Ian McMillan aka The Bard of Barnsley goes in search of the meaning of Yorkshire in his forthcoming Neither Nowt Nor Summat. In this extract he explores his home county as a tourist destination
Yorkshire, or as I prefer to call it, ‘Yorkshire’, is indeed a place that people love to visit. Some recent statistics, compiled before the 2014 Tour de France that turned the county into a seething mass of people shouting and waving, tell me that in 2009 10.6 million people came from different parts of the UK to spend at least one night here. That’s a mountain of tea-and-coffee-making facilities that could stretch as far as the asteroid belt.
That’s a lot of gurning selfies taken in front of beauty spots. That’s a long queue of couples in craft bakers choosing granary loaves. People visit different places for different reasons and, somehow, there may be issues of class here. Just to note, you realise; not to unpick. Hen and stag parties flock to Leeds and Hull in minibuses and stretch limos; people who read big newspapers go the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and nod and say words like ‘intriguing’. People walk through the RHS gardens at Harlow Carr and feel that somehow the experience is doing them good, and it probably is, and Goths flock to Whitby every October to be with their own kind and have darkly gothic fun.
So I decide to take a day trip up the A1 and into the kind of Yorkshire that qualifies as Tourist Yorkshire. Maybe, once I’ve been, I’ll try and use my literary skills to make a new Yorkshire-wide slogan to attract even more people, or a series of tiny, jewel-like sloganettes to push people in the direction of a town or an attraction. I often think of these slogans as advertising haiku, trying to say as much as possible in just a few words.
In 2014 Calderdale Council had to defend itself from criticism aimed at its new ‘Pretty Gritty’ slogan, but I like it: it’s descriptive, it’s pithy, and it rhymes. In the past, Yorkshire has been ‘Alive with Opportunity’ and Leeds has experimented with ‘Leeds: Live it, Love it’ which steamed with alliteration and which made people alliteratively angry when it was found to be almost the same as the slogan for Hong Kong which went ‘Hong Kong: Live It, Love It’. I see what they did there. Bridlington has been ‘Beautiful, Bracing Bridlington’, which could be haikuspeak for ‘Bring a Cardigan’, and in 2003 Rotherham, a town I like very much, described itself in a brochure as ‘Perfect for Short Breaks’, which in some ways it is.
It seems to me that Yorkshire is trying to sell itself as all things to all people which in itself would make a serviceable if bland slogan. ‘Yorkshire: All Things To All People.’ The other linguistic way to sell the county, of course, is to use the ‘From … To’ template beloved of the writers of press releases. You could move from the general, ‘Yorkshire: from the West to the East, from the North to the South’, to the perhaps too specific, ‘Yorkshire: from Mushy Peas in a Ceramic Ramekin at Harry Ramsden’s to Sunsets over the Wolds on Thursdays in October.’ I’m not only going on the tourist trail, I’m going on the slogan trail.
The only problem is that I can’t drive. I had a couple of lessons when I was 17 with a man from the Pennine Driving School in Wombwell who was more nervous than I was, and since then I’ve gone everywhere by bus or train or I’ve begged lifts. I remember the instructor’s hands shook and he wore flapping sandals the size of industrial waste-paper bins. After a few minutes I knew that driving wasn’t for me. It was the way he looked like he was going to weep every time I turned the wheel. To go by public transport to the bits of Tourist Yorkshire I wanted to visit would be difficult, and anyway the idea is to take the route that many visitors take, to find out what intrigues them, what drives them, as it were, up the county’s spine.
I recruit Iain the Artist, who has recently passed his test and is eager to drive anywhere, everywhere. I see him driving through Darfield to the library and the paper shop and we wave our artistic waves, wishing we were somewhere on Cat Hill. He picks me up at home on a cold, bright day and he gestures to the back seat, which is full of maps and menus for the Chinese takeaway he delivers for.
I’m going to define the essence of this sprawling place as best I can. I’m going to start here, in this village, and radiate out like a ripple in a pond. I don’t want to go to the obvious places, either; I want to be like a bus driver on my first morning on the job, getting gloriously lost, turning up where I shouldn’t. I’m going to confirm or deny the clichés, holding them up to see where the light gets in. Yorkshire people are tight. Yorkshire people are arrogant. Yorkshire people eat a Yorkshire pudding before every meal. Yorkshire people solder a t’ before every word they use...
If there were such a thing as a professional Yorkshireman, Ian McMillan would be it. He’s regularly consulted as a home-grown expert, and southerners comment archly on his ‘fruity Yorkshire brogue’. But he has been keeping a secret. His dad was from Lanarkshire, Scotland, making him, as he puts it, only ‘half tyke’. So Ian is worried; is he Yorkshire enough?
To try to understand what this means Ian embarks on a journey around the county, starting in the village has lived in his entire life. With contributions from the Cudworth Probus Club, a kazoo playing train guard, Mad Geoff the barber and four Saddleworth council workers looking for a mattress, Ian tries to discover what lies at the heart of Britain’s most distinct county and its people, as well as finding out whether the Yorkshire Pudding is worthy of becoming a UNESCO Intangible Heritage Site, if Harrogate is really, really, in Yorkshire and, of course, who knocks up the knocker up?