Radio: Ian McMillan Read the Poem Aloud, Slowly and Portentously, in an Accent Straight out of a Hovis Ad

Article excerpt

When I began this column five months ago, I said that Ian McMillan, the "Bard of Barnsley", had crept all over the BBC schedules like bindweed on an allotment. Soon after that, I began to wonder if someone--possibly the controller of Radio 4, Mark "Axeman" Damazer--had sprinkled weedkiller about the place, for McMillan's "ecky thump" vowels seemed to be gone for a time. Now, though, he is back, presenting a five-part series called Worked Out (Radio 4, Tuesdays, 9.30am), in which he explores Britain's lost coalfields--small, long-forgotten and never nationalised pits in such places as the Forest of Dean and Whitehaven, in Cumbria. Well, that's bindweed for you: look away for a second and it'll be back, more vigorous than ever.

I loved the idea of this programme; it often feels as if our recent industrial past is in danger of being forgotten altogether. In my home town, once so famous for its steel, the furnaces no longer burn. You drive past them on your way to the shopping centre. The nearest most children get to grasping how their grandfathers made a living is watching waterwheels turn during school trips to the "industrial hamlet". In Shropshire, where McMillan began his memorialising, only one former miner from the former Madeley coalfield is still alive.

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It was spellbinding listening to this miner--Jack Smart--tell of life below ground and, for a while, I was able to put my feelings about McMillan to one side. Furthermore, when McMillan reminded Smart that a miner's life was "horrible", that he'd best not get too sentimental about it, I was relieved: believe me, there is nothing worse than a Yorkshireman with a selective memory. Then it happened. Inevitably, McMillan had written a poem about Jack, and he decided to share it with us. …