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

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear