Ian McMillan: chapter and verse

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When I first went to North Staffordshire Polytechnic in 1974 to ‘read’ (as they say on University Challenge) Modern Studies, it was quite a revelation to meet people from mysterious places like the Midlands and the South and the Far North. There was a curly-haired lad from Egremont in Cumbria, a place I’d never heard of, and there was somebody who came, as he memorably said on the first night of Freshers’ Week, ‘from a little manor just off the Mile End Road.’ I realised, almost straight away, that by ‘manor’ he didn’t mean ‘manor house’.

All these places seemed impossibly glamorous to me, and I laboured under a kind of misapprehension that they’d find my manor similarly exotic. When I was first asked where I was from later that same Freshers’ Week I said ‘Darfield’ because it was true.

Their faces wrinkled in deep beer-assisted thought. I helped them out by saying ‘Wombwell’ and because they were young and it was the 1970s they laughed their heads off at the idea that the word ‘womb’ could be contained in a place name. They still looked baffled, though. So I said ‘Barnsley’ and I got the reaction that people from Barnsley have had for hundreds of years when they say the word.

My fellow students looked aghast. Then they laughed. Then they took a collective deep breath and said, as one, ‘Baaaaaaaaarnsley!’ elongating the ‘a’ almost past its elastic limit. I shook my head and tried to laugh it off but my face was tomato-red with embarrassment.

And so, readers of The Yorkshire Post, I have a shudderingly awful confession to make. After that humiliation I stopped saying that I came from Barnsley and instead, and I’m deeply sorry about this, I fibbed vaguely and claimed that I came from ‘somewhere near Leeds’ or ‘a place on the outskirts of Sheffield’.

I know: it makes me weep too. Of course, since then in my private life and my public career I’ve mentioned Barnsley in almost every other sentence I’ve uttered or written often to the exasperation and annoyance of people from places like, say, Egremont or a little manor just off the Mile End Road.

So when the Welsh publisher Seren Books asked me to contribute a book to their ‘Real...’ series (previous volumes have included Real Swansea, Real Cardiff and Real Bridgend) I jumped at the chance, or as far as a middle-aged man can jump these days, because to be honest I love this place. And by ‘this place’ I mean the whole borough, not just the town.

I was so happy when they gave me the Freedom of the Borough last year, and I was only slightly disappointed to find out that I wasn’t allowed to walk into any shop in Barnsley and pick up goods for free in a kind of Freeman-based Supermarket Sweep. Maybe you have to be a freeman for a number of years before they’ll let you do that. I’ll ask Dickie Bird.

So when I sat down to write the book I knew that I wanted to make it a kind of love letter to a corner of the map that’s been unjustly lampooned and kicked around over the years. Interestingly, once I started, I began to learn how little I actually understood about a place I thought I knew like the back of my hand and the whole process of writing the book became a voyage of discovery, often in my artist mate Iain Nicholls’s little car because I’d designated him as my official photographer and bohemian chauffeur.

I started with the places I knew. I waxed lyrical on the page about the Maurice Dobson museum in Darfield, still the only museum in the world named after a gay cross-dressing ex-Scots Guard. I wrote precise sentences about the churchyard in Darfield with its poignant memorial to the Lundhill Colliery disaster and its memorial to the other (ahem) Bard of Barnsley, Ebeneezer Elliott, the Corn Law Rhymer, his grave protected from souvenir hunters by a spiked fence, in the way that I hope mine will be one day.

I walked down Cat Hill near Darfield where Sir Percival Cresacre on his way back from the Crusades was set on by a wild cat which pursued him to Barnburgh where it jumped at his neck and killed him and he fell on the cat and killed it in an Ilkley Moor Baht’ At-style story of circular nature of life and death.

All these paths were and are paths well strolled by me, so I decided to go to places I’d hardly ever been to and write about them. I went to Dunford Bridge, right on the edge of Barnsley on the moors just off the bleak A628. Dunford Bridge was once a thriving railway centre at the start and the end (depending which direction you were coming from) of the Woodhead Tunnel, which carried the late lamented electric line from Sheffield to Manchester, and now it’s a few houses and a disused pub but it still retains an air of remoteness, of being on the edge of something.

Nearer to home, I must admit that I’d never heard of Monk Bretton Castle; I knew Monk Bretton Priory, the spectacular and haunting remains of a 12th century ecclesiastical building that glowed in the spring sunshine when Iain and I arrived to photograph it and write about it. Monk Bretton Castle, now demolished, was a towering folly built by an eccentric clergyman called Mr Wordsworth and which should have been saved for posterity because, as I wrote in the book, the one photograph I’ve seen of it ‘gives it a dark grandeur.’

As I opened the map of the borough and wrote about I discovered more and more delights I’d missed or ignored or forgotten about. There’s the remarkable concrete church in Goldthorpe, commissioned by Lord Halifax when he came back from a European jaunt flushed with modernism. There’s Wortley Hall, built for the local landed Wharncliffe family but which, as the family declined and money ran away through the holes in the pockets of its frayed suits, was bought by activists and turned a recreational and holiday place for the working classes in the early 1950s.

There’s Penistone Paramount Cinema with its mighty organ that still gives regular recitals to fans of the reeds and the pipes, and there’s Royston where the inhabitants have been proven by linguists to speak with a distinctive accent because their ancestors made their way in the 19th century from Staffordshire to the new Barnsley coalfields, which would have been a bit like the Klondyke goldrush in those days.

Somebody in London media circles once said to me ‘Do you maintain a base in Barnsley?’ in a voice that sounded like bacon being sliced. ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘I call it my house.’ They’d assumed that I only had a pied-a-terre in Tarn (as we call it round here) and that I couldn’t possibly really live there full time. Well, let me tell you that I’m proud to live in Barnsley and that I wouldn’t live anywhere else; living in the same place all my life has taught me that the idea of the universal in the local is very true and that small places, apparently far from the centre of things, can teach you all kinds of lessons about how to live, as well as making the best pork pies you’re ever likely to taste.

I wish I could go back and tell the 18-year-old me in the fresher’s week at North Staffordshire Polytechnic to ignore the mocking voices of those people from the Midlands and the South and the Far North because Barnsley really is a mighty fine place to be, tha knows.