'The House/Arse Interface' - Real Barnsley By Ian McMillan
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
In his latest non-fictional foray, Ian McMillan - poet, broadcaster, engaging symposiast and unreconstructed South Yorkshireman - overturns provincial stereotypes in the turning of cheerful phrases. 'Real Barnsley', on the face of it an account of the history and geography of this gathering of former mining towns and villages, is a vehicle for McMillan's congenial and diversionary take on his hometown.
Anecdotal doesn't quite describe McMillan's style, though there are more, often hilarious, vignettes than points on the local map, every one of which is covered, from Elsecar in the south, to the improbably named Barugh (pronounced 'Bark') Green in the north.
Barnsley's reputation for idiosyncratic vernacular, for pigeon-fancying, for the unchop-like chop, and for being a kind of Yorkshire archetype, was always partly an invention wherein some authenticity might be inferred, though any truth is settled by negotiation.
And there is always, in any case, some distance between fact and fiction; I'm from Huddersfield and I recognise the widely-held cultural opprobrium.
McMillan is wise to make clear from the outset that 'history is fiction written by the winners'. And where it is not, it is a narrative constructed in the head, with all of memory's attendant vagaries, as this writer's frequent correctives remind us. Memory leaks, he says, like a tin of dripping paint.
But it is meaningful to him, and therein lies the key to the success of 'Real Barnsley': warmth and a casually-worn sincerity which digs at the cultural coal face to reveal nuggets of acute insight. The depredations of memory need not delimit the unique, sometimes intangible, affiliations to place which confer meaning. McMillan's impressionism is a winning formula; it foregrounds a kaleidoscope of time-tumbled images which sometimes amount to a symbolism of memory:
'Think of the sound of the long-demolished blacksmith's shop and think of the sound of feral apples falling to the floor. Layers of history making you smile. A kind of laughter therapy all on its own'.
The repeated mantra is significant: serving the same purpose as Proust's Madeleine, feral apples make frequent seductive appearances in McMillan's narrative.
More meaningful still are his accounts of the pit disasters which scarred - continue to scar - the cultural landscape of Barnsley. The facts of lives lost, communities disfigured, epitaphs inscribed, are not historically negotiable, and the writer's sense of identification is simple, and moving:
'Because Barnsley is built around, and on top of, and in the wake of, coal mining, much of the life of the borough is lived in the shadow of death's visible and invisible symbols, the memorials of commemorative plates and broadsheets that are the street furniture and household gods of industrialisation'.
The sheer weight of numbers of the dead are mind-numbing and act to make the reader, from the standpoint of his/her armchair/sun lounger, complicit in some strange psychological way: 143 killed at Swaithe Main in 1875; 189 killed at Lundhill in 1857; and worst by some way, 361 dead at Oaks Colliery on Dec. 12th, 1866; and on and on.... The list, for McMillan might as well be limitless, like diminishing, barely felt reverberations - 'Maybe somehow, somewhere, the echoes of these explosions still linger minutely, cupped in a fallen leaf or sticking to a tree root'.
As, of course, they do, but in a different sort of way since the miners' strike. McMillan's exacting research throughout 'Real Barnsley' seems conducted as a prelude to this defining moment in the town's history; all roads, as it were, lead to 1984. The writer's cultural allegiance to his native place, worn for the most part with genially self-mocking ease, is never more poignant than when he implores the present inhabitants of Barnsley to look forward, whilst always reckoning the past:
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This, as he reminds us only half in fun, is the 'Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire', and there is a likeable, faux-ambiguity to the joke: aimed in one acerbic direction, like pound notes waved by policemen under slag heap coal-pickers' noses, McMillan's own sympathies are never in doubt. One would expect no less of this inhabitant of Darfield, who has seen first-hand the decline of his town since the pits disappeared, and much skilled industry with them.
As well that McMillan is a self-confessed irreversible optimist. One chapter amongst his compass-point inventory of districts is prefaced by a triumph of sardonic overstatement: 'We're lucky in Barnsley because we've got two Motorway Junctions'. And, as he notes, there is real good fortune here.
Proximity to one of Britain's major arterial routes has enabled an explosion of commerce and industry to the west and south of a town which was beginning to lose its identity. Looking forward as ever, the writer offers a witty hymn to the ubiquity of trading estates - 'I sing the body pre-fabricated, as Walt Whitman might have said, if he'd lived round here'.
McMillan's good humour and common sense colour his prose style in shades of a much earlier literary period. His assiduity of observation, location of nuance, and gentle chiding of the ridiculous might be Augustan in origin. We hear Pope and Dryden in a mood, if not in a language whose timbre is as 'harsh and loving, brusque and poetic' as the Barnsley tongue which informs it. And as vernacularly confusing: McMillan's glossing of the 'house/arse interface' between Sheffield and Chesterfield adds to a local linguistic maelstrom, whilst being incredibly funny.
It is a testament to this writer's instinctive humility that, at the very end of this fine volume, he professes, like Socrates, to 'know-nowt' beyond the knowing of nowt itself. The beautifully crafted little dialect poems at the end of each chapter - funny and moving by turns - would suggest otherwise.
Real Barnsley by Ian McMillan is published by Seren Books
'The House/Arse Interface' - Real Barnsley By Ian McMillan, 10th January 2018, 19:32 PM