TSOTA’s Rich Jevons meets Bard of Barnsley Ian McMillan at Betty’s Tea Rooms before his show as part of Ilkley Literature Festival. They talk about his search for the real meaning of Yorkshire, writing about your own experiences, working with cartoonist Tony Husband, hosting The Verb, writing groups, podcasts and audio books.
TSOTA: Can you tell us a little bit about Neither Nowt Nor Summat: In Search of the Meaning of Yorkshire? How did the book come about firstly?
IM: What happened was my publisher is from Lancashire and he rang me up and said he wanted me to write a book about the meaning of Yorkshire. Really to explain it to him. And I went to this meeting in London and all I can remember was that he kept pointing at me. So I started pointing back. He kept going, ‘I want this to be a substantial book’. I’ve written little bits before I’ve never written a book this fat. So I asked him, ‘How many words? 50,000?’ And he went, ‘100,000!’
TSOTA: So how did you react to that?
IM: Well, I went home and he wanted a 10,000 word sample. I’m often called upon to talk about Yorkshire and it struck me that all I really know is where I live, Darfield, and Runwell and a bit about Barnsley. I’ve been to lots of places but I don’t know much about ‘em. So I thought I’d start there and move outwards. So I wrote 10,000 words and sent them and he said: ‘There is much to admire but you’re showing off here.’ Because I’m used to writing shorter things he says ‘you’re trying to make every sentence into a joke, or like a poem.’ But he says, ‘Look, take your time, you’ve got 100,000 words, spread out.’ And that was a great piece of advice.
TSOTA: How did you get on after that?
IM: So I started off in Darfield and it struck me that the real thing was that when you go see people from the South they say, ‘Ooh, we like Yorkshire!’ But when you ask where do they mean they say Ilkley, or Harrogate. If you ask if they often get to Rotherham they say no! It’s interesting that there’s certain bits that people think of as Yorkshire and certain bits they don’t. So my task was to try and find what was the real Yorkshire.
Part of it was me examining my past because I’ve always lived in the same place but my dad was a Scot. So then I’m saying I’m only half Yorkshire. So there’s a bit about me looking at it from an outsider’s eye. I also write about growing up in the West Riding of Yorkshire because it was a great education authority and they got me writing. Then I talk about sport in Yorkshire, following Barnsley FC.
Then there’s just little things in my village, like there’s a barber called mad Geoff who died during the writing of the book so the book’s dedicated to him. His barber’s shop is like a little literature festival because people come into his shop to tell stories. Then I volunteer in this museum in Darfield which I always tell people is the only museum in the world named after a cross-dressing ex-marine, Maurice Dobson. Him and his partner used to walk round in the 50s and 60s wearing frocks and people accepted ‘em.
So the book is full of stories, the way people talk and in the end, actually, I didn’t come to any conclusions. The last bit in the book is me doing something that is truly purely Yorkshire. So I go up on Ilkley moor and took me hat off – so I was on Ilkley moor bah’t hat.
TSOTA: People seem to think there is something that is quintessentially Yorkshire…
IM: And I found that there isn’t. I looked at the myths about Yorkshire people being a bit tight and oppositional. But I always think Yorkshire people are welcoming. Also, if you ever meet a Yorkshire person within two minutes they’ll tell you they’re from Yorkshire and they’ll filter everything you say to ‘em through Yorkshire.
TSOTA: Do you ever get the feeling that you’re doing things in your life just to make a good story as a writer?
IM: It is true that whatever happens to you, you think, ‘that’ll make a good story’. That’s inevitable if you’re a writer. I think the way out of that for me is Tweeting. I get up at the crack of dawn, go for a walk round Darfield and I always Tweet what I see on the walk. The favourite one I ever saw was a bloke in a high vis jacket walking past a man in a camouflage jacket and I thought they’d cancel each other out! To me I always tell people to be like a little satellite dish and all the time just listen and watch and take it in, either Tweet it or write it in a note book. But also I realise you can make bits up.
TSOTA: Can you tell us a bit about what you’re doing with Tony Husband?
IM: Yes, with Tony I’m doing a cartoon history of ‘here’. He’s one of Britain’s leading cartoonists with a column in Private Eye. He came to see me and we worked on cards for a bit and then he did a presentation for librarians with me and we decided he’d just make it up. We mainly do them in village halls and I talk for about twenty minutes, then we bring him on. So it’s just like a kind of improv show. It’s always different every night, we never know what’s going to happen.
TSOTA: Is The Verb really a labour of love?
IM: Yes, it’s been on now for thirteen years and originally they rang me up and said we’d like you to present a show for Radio 3 and I thought, this is the big boys. But they’ve been so supportive. For ten years we were down in London, then we’ve been in Salford for the last three years. When we moved to Salford they thought it would be good news for me but in fact it takes longer on the train from Barnsley to Salford than it does to London.
The Verb is great, so for example, tomorrow we’re doing a backwards edition and each of the guests has written something that works backwards. The thing is that you can do that on Radio 3 and try something different. All it means, though, is that when I get home tonight I’ll have only been out four or five hours and there’ll be three jiffy bags full of books. My wife says, ‘How many more books do we want?!’
TSOTA: What do you think about writing groups?
IM: I think they are fantastic because they are the engine of new writing. And there is such a lot of new writing about: theatre plays, novels, reminiscence, non-fiction. And I think the way to generate new writing is to go along to a writers’ group. Also I say to people to shop around a bit because some are actually more welcoming than others. And it makes you think about what you’re gonna write whereas otherwise you’re just sat there in your home writing.
And my advice to young writers is read as much as you can, always read. Read people that you might not like, have a look at poems that you wouldn’t normally read and see how and why they have done it that way. And there are a lot competitions now for young writers, more than ever. Ilkley as a centre of writing in Yorkshire has been fantastic, I first came here in 1977 and people come from all over to the Festival.
And at the moment it seems we’re in for a good time for literature festivals in Yorkshire, like Beverley, Bridlington, even Morley!
TSOTA: Freedom Writers Group, in Armley, do a lot of recording too.
IM: Yes, I love podcasts, that’s going to be the saviour of radio. The traditional way of listening and looking at things is gradually dying away. Audio books are great too. I’ve just recorded my book and it’s twelve hours recorded in a little shed. At the end of one day I’d done about 180 pages and we were supposed to be booked in for three days whereas I got it done in two days.
Look out for Ian’s forthcoming appearances and publications. Follow Ian on Twitter: @IMcMillan