THERE IS a scene in the 1960 movie The Time Machine when the mechanism works for the first time. A masterpiece only in its steampunk design and still-damp, over-rich Metrocolor, everything else seems a preamble to this miracle which the film and the Wells novella promise.
The movie progresses as a routine period romance with toothsome stars – Rod Taylor, Yvette Mimieux; the machine itself a Heath Robinson device into which one longs to climb.
Of course, what happens is that the machine, when activated, goes nowhere. It stays where it is. Of course it does.
‘Of course’ because it travels only in the sense that it moves through Time, not space. It is the world outside and around the elaborate rococo tricycle in which Rod is perched in his three-piece suit which dismantles before our eyes – house walls fall away, trees rise and disappear, prairies open and close; eventually, fantastical representations of The Future emerge, as 1960 Hollywood (space travel, Cold War, atomic power) elaborates upon Wells’s original 1895 spectacular imagination.
The impact remains embedded in the unexpected shift of perspective which leaves the entire world with which the narrative began rendered fugitive, fragile, impermanent. In a word, mortal.
The fact is, for all their solidity as obstacles and anchorage, their four-square stances, their unrelenting presence, ‘things’ are treacherous and unreliable. All their false promises of eternity we ourselves foster and collude in.
This isn’t only those from the manufactory – rings, clothes, artworks – but also that category of ‘thing’ those products resort to in the end: lumpen matter, ultimately organic and decadent, the natural world, its flora, its stones.
Nonetheless, there is an enduring desire to win from any character of ‘thing’ a plausible version of reality; an evidence. This is the craving for relics which leads at one extreme to hoarders crushed by pillars of rotting newspapers in their homes or starved by having walled themselves in with toasters, fridges and white goods; through religious adherents staring at the sun-dried tomato of a saint’s preserved heart.
It is sentimental to believe ‘things’ generate or hold such power; that there are talismans. The truth is, the power is all in words and nowhere else.
Hence, when I stare like a fool at the last altar cloth from the defunct Downshire Mental Hospital – a vast, heavy linen; or at the Boer War medal of Private Cramphorn of the Yorkshire Regiment, a proxy for a great-uncle buried in the veldt above Ladysmith, it is my own disorientation, my own loneliness, my own assemblage of the names of things, my own odd sense of inhospitable lives I contemplate.
As this iron bolt, now in its ninth year soaking in a Tupperware tub of Three-In-One oil, rescued from the rotting hull of the Hilda Parnell at the River Quoile, is also the nail from the True Cross that was or is lodged beneath thick glass behind the Calvary in Omeath.
It is every where and no where, every thing and no thing at all, other than what can be said of it.
This piece first appeared in The Tangerine magazine, Issue Six, November 2018