Secrets in the soil: Ploughed Cracked Puddle Field, a painting of a scene near Cat Hill by Iain Nicholls
Show Hide image

The essence of a place is in its name

In our nature column, Ian McMillan visits Cat Hill, Jump and other eccentrically named locations.

The story has been told many times but it still bears retelling: Sir Percival Cresacre is making his way home from the Crusades. As he passes along the ancient salt route from Goldthorpe to Darfield in Yorkshire, he is attacked by a wildcat that leaps at him, a shadow from the shadows, and rakes its claws into his neck. Sir Percival swipes at the cat with his sword. The two fight. If this were a cartoon, there would be a whirl of armour and fur and some repeated bars of mock-dramatic music. As Ted Hughes, who lived a few miles from what is now called Cat Hill, wrote in the poem “Esther’s Tomcat”: “A tomcat sprang at a mounted knight,/Locked round his neck like a trap of hooks.”

The injured Sir Percival retreats to the steps of the church in Barnburgh a few miles away, with the animal hot and furry on his heels. The pair battle for hours. Eventually, the cat is crushed beneath the man’s armoured body; both are killed in showers of blood. Now, in Barnburgh, people say you can still see blood on the church steps. I think it’s confetti. Sir Percival’s tomb gathers dust by a stained-glass window and, in a neat touch, a cat lies at the feet of his effigy.

I’ve just been for a stroll down Cat Hill. It’s cut off from the main road these days and it’s a quiet space for dog-walking and running and other activities when night falls. In Darfield, older people will tell you the “cat and man” tale with variations and improvisations, like jazz riffs. There was never a street sign for Cat Hill, simply a sign in folk memory, but it is official now – the roundabout next to it, on the Dearne Valley Parkway, was named Cathill around the turn of the millennium. One word, not two – which is important, because when an American leaned out of his car and asked me for directions, he said it like “catheter” and I didn’t know what he meant. Does it matter that variations in the legend place the cat/man face-off closer to Barnburgh, because there was no reason for Cresacre to be anywhere near Cat Hill? I don’t think it does.

Names are important round here. New Scarborough is a section of Low Valley between Darfield and Wombwell. There used to be an estate there with just a few houses; nobody can tell you how it got its name. It was nothing like the real Scarborough.

Then there’s Plevna, officially called Little Houghton. There’s another village called Plevna in Bulgaria; the story goes that workers from that part of the world sunk the Dearne Valley drift mine; they named their shanty town Plevna to remind themselves of home. I can’t find any evidence of this but I want to believe it and that somehow makes it solid fact.

Place names can come from anecdotes and weather, from memories and public reactions to landscape. Near Cat Hill is a village called Jump – so named, people say, because you had to jump over the stream to get to the church. I wonder if our new estates will have names with such resonance. I hope so. See you by Car Park Corner. Meet you at the New Bench.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve become obsessed with Cat Hill, walking its few hundred yards over and over again with a friend, the artist Iain Nicholls. We detour on the old railway track, finding shadows of gardens that would have been cultivated beside the long-abandoned line; we scramble down to a hollow where someone has lit a fire and left a balloon hanging in a tree like a DIY sunrise. We’ve made poems and paintings about the place, trying to get to its essence – when maybe all we need is the name.

The names are the place; the names mean the place. Some scholars say that the cat and man story couldn’t have happened, because wildcats were extinct long before the Crusades. So all we’re left with are names that ripple into stories, ensnaring us in a trap of hooks.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

Show Hide image

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.