How it was: Wakefield Station in 1927. Photo: Getty
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All-you-can-eat buffets, affordable housing: I quickly adjusted to life in Wakefield

Will Self: On Location. 

I arrived in Wakefield at what I assumed to be Westgate Station. It had been a null journey, the train leadenly clunking over the flatlands in the faint autumnal sunshine. The franchise on this route seems to have been acquired by East Coast, but the carriage I was in had that absurd Grand Central livery: the blown-up photos of Marilyn Monroe, the chessboards painted on to the tables. Really, the last thing you want when you’re heading for West Yorkshire is to be reminded of the existence of Manhattan. Not, I hasten to add, because there is anything wrong with Wakefield – it’s just that the Grand Central decor is decentring: it makes you wonder where the hell you are.

Anyway, on this trip I had no intention of being where I was. Travel for work is like that. Sometimes you find out about the locale, you sally out from the hotel having asked the locals where there’s a good place to eat, or you visit some artisanal undertaking, ancient structure, or beauty spot. If you’re going to be there for a while you might try to pick up the local lingo, take part in a game or pastime peculiar to the region, and congratulate yourself as you begin to find your way around. But other times you make a decision: it’s too much effort orienting yourself in space as well as time, you’re too tired and harassed to care about the cheese-rolling festival, all you want to do is get the job done and go home.

The station seemed to be largely wrapped in plastic sheeting and the approach road swarmed with bollards. A friendly man saw me doing what people do when they have decided not to be where they actually are – footling with Google Maps on my iPhone – and took me in hand. It transpired I’d arrived not at Westgate Station, but at Kirkgate; luckily, though, Pete was heading the same way as me and he became my Virgil, guiding me through the hellish circles of pound shops, payday loan businesses and balti houses clustered along the arterial road. We headed up Kirkgate, which seamlessly elided into Ings Road and the sought-after Westgate, then past the cathedral. Pete had been living in Stroud for the past 25 years, but he was about to move to Wakefield. “For work?” I asked, and he replied, laughing, “No, for a woman.”

Pete said that although the town centre was pretty run-down there was a new shopping mall, the Trinity Walk, and that’s where all the moneyed folk were, consuming pizzas and enlarging their pectorals. I made a mental note to give it the swerve. He dropped me at my hotel, the York House on Drury Lane, just down from the Theatre Royal. I could see immediately that York House was an odd establishment – aspirational, certainly, what with its electronic locks, halting lift and motion-sensing corridor lighting, but, for all that, the spirit of the old provincial railway hotel smarmed along the brown-painted wainscots. My room featured a quarter-acre of tufted, puke-coloured carpeting and a large four-poster bed without canopy or curtains. In lieu of a bedside lamp, there was a standard one, comprising a fasces of aluminium rods topped off by diodes. Cosy. On the wall was a large photograph of Paris by night. Disorientating.

Later that evening the people I was working with began talking about the area – try as I might to steer the conversation on to less topographical matters. They spoke of the decline of the coal industry, and how it was that while Wakefield was graced with two railway stations, nearby Ossett had none. Then they spoke of how Ossett had grown rich by recycling the leavings from the wool industry to make material known as mungo and shoddy, the latter giving rise to the slang term. I tried to suppress this knowledge, just as I blanked the location of the Hepworth Gallery and the intelligence that it had been designed by David Chipperfield with a view to creating a “sculptural experience”. I wanted to scream at these friendly folk: “Shut up! I’m not here!”

Still later the same evening I ate alone at a Chinese buffet restaurant in the Trinity Walk shopping centre. It was empty except for me, the staff and a portly couple who returned again and again to the chocolate fountain, where they slathered mini-donuts in sickly brown goo. Rain spittled the plate-glass windows; through them I saw more plate-glass windows, and behind these a man was oscillating on a fitness machine.

I paid my bill and strolled back through town. Blue light flooded from a nightclub called Qudos; I could see a single young woman in a red cocktail dress jerking to the drum machine. I looked in an estate agent’s window. A nicely spraunced-up, two-up, two-down terraced house was going for £80,000, chump change down south.

I began to fantasise about my new life in Wakefield: suppers at the Chinese buffet, canoodling at Qudos, weekend bicycle rides on the shoddy trail to Ossett. I was sitting smoking on the balcony of York House when a legless man in a wheelchair joined me. He said something incomprehensible, I grunted a reply. It was as if I’d always been there – or, should I say, here.

Next week: Real Meals

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.