headline civilisations of Central and South America, the Incas and Aztecs, were relative newcomers which, like most empires built on military conquest, grew more fragile as they expanded. They flared in splendour, and burnt out after a few generations at their peak. Long before them, beginning around 1500 BC, Chavín developed another route to power and prosperity. Its society helped me to see how religion could be constructed to work hand in hand with the secular powers for their mutual interest. Early bishops in Britain soon seized this opportunity, and made sure that a royal coronation required God’s blessing, and hence the church’s.

At Chavín, the grand temple helped focus the natural forces of the heavens and keep them in harmony. Their god spoke through an oracle in a dark chamber, and if you paid enough in tribute he would speak to you, so Chavín became a crossroads where princes came to consult the future. The forecasts were underpinned by astronomers who used the star cluster of the Pleiades, a star cluster visible to the naked eye in the constellation of Taurus, to calibrate the year, and determine the time to plant crops. In the Inca language of Quechua, the filmy knot of stars are called Qolqa, meaning the granary. They are faint in urban skies, but if you look a fraction to one side of a faint object it becomes brighter; it’s a trick that exploits the way the back wall of the retina is wired.

John Harrison with Monte Alban shaman
John Harrison with Monte Alban shaman

When night falls I sometimes pick up a pottery figure of a man sitting cross-legged with a bowl resting in his lap. He is eleven centimetres high, and night-light candle fits snugly in the bowl and up-lights the face, which is hooded by the head and skin of a jaguar or puma. He is certainly taking on the power of the animal whose pelt he wears, and may be inhaling drugs from the bowl to transport him to the spirit world where the future may be learnt. He comes from a culture with a sophisticated calendar founded on superb astronomical observations, but he is not from Chavín. Three and half thousand kilometres to the north-west in southern Mexico is a civilisation I had barely heard of when I set off for the trip that would become 1519 A Journey to the End of Time. Just outside the modern city of Oaxaca (pronounced Wa-ha-ka) is a hilltop city called Monte Alban which created a calendar more accurate than the Gregorian one we use today. I bought my clay man from a local who makes museum-quality replicas of local archaeology. Then I toured the site, which has key astronomical numbers built, like secret Masonic proportions, into the temples and observatories. A paper from the national archaeological department guided me to another site, north of Mexico City where the secret numbers explain the strange orientation of the buildings and grand avenues. I become a baton passed on by ideas.

But finally these journeys and ideas have to come alive not on the scorching, yellow-grassed hilltop of a Mexican citadel, but in the small square study with no view to distract me. The walls are grey, though as it’s Farrow and Ball paint it’s probably called Mole’s Breath. The laptop and printer, the office furniture are black or matt silver-grey. So is the compact hi-fi which is played only when I have to type up notes or corrections. The only pictures are two black and white etchings by Norman Ackroyd, one of St Kilda, and the other of the sea caves of Papa Stour in the Shetland Islands. When I lecture on board ships cruising the British Isles, I drive small powerboats over those seas and through the caves. Ackroyd is the only artist or photographer I have seen who captures the feel of those places’ careless wildness, with gannets poised in the sky like crossbows cranked and ready to fire themselves at the herring, appearing through the skylight of their ocean with rapacious beaks.

As I stare, prepare to begin, the clutter of books is behind and to the side: in arm’s reach but not in vision. My mahogany desk with a leather inlay is on extended loan from Celia’s daughter-in-law Laura. This family heirloom is out of scale for their flat. Beneath my keyboard is a silver plaque engraved: PRESENTED TO THE REVD W E FREEMAN GREENE MA by members and helpers of St Marks Mission North Kensington in affectionate memory of his five years labours in that district. DECEMBER 1881. Gratitude for the fortitude to enter Kensington on missionary work.

Snake headed god Chaviěn
Snake headed god Chaviěn Image credit John Harrison

There’s no room to pace around in this study; I either sit at the desk, or swivel in my chair, or stand, to reach a book. I have a strong attachment to books, over and above their practical value. They are civilisation in your hand. I handle them so carefully, visitors assume they are mostly unread.   I wouldn’t want to choose between a fire in my library or one in an orphanage. Or rather I wouldn’t want people to know what I chose. Once I am seated there is little to look at inside or outside the study, so I look inside myself and search for Mexico, perhaps peering along the tree-lined coast in the year 1517 when Cortés arrived, perhaps staring into the jungles a thousand years before, when the Maya built cities which, after the fall of Rome, had no equal in Western Europe.

There, on day one, is the screen: the white page of light, blank as paper. I’ve never found either intimidating. You write; then you keep, amend or delete. Don’t be frightened. Computers just keep the page tidier.

I am, to my surprise, in my fourth decade as a published writer, but the excited joy of making something out of words remains. I also like woodwork, cooking, painting and drawing and gardening, when I have a garden. They share the same craft process. At the end of the day, even an indifferent day, something that did not exist this morning is now there, a little bit of order has been made in the formless thing that was, those hours ago, a new day. After a good shift, if you don’t look at the words too directly, you may see a little magic film about them. If you can still see it the next day, and some other people can see it too, you may have helped make a little bit of art, but don’t try to, just think as honestly as you can about the thing you want to talk to your reader about. If you do that, when it’s time to put another night-light in the bowl of the sitting shaman, you have earned the scrunch as you twist the screw-top wine bottle. But not in the study, not near the books.