Sunday, 21 November 2010

Premier league poet

Scotsman, 5 October 2000

Warming up, as any decent coach will tell you, is the key to a good performance and if that's true for footballers it might just hold good for poets.

Ian McMillan, the poet-in-residence at Barnsley FC is playing away from home today. He's been limbering up for nearly an hour in the staff-room of Carmel School in Darlington, and it looks like he will be ready to hit top form when he finally takes the stage.

Even before he opens his mouth there's a presence about the man - it would take a while to walk around him - but rattling through anecdotes and jokes, he cuts an extraordinary figure, reflected in the what-have-we-here faces of the teachers around about him.

One butts in - she recognises McMillan from a writing course in Heptonstall: "Do you remember," she asks, "Ted Hughes was there?" - another wants him to explain a poem from his last-but-one volume, Dad the Donkey's on Fire.

He answers the first: "Yeah I remember. Are you well?" He tells the other: "Say it out loud, you'll get it."

Then he's off again into his own world, explaining to no-one in particular how he's ambitious to write a hit song.

"My mate Dave Low, he wrote the theme tune to the Nine O'Clock News. He gets #10 every time the news is on. You think I'm kidding, but I'm not."

Twenty minutes later the pace gets even more frenetic when he's on stage, in front of a couple of hundred 13 and 14-year-olds. There's still a hubbub as McMillan begins his act, but like a top stand-up he opens with a tirade of one-liners about local rivals, infant schools and every other natural enemy of his audience, the modern teenager.

"I did this poem at a school in Middlesbrough," he yells, "because they've got one there now ..." and the cheers begin. "I can see the headmaster at the back there with that look on his face. He's thinking, 'I should have spent the money on software ... he's thinking: 'Death to fat men from Barnsley.'"

He disappears behind curtains, hides behind plants, does tricks, vanishes again and among the laughter, commands the kids' rapt attention. They think he's fooling, but it's poetry in motion. He runs a couple of verses past them just to prove it and then has them join in with two more. Suddenly he shouts: "Right. I've finished now. I bow and you clap."

This is a game of two halves, mark you. After a break for oranges and tea, McMillan is back in a classroom, this time helping the members of the school football team write and perform a poem of their own. Delighted with what they have already seen, they greet him with a round of applause and he turns in another bravura show.

Afterwards, when he's on his way home and we're talking in the station buffet, he's relaxed and explains more about his work, divided as it is between schools and gigs at arts centres and comedy clubs.

The routines, he admits, owe as much to music hall and pub banter as anything. From those two rich veins of verbal dexterity he mines his verse.

For the son of a teetotal Scottish sailor, he gains a deal of inspiration from the pub. Take the poet-in-residence idea, that was just one of those notions you have over a drink of an evening. Normally they don't make any kind of sense next morning, but McMillan rang up his local club and asked the question.

"Being Barnsley they said: 'Will it cost owt?' I said: 'No I'll do it free, gratis. I'll do it to get loads of publicity."

They agreed and the poet's instincts were nicely judged. The Yorkshire Post ran a headline 'Barnsley's first Premiership Signing' and after that the phone never stopped ringing. He appeared live on Danish TV, he was gifted a regular 16-line spot in the Barnsley Chronicle - he always wrote 18 to see what they'd do - a career on local and national radio flourished and Yorkshire Television made him a familiar face.

It brought recognition, but not everywhere. He produces a poster from a gig at Melton Mowbray library.

"Funny Poet Here On Thursday" he reads, "that was the entire publicity. They put one on each door of the building. Only three people turned up, and one of them said: 'I thought it would be you.'"

McMillan was undaunted. After all, the performances have gone on for 20 years now, and no stage is too challenging. With his friend Simon Thackeray he dreamt up the notion of a Yorkshire Pudding boat race. "We made a flour and water paste and strengthened them with chicken wire and yacht varnish. They were like coracles, and there was [saxophonist] Snake Davies doing music on one while I did poems on another.

"We had a diving society along for safety, so we're floating a long in giant puddings with bands and poets and a load of kids and there's blokes with snorkels in the water. It was different."

Football brings another kind of recognition. He's become a kind of spokesman for Barnsley fans and whenever something happens - a controversial penalty, an offside goal against the Tykes - people ask him to write a poem.

Sometimes the specifications are exact. "We beat Man United 3-2 in the Cup and this bloke leaned over and said: 'You'll not write a poem about this, you'll write a bloody sonnet.' I said 'I will lad, aye.'"

In fact, sonnets are hard, he admits, and though his books include plenty of serious verse, these days humour and performance are more important.

"Comedy and poetry are very close, they both tickle the same part of your brain," he says. "For years, I had a dilemma because I'm quite a serious chap, but I love making people laugh.

"I'm not melancholy. I'm a relentless optimist, but I'm serious. I was thinking should I be doing this funny stuff? I went to a school once and a teacher said 'We've got an author coming next week'. I thought 'Bloody hell, I didn't find this stuff on the street'."

But in a way he does, and street-wise as McMillan is, that's what makes it work.