Real Barnsley

Ian McMillan
Publication Date: 
Monday, November 27, 2017
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‘There are more, often hilarious, vignettes than points on the local map, every one of which is covered’ – The Yorkshire Times

In Real Barnsley, Ian McMillan delves into the past of the Barnsley area in which he was born and still lives, exploring its history and recalling his various experiences of this particular patch of South Yorkshire.

Barnsley, which is mentioned in the Domesday Book, became an important commercial and cultural centre for the surrounding area, the home of cinemas, theatres, civic life and McMillan’s beloved Tykes – Barnsley FC. Appropriately for the home of an ancient glass blowing industry, it was the site of the first bottlebank in Britain.

In the book McMillan also tours the towns and villages which surround Barnsley: Penistone, Hoyland Common, Wombwell, Cawthorne, Royston, Carlton, Cudworth, Grimesthorpe and his native Darfield. Some were mining villages, home to the seventy collieries in a 15 mile radius of Barnsley – all now closed. McMillan discovers that as the industrial tide has ebbed, the heritage tide has flowed, with the establishment of the Elsecar Heritage Centre at an old ironworks, and other museums. And there are always the moors, where workers have escaped over the centuries and where the film Kes was shot.

As the Bard of Barnsley finds, Barnsley is nothing if not an eclectic mix of brass bands and the Barnsley Chop on the one hand, and the Arctic Monkeys and Saxon on the other. His pages are peopled by Michael Parkinson, cricket umpire Dicky Bird, sculptor Graham Ibbeson, Lord Halifax, poet Ebenezer Elliott, the highwayman Swift Nick and a host of interesting, regular people. And present throughout is McMillan himself, one of the most popular poets and broadcasters in the country. Real Barnsley is his shared story.




Review by Steve Whitaker, The Yorkshire Times

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

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:

'...try and imagine this place as it was before all the pits went, before the deliberate destruction of the mining industry. Try and imagine it before the pits came, too. Imagine those pasts and then visit the present'.

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.

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Review from The Sunday Times

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“Like the city he grew up in, Liam Carson’s memoir of life in Belfast winds like a tangled web of streets, dreams, cultures and philosophies, where every page, pavement and street corner offer another dab of colour to a fascinating picture… Carson’s natural push against his parents in the 1970s coincided with the devastating change in Belfast’s complexion. Its nascent punk scene offered a soundtrack to life in a war zone. While Carson read new-wave science fiction and moved to London, his mother, Mary, drifted away from a language partly hijacked by republican violence. His father, though, retreated to his books. It seems he was living, writes Carson, ‘just off reality.’

“In time, the detached universe William created offered his son profound truths that defined the rest of his life. His father often spoke of tearmann—the idea of the Irish language as sanctuary where the language’s power to shape culture could be celebrated and explored. It is a daunting idea, but Carson handles his journey to accepting the ideas with great skill, successfully conveying the concept of the Irish language as a living, breathing organism without alienating the simplest, most compelling episodes of family life that make this book so moving in parts.

“His description of his mother’s Alzheimer’s disease and eventual death are blessed with clarity, gentleness and a heart-wrenching sadness. His memories of shared moments with his father are beautifully rendered… Carson’s greatest achievement is recycling a complex mix of emotions and ideas on language into a deeply moving read.”

Michael Foley, The Sunday Times

04/07/2012 - 15:28
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Review from The Sunday Telegraph

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"A tender, contemplative memoir examining Carson's upbringing in a happy but complex Irish-speaking household during the Troubles; it eulogises not only his parents but the Irish language itself"

The Sunday Telegraph 2012

17/12/2012 - 10:43
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Call Mother a Lonely Field New Welsh Review

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"Amy Mc Cauley discovers language is sanctuary in this memoir nominated for the Ondaaje Prize"

Liam Carson’s Call Mother a Lonely Field is a memoir of a very strange kind. Although it features some of the standard characteristics of memoir: family narrative, the odd humorous anecdote, photographs, etc, the book is much more than the sum of its parts, chiefly because Carson turns the usual chronological format inside out. Time here is fluid; like memory, it doesn’t simply represent the accumulation of events in a sequential manner. Carson instead puts forward an alternative view – one popularised by JW Dunne - which argues that ‘all time is eternally present. In other words, the past, present and future coexist.’ Carson goes on to suggest that ‘we exist on two levels, both inside and outside time.’ This idea is absolutely central: it relates not simply to the philosophical atmosphere but to the structure of the text, which embodies the very concept it proposes.
The book is also about our experience of identity. Carson comes across as a protean character – a man who reads, dreams and wanders. At various stages of his life he adopts different selves, each of which he rejects. But his relationship to these selves is alive with the spirit of enquiry. Carson is careful to resist the monomania of autobiography, however. This is firstly (and most importantly) a paean to his parents, and secondly a love letter to the Irish language.
Carson, who was born in 1962 in Mooreland, part of the Falls area of Belfast, writes lyrically about his parents, ‘the Ma’ and ‘the Da’. He says:

My parents were Falls people, with all that they entailed. Catholic people. Nationalist people. They belonged to a particular world with particular values […] In the ritual of the mass they were bound to their neighbours, to the world, to God. In the incense, the statues, the Stations of the Cross, the rosary, the stained glass, the Latin, they reaches a from of communion and community that held up their daily lives.

He goes on to say that ‘One afternoon [my Da] told me if he’d been in Iran, he would have been a devout Muslim. Perhaps it was not so important to be Catholic as it was to believe.’
‘The Da’, for me, is the most fascinating character. His singular strength is underlined by a story Carson hears only after his father’s death. When the Da joins the IRA in the 1940s, he soon realises he will have to kill. Unable to square this with his strong Christian faith, the Da leaves, only to find himself arrested and jailed. When he is released from prison he returns to work (as a postman) he finds his pay has been docked for his time spent inside. Carson writes, ‘He took a court case, logically arguing that since his employer and his gaoler were one and the same – the Royal Mail and His Majesty’s Prison Service, in other words, the King - then it followed what his employer was the cause of his absence.’ The Da wins the case and sets a legal precedent.
Call Mother a Lonely Field is full of these unrecorded, ‘unofficial’ histories. Personal family mythologies – songs, stories, poems and dreams – stand shoulder to shoulder with violent reality of Belfast’s ‘Troubles’ from the 1970s onwards. Structurally. I is like a home, each chapter is a different room witits own distinctive atmosphere and pressure, while the presence of dreams is a brave and valuable addition. They represent the hidden strand – the inner supports – of a person’s experience, and it is Carson’s unification of physical, human, linguistic and psychic geographies which make this a real stand-out read. If I had to pick a weakness I would say the ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ section of the book (detailing Carson’s love of comic books) felt slightly out of place, but otherwise I found it quite gripping. Most powerful for me was Carson’s suggestion that language is an environment we inhabit - a sanctuary which can be used to represent the various visible and invisible environments we occupy both physically and in our imaginary lives. The hidden places of memory, childhood, identity and dreams therefore become achievement is the meshing of the public and private worlds so often kept separate by the official records of history.

Amy McCauley for New Welsh Review

04/09/2013 - 11:45
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