Exclusive interview with Barnsley poet Ian McMillan
by Jim Coulson
You may not use Twitter, perhaps you’ve yet to see it in action or, potentially, you’ve never even heard of it, but Barnsley poet Ian McMillan is one of the reasons that you should give the microblogging social media site a whirl. McMillan is a master of the written word and sees the 140 character limit of a tweet as a challenge rather than a barrier.
You don’t have to share your most intimate secrets, make lame jokes about current affairs or post pictures of your lunch; just follow the South Yorkshire wordsmith, sit back and enjoy the haikus, observations, overheard conversations and pontifications as he embarks on another of his daily constitutionals.
When I catch up with McMillan, he’s a few minutes into a train journey from Manchester to Cardiff, zooming through the fields of Cheshire and concerned about losing his phone signal. However, as a perfect illustration of the poet’s thought process, he assures himself that the giant dish at the Jodrell Bank Observatory will ensure a glitch-free conversation.
As it happens, it doesn’t. We are cut off on a couple of occasions, but not before I put it to him that the trip is a perfect opportunity to observe his fellow passengers and regale his online followers with a couple more fascinating missives. He declines though, having being caught eyeing up potential subjects on the tram that morning. “A fella leaned over to me and whispered, ‘You’re going to tweet about this aren’t you?’” he recalls, “so I might refrain this evening.”
Refraining is not something the Yorkshireman does often, if something funny, quirky or interesting happens on one of the many trips he makes across the country due to the varied nature of his work, you’ll hear about it. Could that be coming to an end though? “It’s getting more difficult to listen in to real conversations,” he says sadly. “People are sitting there thinking ‘Oh look, it’s McMillan, he’ll tweet about this’.”
This is the problem when you are so busy; McMillan is a poet, author and playwright, he pens a delightfully wistful column in the Yorkshire Post magazine of a Saturday, appears on TV shows such as Have I Got News for You and Newsnight Review and even finds time to host his own radio programme, The Verb, celebrating the performance of language. No wonder he only has time to squeeze in an interview with me during a train journey through the country’s least mobile network-friendly stretches of track.
“As any freelancer knows, your mantra is ‘Just say yes’,” McMillan admits. “It can lead to some exciting things. That’s how I ended up writing an opera in the Yorkshire dialect for Salford University.” That piece will be performed next year and is called The Arsonists, created in association with the university’s School of Arts and Media. It has been billed as the “first ever opera to project a northern identity through the singing voice”.
Ian McMillan seems to be the go-to talking head for all things Yorkshire and I wonder whether, as well as being a source of pride, it is a little annoying to be just simply categorised as the Bard of Barnsley, rather than seen as a poet for the nation as a whole, who just happens to hail from South Yorkshire. “I like it,” he insists. “I like the alliteration of the Bard of Barnsley. I’ve always lived in the area and so the name stuck. It was the BBC who first called me that when I became poet in residence at Barnsley Football Club in 1997 and it’s a sight better than some of the names I’ve been called.”
As a lifelong supporter of the Tykes, becoming poet in residence must have been an honour. “I’d been doing tours of schools in Barnsley with a friend of mine who had the idea of suggesting to the club that I do it, so I rang up and asked if they’d like a poet in residence and, it being Barnsley, they asked ‘Will it cost us?’”
It’s not just Barnsley FC who have benefited from having McMillan as their guest wordsmith, though. He fulfilled the role for Humberside Police too. “I did an event for an audience of chief constables and afterwards the chief constable of Humberside asked me to be their poet in residence. I asked him what he wanted me to write and he said I could write about anything, so I ended up joining the patrols on a Friday night in Hull and I even went along on a dawn raid in Goole.”
Whilst all of this may sound hugely exciting and supremely fascinating, it doesn’t always work out that way. “I was also poet in residence for Northern Spirit trains, the much maligned predecessor to Northern Rail,” says McMillan. “I was asked to write poems about the journey from Leeds to Edinburgh and then perform them at the end of the line. They’d booked a piper to play along with me but they hadn’t provided a microphone, so all you saw was me, opening and shutting my mouth like a goldfish, while this piper played his tunes.
“At the end, everyone sort of drifted off and it was just me and the piper left. I asked him if he fancied a cup of tea, but he’d been booked for a wedding so he had to leave.”
McMillan’s latest project brings him back home and a search for the “meaning of Yorkshire”. His new book, Neither Nowt Nor Summat, sees him study Britain’s biggest county in depth. “It’s not just about tourist Yorkshire, although the Dales and the Moors are fantastic and beautiful places,” he insists. “I wanted to explore the limits of Yorkshire”. His journey begins with what he knows – Darfield, the village in which he was born and still lives – and, in his own words, his explorations “emanate like ripples on a pond.”
The book comes at an interesting time, following on from a strong nationalistic showing in the general election in Scotland. With talk of English regional devolution, could Yorkshire be the first to govern itself? After all, considering its imperious showing in the 2012 Olympic Games, Yorkshire is practically its own nation already.
“Irvine Welsh (author of Trainspotting) said that, now Scotland and Wales are sorted (with devolved parliaments), the North is the most interesting area politically – the northern powerhouse as the current government has called it,” McMillan says.
The problem could be, though, that there are so many different factions within Yorkshire that it is difficult to envisage those from Sheffield allowing themselves to be governed by Leeds or vice versa.
“Yes,” he agrees, “a Yorkshireman cracks like an egg into small sections. At the cricket at Headingley, they’ll be all singing ‘Yorkshire, Yorkshire’ together, but then at Barnsley for the football, it’s “South Yorkshire, South Yorkshire” and then you’ve got the split between Sheffield and Barnsley. Then Darfield and the rest of Barnsley, then my street against the other streets, then one side of my street against the other, then the top of the street against the bottom, then upstairs in my house against downstairs, then the back bedroom against the rest of upstairs…”
Rather than a polemic about the politics of his home county though, McMillan’s book actually does what the poet himself does best – revels in the quirkiness of everyday life. He talks with glee about visiting Horbury near Wakefield and encountering a butcher who hadn’t considered that his oval pork pies were any different from the rest of the word’s until McMillan pointed it out.
On discovering that Horbury is also the place where Sabine Baring-Gould wrote Onward Christian Soldiers, McMillan recounts how he rounded off his visit by wandering down the street, singing “I have bought a pork pie” to the tune of the hymn at the top of his voice. Which is exactly the sort of scene you’d expect to read about on the poet’s Twitter feed.