Travelling Companions 3 (A Reflection on British Travel Writing)
Before I get to a review of the book, a brief introduction for the benefit of those who may never have walked the hallowed acres of God’s own county. If you’re reading this in England you’ll probably be aware of Ian McMillan and you’ll certainly be aware that Yorkshire is unique. Not necessarily because it is better than other counties (though for a Yorkshireman this is a fact so beyond dispute as to be accepted as an acknowledged truth along with the Ten Commandments and the Rules of Cribbage!) or because it contains, in and of itself, something that is both quintessentially English, and a nationality all its own. All of this may or may not be true.
Yorkshire is the biggest of the English counties, the most culturally diverse and one of the most attractive. It contains extremes. Empty moorland, precipitous cliffs, wide sandy beaches, pulsing cities, mill towns that were once the cradle of the Industrial Revolution but are now suffering neglect and poor municipal decision making, wide fertile farmland and many lovely rivers. You’ll never be short of someone to point out your personal defects in Yorkshire. You’ll never be far from equal measures of free thinkers and bigots. It is a county of great writers: three Brontës for starters, great painters (David Hockney for one) and great musicians (Frederick Delius was from Bradford). It has given the world more than its share of pop musicians, actors and famously (at least in Yorkshire), if it had competed as a country in its own right, it would have come 12th in the medal table at The London Olympics with 7 gold medals, 2 silver and 3 bronze.
People from Yorkshire are known to say things like “There are only two sorts of people in the world. Those who come from Yorkshire, and those who wish they did” and mean it. People from elsewhere have an oft repeated saying (loathed by Yorkshire folk) that “You can always tell a Yorkshireman, but you can’t tell him much!” Legend (purely apocryphal) has it that an old gentleman from Richmond North Yorkshire died and ascended to the pearly gates of heaven.
“Where are you from then?” asked St Peter.
“Richmond.” replied the man.
“Richmond Surrey or Richmond North Yorkshire?” asked the saintly gatekeeper.
“North Yorkshire, though I usually refer to it as the North Riding.”
“Oh dear.” said St Peter.
“Is something wrong?” enquired the man.
“No. nothing wrong. It’s just that after spending your life in Richmond North Yorkshire, you might just find heaven a little disappointing.”
It is known across England as “God’s County” or “God’s Acres”. Again these are terms usually used by those born in Yorkshire. There is also a huge rivalry between Yorkshire and its western neighbour, Lancashire. Yorkshire was the centre of the wool trade. Lancashire was cotton. Yorkshire has Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford. Lancashire has Manchester and Liverpool. Yorkshire has Scarborough, the world’s first seaside resort. Lancashire has Blackpool which became one of the biggest and most popular. More than anything there was the Wars of the Roses. A long lasting series of fifteenth century civil war battles fought under the banners of York and Lancaster. Lancashire being the Red Rose County and Yorkshire favouring the White Rose. Both sides can claim victory or defeat. The conclusive battle of these Wars was the Battle of Tewkesbury (fought hundreds of miles away in Gloucestershire) and won by the Yorkists, which placed Edward IV (possibly Edward V) and certainly Richard III on the throne of England. Richard was eventually defeated and killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 by the essentially Lancastrian armies of Henry Tudor (henceforth Henry VII). Henry married Elizabeth of York which combined both households and also combined the red and the white into the Tudor Rose which is half one and half the other.
All of this gives grounds for rivalry until you look more closely at where the various armies came from. Geographical Yorkshire and Lancashire had very little to do with it. In fact the Yorkists drew many of their soldiers, generals and donors from west of the Pennines while the House of Lancaster had strongholds in God’s County. It’s all very confusing to anyone but a Yorkshireman. He doesn’t need historical facts to prove him right. Being right is something you are born with in the three Ridings.
What about Ian McMillan? Well he’s a very well liked poet, thinker, broadcaster, playwright and educationist. He’s always lived in Yorkshire, speaks with the broadest of vowels, supports Barnsley Football Club and has an authenticity to be envied. He knows his stuff. But he also has a sly sense of humour and you can never be truly sure when he is defending Yorkshire with a straight bat and when he is playing with a great deal of the right hand side of irony.
The book takes McMillan on journeys (mostly day trips taken with friends or on public transport as McMillan endearingly and admirably doesn’t drive) to the extremes of Yorkshire. He’s in search of what it is that makes Yorkshireness unique and he keeps asking himself the question “Am I Yorkshire enough?”
Of course you can no more define Yorkshireness without stereotype than you can define Texan or Australian or Japanese. The book becomes an enjoyable series of excursions without any great attempt at anthropology or behavioural science. He loves Yorkshire. He loves being Yorkshire. He hates being told he makes a living out of being ‘Yorkshire’, but to a large extent he does. But he is very good at it. He’s a little way short of being a JB Priestly or an Alan Bennett in the pantheon of writers who were peculiarly Yorkshire but, if not a national treasure, he’s a Yorkshire treasure.
Here’s my review.
This book wanders. This book meanders, as the poet goes on a search for Yorkshire and what makes it what it is. He looks for the epic in the seemingly trivial and often is in danger of the delivering a trivial epic. There are certainly long stretches of the book that show no evidence of the editorial blue pencil. At times it is difficult to distinguish McMillan’s search for meaning with that of his fictional Yorkshire neighbour, John Shuttleworth. Except McMillan is a storyteller and Shuttleworth a story; and Shuttleworth often that bit more believable. McMillan is certainly guilty of making up a lot of his anecdotes (so it seems to me) or liberally refining them to suit his purpose. The body language of his prose as much of a giveaway as a Yorkshire batsman taking a close interest in the crowd after the ball snicks his bat on the way to the wicketkeeper’s gloves and the umpire’s finger stays down.
When he stops waffling he is suddenly very good indeed. And very funny. If you go and see him perform he’ll delight you, make you laugh, a lot. I’ve seen him several times and will go again. And he makes you laugh here when he hits the nail on the head. When he stops trying too hard to be “The Bard of Barnsley”. When he stops embroidering his prose with rich homely similes or dropping in a fancy poetic term (about every seventeen pages) to prove his bona fides.
To point out the many contradictions in the text is to point out what is meant. Yorkshire is a contradiction. It’s the ugliest county and the most beautiful. It isn’t posh but has some of the most unbearable snobs on God’s earth. It’s got local hairdressers where you can have your arse bored off by the same conversation every time you pop in for light trim. It also has some of the country’s most respected universities. A place where you can confuse ordinary people for characters and characters for ordinary people. And it’s true and honest. But what would I know? I’m a Lancastrian.
I like his search for a perfect pork pie. I like his search, with poet Steve Ely (a very different type of poet; stronger, grittier, more complex and with something that truly captures what it is to be Yorkshire) for the poet Ted Hughes. I’ll be off to Roche Abbey very soon to sit by Laughton Pool and read his poem ‘Pike’ in the likely knowledge that I am at the very spot where it was inspired. I like the parts of the book where he tells the story of his journey simply and without the cap and bells of poetic device or rambling anecdote. And I like these parts of the book enough to overlook the parts of the journey when you want to shout “Are we nearly there yet?” or “Gerron wi’ it!” It’s like being in Yorkshire. Lots of grit and grot but when you look up, a glorious old mill or a castle on top of a hill and the sun coming out from behind a cloud.
I’m not sure that extended prose is McMillan’s strong point but he has an undoubted love of words which is infectious. He’s charmed and entertained audiences for 35 years without ever saying a great deal. And that is a strength. Some might say he’s got away wi’ it. Managed to have a good life without ever having to get a proper job. He doesn’t like being called a professional Yorkshireman but he wears the badge with pride. I kept thinking the book “were going on a bit” but now I’ve finished it I’m beginning to miss it. Pinning down what makes it good (and it is good) isn’t easy. Like Yorkshire itself.