Time travel – of course it’s not possible, is it? But I feel like I’ve stumbled across HG Well’s time machine. It’s in the centre of Prestwich in Greater Manchester, heavily disguised as a concrete bench. Do you remember the scene from the science fiction book when the time traveller is jostled in his High Victorian Gothic contraption as it throttles through time. Days become seasons become epochs. All of this played out as a panoramic panoply as the battle between nature and man ensues. Vegetation envelops the machine and then is superseded by a geological landscape of precipitous rocks.
Well, I feel like I’m just stepping out from the machine. It’s reached a point in time where humans but not humanity have prevailed. I know it’s a time machine, not because I’ve actually travelled through time, but because I can see the remnants of the past: the tracings. The past is crystallised in epitaphs engraved on stone monuments. They tell of a past world which has clearly long since departed from this place: of joyous tranquillity in a secluded garden of Eden. On further investigation, it seems that the writings were inscribed in the year 2014 A.D. The first to catch my eye is a haunting slogan:
“We’re the soul of the community
Without us there’s nothing left
Our hearts are in the right places
Change is for the best”
Maybe I got the wrong book? Maybe’s it’s Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – which presages a world of thought control? Change is always good. Become one of us or perish – be a good citizen. Being alone is being a deviant.
“My grandparents made me tough”
Is this a place where you need to be tough?
Then another revelation: it seems as though the feeling of menace and danger was all around. Why else would you need to reassure people by exclaiming:
“Some of us mean you no harm
Even though we can look tough
If we walk past keep calm
Cos we’re really not that rough”
Then I realise that this is not time travel. This is about the here and now. But there seems to be a dissonance between what they’re saying and what I’m seeing as I venture out around what appears to be called the Retreat – a concrete expression of civic art.
“Still refuge here”
“Everything here seems so, so still”
Was this an imagined world? Written by someone with their eyes closed and their ears covered? For me, all I can hear is the clarion call of police cars and reversing lorries..
“The trees around me are full and green”
But I don’t see any trees and I don’t see any verdure? Have they departed in only ten years?
“Restore a mother to a child’s place”
Is this a child’s place? Perhaps it is, if the mother has to pop into the nearby betting shop or the pound shop.
Maybe I’m missing the point? Perhaps it is all about withdrawal into an inner self.
“A place called Prestwich
A place called home
A place where you never feel alone”
Is this all about self-deception? I have never felt more alone than here in this populace space. “She doth protest too much” (quote from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet). This is what psychologists would recognise as ‘reaction formation’ – where we learn to express the opposite of our own inner feelings through our outward expressions.
The people here are amicable, but you can’t help thinking that their friendliness exists in spite of the surrounding rather than because of it. The demands of life seem to have squeezed out any chance of sitting and reflecting. Only the young children, enticed by the gurgling fountain and the spiral precipice, really indulge in the possibilities of this carbuncle known as the Retreat. Parents can only look on in fear, anticipating the next fall or the next splash.
“Laze about meeting friends
Community spirit that never ends”
“A place with no fights
A place with equal rights”
High up I observe the faintest movement of the CCTV as it pans and zooms in on a cluster of youths. ‘You’re being watched boys’ – so much for your equal rights.’
“Everyone here has a fair chance
Singing along with the Prestwich dance”
Prestwich is the best
We’re far ahead
Of all the rest”
Who can deny it! Adversity always seems to create greatness. There seems to be plenty of it here.
“We’re buzzin it
We’re chillin it
We’re doing it nice”
Methinks ‘she doth protest too much’ yet again.
“Be remembered for a reason”
“But I did it anyway”
I was almost looking for ‘I don’t like Mondays’…. There is a disturbing ambiguity about whether we are talking about fame or infamy here.
“I’ve found my perfect place
I’ve found the love I craved
I found sanctuary”
Yes, but is it here that you have found it? I hope that you really did find sanctuary and that a decade on, now that you have grown to become an adult, life has let you hold onto this sanctuary. Can you return to the Retreat and feel the same now you are a grownup?
Why does the word sanctuary always evoke images of poor Quasimodo. After all, he had found sanctuary within Notre Dame, but he certainly didn’t find the love he craved and his refuge became his prison.
I’m thinking of returning to my ‘time machine’ – I think I’ve seen enough. The inscriptions cast on concrete have faded. After only ten years, words have perished and nobody really notices or really cares. So I’m going to reset the clock on my time machine to take me ten years hence.
I must know whether the engravings will have disappeared completely; if the Retreat has slowly eroded? And what of public relations mantras that describe a utopian world? Will they have been replaced. Substituted by new rhymes of those children twenty years on. Words of realism or escapism, world weariness or wonder, despair or sanguinity?