Excerpted from Gradients. Glimpses of Sheffield.
My house is on a hill in South London with a mental hospital at the top. It was disused and abandoned, and squatters lived in the nurses houses, including the one that became my house. Hills to the east and west had hospitals too – red brick and crumbling. Clock towers and water towers constantly featured on the horizon, and when I was younger with no sense of direction I thought they were all the same hospital – the one at the top of my road.
The asylum at Wadsley looks the same as the ones at home. They’ve all been converted into housing estates disguised as villages, and even the new builds seem identical. Large double-fronted, double-garaged houses with tiny gardens. Small terraced houses with red, blue, or green doors, and even tinier gardens. Suburban landscaped surroundings, but with no-one out enjoying them. The villages are eerily quiet, places to make a lifestyle statement with lives lived in offices elsewhere. My friend’s Mum is a health visitor – she once told me new mothers living in the estate at the top of my road were lonely and isolated. You can see why. These estates may be village-like in size but they lack village facilities. There might be one shop, but there’s never a pub, and churches are often converted into flats. The claustrophobic conservative suburbia traps women like the asylums that came before it, and which took in unmarried mothers as patients.
The silence of these places focuses your attention on the past. Who were the patients here? And what would they think if they saw it now – a four wheel drive parked outside their ward, a row of houses overlooking their grave? In a seminar a few weeks ago we talked about how the conversion of old buildings like churches can be a good thing, as places can’t be a shrine to old memories forever, and new memories have to be given a chance to be forged. But if old memories are of mistreatment, perhaps there should be more of an acknowledgement of the past.