Doing words

With poetry, plays, short stories and even an hour selling Big Issue North under his belt, Ian McMillan always has plenty to do, finds Christian Lisseman

Hero image

“Media City is great,” says Ian McMillan as he takes a seat in the chic Polish café-bar just round the corner from the BBC radio studios. “Especially now you have places like this where people can meet and talk about things, share ideas. And they make a good espresso.”

McMillan needs espressos to keep up with his busy schedule. He’s just come in wheeling a suitcase full of books behind him – reading matter for his weekly Radio Three show The Verb. He’s had a meeting with his producer today and recorded a spot on Radio Four’s Front Row to talk about his new collection of poems To Fold The Evening Star. After this, it’s back on the tram and then train to Barnsley and then tomorrow he’s off to Newcastle to interview Tony Harrison, before heading off to Guernsey Literature festival the following week. And there are also his weekly columns for the Barnsley Chronicle and Yorkshire Post to write.

“I am busy. That’s true. I think it’s the freelance disease. When they say ‘Can you do this?’ I think ‘Yeah, I can do that.’ And I always think it leads to interesting adventures.”

He’s often asked for advice on being freelance, to which he answers: “Think in geological terms.” If something goes wrong it seems like a disaster. “But afterwards you think, in 100,000 years it won’t matter. So I always think in adventures, and if sometimes the adventure doesn’t work, that doesn’t matter. And if the adventure does work, it leads to interesting things, and you become better at it. So that’s why I always say yes as much as I can.”

“I always wanted to be a writer and I was encouraged by my teachers.”

Although he may not be a household name, he’s not far off. His voice is familiar to thousands of radio listeners and he’s a more accessible poet than many. His adventures have included TV and radio broadcasting, poetry, short story and play writing, and an array of commissions, collaborations and residencies, including poet in residence at Barnsley FC, investigative poet for ITV Yorkshire – seeking out real-life stories to write about, verse for Humberside Police and even selling Big Issue North for an hour as part of last year’s Big Sell. “That was so interesting because as a chap who likes to be in the public eye, that was the one hour in the last 30 years when nobody looked at me.”

These adventures all began in Darfield, near Barnsley, McMillan’s place of birth and the village where he still lives 60 years later. Going to school under the control of a then “experimental educational authority” where creativity was encouraged, McMillan’s latent talent was brought out. “At the end of lessons you’d write poems, you’d sing songs, you’d dance. I always wanted to be a writer and I was encouraged by my teachers.”

McMillan had big ambitions. “I wrote something for the school magazine and I put Ian McMillan, future Nobel Prize for Literature winner. My teacher took me on one side and said: ‘Nobel Prize winners don’t come from Barnsley.’ And I thought: ‘Well, now, they could.’”

Having got a degree in modern studies at North Staffordshire Poly, McMillan then received a grant from Yorkshire Arts in 1982 that meant he could give up his job in a tennis ball factory to write full time – something which has made him a lifelong supporter of public subsidy of the arts. It was a big step, and not one he took lightly. He credits his wife and family with giving him the support to do this. “They said, if you want to be a writer, do it. So I did. So that’s when the doing everything started.”

Thirty-four years on and the latter half of some of this career is captured in his latest collection, which includes some previously published poems, including the brilliant Ted Hughes is Elvis Presley, short stories, and a smattering of new work.

McMillan himself is intrigued by the collection and leafs through the book as he speaks. “What amazed me was – and I’m not being daft – how thick it is,” he says, as if he can’t quite figure out where the book has sprung from. There are more than 170 poems and stories in the collection, from 1994 to the present – apart from a noticeable gap between 2000 and 2011 when there are no published pieces. McMillan says that was a period when he was more involved in writing performance pieces, plays and lyrics – works meant to be spoken, rather than written.

His return to writing for the page came via an invitation to write a pamphlet of poems for a small local publisher, a desire to capture what was happening in and around Barnsley during the recession and under an “uncaring Tory government”, the birth of his first grandchildren and the success of his own son. “The boy genius, Andrew McMillian,” he says, full of fatherly pride. “He won the Guardian first book award [last year], and I thought, I can’t let him write all the poems.”

McMillan is “always fascinated by language” and words – spoken, written or sung – as listeners to his weekly radio programme The Verb will know. His producer calls him the “gateway drug to Radio Three”, says McMillan, because he’s a recognisable name who encourages people to give the sometimes highbrow-seeming station a try. But he’s also a gateway drug to poetry and language itself.

He’s keen on Twitter, sharing crisp observations of the landscape and people around him as he criss-crosses the country on the train from one adventure to the next. Rather than seeing social media as a threat to the written word, he’s as passionate about it as any other form of language. “It’s opening up language… It’s democratising it, so that anyone can write something down, anyone can post it, publish it. But it’s also making people think of new ways of putting language down.”

Tweets suit master of observation McMillan well. A sharp eye for detail informs much of his work. During early morning walks around Darfield he’s trained himself to look for something new to write, and tweet, about every day. Not easy when you’ve lived there for 60 years.

But while McMillan is a real poet of the people, he’s certainly not against a little poetic obscurity and playfulness. He admits that he can be sometimes mystified by his own work, but “that’s OK”.

“I think often people assume that poems are like little puzzles… but I like the mystery of poems. If I could tell you what the poem meant, I wouldn’t have written it. It’s expressing something that’s on the edge of the inexpressible.”

Then he laughs at himself. “My wife did say she’ll get a badge made for me saying ‘Will spout bollocks for cash.’ I said: ‘That’s not a good way of talking about your husband’s thirty-something year career.’”

And what next for this poetic adventurer? “I said to my wife, when I turned sixty, I was thinking of slowing down a bit towards retirement. And she said: ‘Retire from what?’” With a life that revolves around reading, writing and speaking, McMillan admits that his “hobby is the same as my job” and, apart from watching Barnsley FC, and his grandson play cricket, there isn’t much time for anything else. But there are always new adventures on the horizon.

“The last time I was in this café I was talking to a composer about writing a Yorkshire dialect opera together. That’s interesting… with a flat vowel like I speak over a long operatic note. More of that, more collaboration.”

Ian McMillan on… 

Big Issue North
What I don’t like is when people go: “I don’t want the magazine but here’s the money.” That shouldn’t happen, because the magazine is well written. There aren’t many magazines like that that have got a conscience, that are well written, that say here’s an alternative to what’s happening. You can’t buy it in Smiths, you have got to buy it on the streets, from this person who is just like you but they’ve fallen on hard times.

Humberside Police
I was doing an after-dinner speech to a big gang of chief constables at a hotel in Scunthorpe. They were all there in their posh dress uniforms, with white gloves. Afterwards, I was getting a lift home and I’m stood in a car park, and the chief constable of Humberside drives up, winds the window down, and this white glove comes out. “You could be our poet.” I said: “What would that entail?” And he said: “You could go anywhere you want and write poems about it.” And so I did this amazing thing – went out with coppers on a Friday night, got people writing poems as I went.

Ian McMillan’s collection To Fold The Evening Star is published by Manchester-based Carcanet Press (£9.99). To read a poem from it and a selection of other Carcanet poets, see the Features section of

Photo: Rebecca Lupton

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Doing words

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.