Quays to the past

From Media City’s canal to the Cleethorpes seafront, Ian McMillan knows all about waterfronts

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As a renowned poet and writer, it’s no surprise that Ian McMillan is brilliant at narrating life and capturing the moment. He does it perfectly in his new book My Sand Life, My Pebble Life, a collection of short essays and poems about the coast and his childhood memories of it. And he does it today on the phone from Cleethorpes, both discussing this new work and commentating on what’s happening there and then.

“I’m on the main street,” he says in his broad South Yorkshire accent, adding that he’s just bought a Big Issue from a nearby vendor. “I’ve been up to the market and bought some plants. My wife and my mother-in-law are just emerging out of the Heron’s and on their way to the Co-Op and then Wilko. And then we’ll go back to the caravan for a nice cup of tea. It rained very briefly but it’s nice and sunny now…” Then he adds after a short pause: “I’ve just been given the heaviest shopping bag in the world.”

McMillan’s mother-in-law has a caravan in Cleethorpes and today he’s joined her and his wife “to do the things we always do: walk on the tops and go to the Ocean Fish Bar. Three pensioners specials. What I like about Ocean Fish is when you get the sachets of sauce, they have scissors there to cut your sachets open. That’s proper class, I think. It’s great.”

The seaside resort is one of the places that features strongly in McMillan’s latest book. “My wife’s family have an almost umbilical attachment to it,” he writes, “built from memories of splashing and sandcastles and donkey rides.”

But many other coastal places are also highlighted, including Scarborough, Blackpool and Beadnell in Northumbria.

My Sand Life, My Pebble Life emerged when Bloomsbury asked McMillan to write an introduction to a guide to the British coastline. When that was done, the publishers asked him to write a book about the coast himself. McMillan was reluctant at first.“To be honest with you, I’ve written longer books before, but I find it really hard. I like writing short things.”

Donkeys on the beach in Cleethorpes in 1972
Donkeys on the beach in Cleethorpes in 1972

He proposed writing 50 1,000-word pieces. “I had a reckless plan to do a gig in every village hall in Britain – which didn’t quite work out because there are over 36,000 of them – but me and my mate [the musician Luke Carver-Goss] were doing these gigs in village halls and the plan was that I would stay over, go to the nearest bit of coast and write about it.”

As soon as that plan was agreed however, the pandemic hit. Robbed of the chance to visit actual seaside towns, McMillan “started digging into memories. And it became this ritual for me. I’d get up, go for my one permitted stroll, and then come home and go up to the spare bedroom and sit there and find memories of the coast and start writing about them.”

And it was about finding memories, says McMillan, rather than trotting out familiar stories. “My plan was that I would go upstairs with no memory of the coast and then sit down and find one.” The “circular nature of memory” fascinates McMillan. “How one memory leads to another. It was wonderful to write it. It was an absolute joy.”

As the book progressed and lockdowns came and went, some real visits to the coast did take place and so in the end what emerges is a mixture of both memoir and narration about life during the pandemic.

“It’s kind of poignant because at the time, wherever that coast was, we had lost it during the pandemic. It had gone. We are getting it back now but it’s about those times that we lost.”

McMillan is rightly pleased with the end result, although there are some bits he’d change if he could. “For the last two days I’ve been doing the audio book in a studio in Burnley and – it’s happened to me before when I’m doing an audio book – you think: ‘Can I just redraft it again? Can I just not do that line?’ But of course you’ve got to do it. The book is there, the book exists. So you have to stand there and read those lines and it’s kind of good, it’s exciting, but you think, flipping heck, have I said that again? I did notice this – there’s so many bloomin’ gulls. There are gulls everywhere in the book! Gulls reeling about.

“But you have to let it go. I really am proud of it. There are certain long sentences that test out your lung capacity though,” he laughs.

The book is also about the process of writing itself, and especially writing about memory. “My earliest memory of the coast may not be a memory at all; it may be a fiction, or a false recollection,” writes McMillan.

“There’s a poet called Hugo Williams who wrote a wonderful memoir called No Particular Place To Go where he went to America way back in the early eighties,” says McMillan. “The gag was he’d found an old address book and he went to see some of the people in it. Some were there and some had gone, and some remembered him. And I asked him: ‘Is this all true?’ And he said: ‘No, I made a lot if it up.’ Blimey, I thought. That’s liberating! Obviously you can’t write a travel book and sit in the house but…”

He breaks off to note that his wife and mother-in-law have “come out of the Co-Op with more enormous bags and now they’re heading to Wilko”, while the nearby Big Issue vendor has been joined by another and the two “are comparing notes” while drinking Lucozade.

Cleethorpes in summer 2020
Cleethorpes in summer 2020 (Shutterstock)

Does it matter if a memoir isn’t totally true then? “It doesn’t matter in the end, I don’t think,” McMillan says. “Because once the past has happened, then it’s happened.

“Sometimes something happened on a Tuesday and I pretend it happened on a Monday to fit in – we all edit our memories to make them fit in. I like doing that. I like shaping the memories to make them fit.”

Another theme that emerges in the book is about plans going awry. The book itself started out as one thing and became something else and concludes with a plan to create a “ringing, symphonic climax” on the Cumbrian coast that doesn’t come about because of the weather. It encapsulates the way the pandemic made us all realise that making plans is all well and good, but who knows what’s waiting around the bend?

For McMillan, life during the pandemic was “odd”.

“All the gigs fell off a cliff and there was an empty diary,” he says. “But I was still doing my weekly Radio 3 show. The BBC sent me something called a Raspberry Pi – a special computer thing which you plug into your modem – and it came with a microphone and headset so I could do the show from home, which wasn’t bad, but I prefer to get out and about.”

McMillan also continued with his usual newspaper columns and was “poet in lockdown” for Barnsley Council. But the worst thing about that period, he says, was missing people. “Those drive-by wave-ins from the grandkids – that was heartbreaking.”

The pandemic also “accelerated” some of the 66 year old’s plans. “I always wanted to come off the road and do fewer gigs. Do stuff around Barnsley, Rotherham, Sheffield. Do more writing and less rushing up and down the country.”

He is, however, looking forward to getting out and about with his newly acquired bus pass. “It’s great! The first time you use it, you feel a bit odd because you think: ‘Will it work?’ You think they are going to say: ‘He’s never 66!’”

McMillan has walked from Cleethorpes high street towards the caravan site with his wife and her mother. He pauses again as a security guard at the site “no older than my grandson” asks for some ID. “You’d think my face would be enough!” he jokes.

McMillan’s immediate plans relate mainly to his weekly Radio 3 show, The Verb. A Jubilee edition recorded at Windsor Castle and one at Hay Festival have just gone out. The show, usually recorded at Salford’s MediaCity, has just celebrated its 20th anniversary.

“Twenty years!” McMillan marvels. “I’ve done it every week, apart from one about 15 years ago when they said they were going to try someone else in case I got ill. They had the poet Paul Farley on and afterwards they said: ‘He sounded just like you!’ He doesn’t because he’s a Scouser but that tells you something about the southern sensibility, doesn’t it? ‘You all sound the same, you Northerners!’”

Apart from that, there’s nothing major in the pipeline, McMillan reports. “Use the bus pass a lot. Write some more poems. But I’ll probably have a rest from writing books – unless we sell the film rights to this. George Clooney could play me,” he muses, and then adds: “I’m arriving back at the caravan now, so I’ll get that kettle on.”

My Sand Life, My Pebble Life is published by Bloomsbury

Tea and tweets

Ian McMillan continues to be an avid user of Twitter. His early morning tweets, which are like little poems capturing his quiet walks around his home town of Darfield or the experience of enjoying his first cup of tea of the day, are worth reading.

“There are a gang of people who are early morning types who keep tweeting each other across the morning,” he says.

He’s also been a longstanding friend and supporter of Big Issue North and often tweets about the magazine, promoting the fact that he can buy it in his local Co-Op, because there’s no vendor in the town.

“It’s a wonderful magazine, a great organisation and long may it last and flourish!” he says. “And I’m proud that I’m still on the Big Issue North tote bag!”

Main photo: Rebecca Lupton

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Interact: Responses to Quays to the past

  • Autumn leaves – Big Issue North – BlackNewsReel.com
    11 Oct 2022 00:31
    […] festival opens with Yorkshire poet Ian McMillan (pictured above), whose essay collection My Sand Life, My Pebble Life recently appeared. The Bard of […]

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