Man of the Moment: Ian McMillan
Mulling over his 40 year career as a commercial poet, Ian can’t help but voice his deep appreciation for the hand he’s been dealt. Strokes of luck here, a chin wag with the right person there; living his dream of being a writer after brief stints in tennis ball factories and the like as a young man. He’s a man of adventure, and he doesn’t often say no. His work carries an unmistakably Northern narrative voice, and he marries the passions of football and poetry with more wit and style than you can boot a ball at. Ian’s career is extraordinary, and as he slows down on touring and slips back into more relaxed pursuits of poetry and lyric writing, he talks to Living North about the pride he feels as a professional Yorkshireman.
‘I’m lucky, I’m dead lucky to be able to do what I want to do – writing stories, poems, plays, songs, everything,’ says Ian. ‘When you’re a freelance writer, if someone asks you to do something you just say “yes,” and that leads to exciting adventures.’
Yorkshire through and through, with a passion for writing about the people that informed him growing up, Ian has always been inspired by his roots.
‘Partly because I can’t drive so I’m always on the bus or the train – I listen to people,’ he says. ‘People are endlessly inspiring. You walk past someone, you sit next to someone and they chat to you, they tell you something, or you overhear a brilliant conversation. It’s as true in Grimsby as it is in Barnsley or Newcastle, people are just so interesting. Most recently I bumped into this bloke in the paper shop, he turned to me and went “I think am gonna win the lottery this week, £55 million. I’m gonna buy my club, and am not gonna let anyone else in. I’m just gonna sit there.” I thought he meant Barnsley FC, but he meant his working men’s club, even though he hadn’t had a drink for a year,’ Ian laughs. ‘Stuff like that is just so funny to me.’
Ian is a walking lexicon for Yorkshire dialect, it breathes through him into his work as a love letter to where he hails from. He loves it so much that he even wrote a Northern dialect dictionary, Chelp and Chunter: How to talk Tyke.
‘I was called up and asked if wanted to write a dictionary, and I said “Yeah, but can I make a word up?” – that was the best bit,’ Ian recalls. ‘When someone used to not know what a word meant you’d get your dictionary out and have a look – that holds great power. I came up with the word “griddle”, it’s the act of weeing in a grate after 15 pints. That’s in an actual book now – brilliant.’
Writing dialect is a tricky skill to master, but the secret to portraying regional voices is not to over egg it, instead it’s about mimicking the rhythm of the Northern tongue.
‘The hard thing about writing with a broad accent is that when you see a lot of dialect written down, it’s covered in apostrophes. It’s hard to accurately capture it. No one actually goes “am off t’pub”,’ Ian explains. ‘Words like “mardy” for grumpy or “Meggies” for Cleethopres, you forget that other people don’t instantly understand it.
‘Yorkshire poetry – it’s a lived experience, shorter clipped vowels and shorter words. The rhythm of your dialect inhabits the poetry,’ Ian elaborates. ‘Northerners live their life with a certain rhythm which is difficult if not impossible to define. Shorter, blunter words have slowly become more symbolic of the North.
‘There’s a funny expectation for Yorkshire writers to write about the Northern experience, when our experience is just that – it’s experience. There seems to be this idea that we should just write about mines and caravans. If you say you’re from Grimsby people go “Oh, lovely. Do you fancy writing about trawlers? Go on, write about some haddock,”’ Ian jokes.
An inseparable part of the Yorkshire experience for Ian is sport, especially his undying love for Barnsley FC, his local team where he works as their resident poet. Poetry is often thought to be an oppositional hobby to the average brussen Yorkshire football fan, however Ian marries sport with his love of poetry, believing they’re actually in some cases one and the same.
‘When I was first writing about sport I’d think back to the Olympics, where in Greek times people would run and then afterwards write a poem; it was part of the same endeavour,’ Ian explains. ‘What I like about sport is that it operates how you wish life was lived all the time, a heightened experience – just like poetry. I’m a Barnsley FC fan, and at the moment we’re bl**** terrible. But every week I still go along, and I’m gripped by the narrative and the drama and courage, just like a poem. You can’t guess the end either, you see moments on the pitch of excitement, joy, despair; to me that is poetry,’ he says.
‘I like sport, I like poetry – and football chants are poems. People make things up instantly as a collective, it’s group wit. I’m dubious of the idea that poetry is a solitary activity, I like making stuff up with a group of people. At Barnsley we’d sing “it’s just like watching Brazil” to the tune of “Blue Moon.” There’s nothing better than being in a crowd of people singing the same songs.’
Ian is currently editing the final proof copies of his latest book, ‘My Sand Life, My Pebble Life’. Part memoir, part witty summary of the North’s wonderful coast lines, Ian can talk endlessly about his love for the beach.
‘I used to travel the country doing gigs near the coast, so I decided before lockdown that every time I did a gig I would write a poem about the beach there. As soon as it was commissioned, the pandemic happened,’ Ian explains. ‘So if I did go to, say, Cleethorpes, it’d be strange – masks on and no one there. So I thought I’d write about memories of the coast instead, memories of my mother in Cleethorpes and me and the wife in Scarborough, that sort of thing.
‘It’s coming out in the summer, and I’m very excited. It ended up being a process of me looking deeply inside myself, which I think we all did over the pandemic. It’s being launched in Scarborough on the 9th June, so I’ll be reading bits there I’m sure.’