Ian McMillan: A reading matter

Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan
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When I was a boy my mother always used to say, if I tried to hide something from her, “I can read you like a book, lad,” and it was true.

She knew when I was trying to pull the wool, she knew when I was boasting to make a point and she knew when I was scared and was trying to pretend that I wasn’t.

“You’ve not read enough chapters yet,” I piped and, because this was the unreconstructed late 1960s in South Yorkshire, she gave me a clip round the ear and said, in the way that mothers do, “I’ll chapter you in a minute lad!”

Once I made the mistake of trying to be a smart-Alec with her when she said it: “You’ve not read enough chapters yet,” I piped and, because this was the unreconstructed late 1960s in South Yorkshire, she gave me a clip round the ear and said, in the way that mothers do, “I’ll chapter you in a minute lad!” doing that thing that Yorkshire matriarchs do of taking a word or a phrase you’ve just used and chucking it back at you with sharp bits on. The best example I ever heard was somebody in a shop saying to their mother “I’ve forgot to get the beans,” and the mother replying in a voice that could crack walnuts, “I’ll forget to get the beans you in a minute, sonny!”

But what would it be like to really read somebody like a book, and I don’t mean that thing you do when you lean too close to someone in a crowded space to make out what their tattoos say? In the end people are complicated and complex and books, even the most difficult ones, are simple compared to people. Even the fattest and most detailed memoir isn’t a life, it’s just the edited highlights of a life, and the most comprehensive and all-encompassing history book would have to leave a lot out or nobody would be able to carry it home from the library unaided.

How could I read somebody like a book, though? Could it be done? I suppose I could read them like a whodunnit, trying to guess their motives and what made them tick, and I could piece together clues about them that would tell me what they were really up to last Friday night at half-past seven. I could read them like a romance novel, trying to work out if the glances and shy smiles added up to anything and if the cosy candlelit dinner for two would end up anywhere or nowhere.

You could try to read me like a book for new readers, giving me simple and vivid adventures: Here is Ian. This is Ian. Hello, Ian. Hello, Hello. Ian is writing a column. Write, write Ian.

You could read me like a cookbook, a life built from simple recipes and the odd heroic failure, or you could read me like an atlas, following the route of the places I’ve been. You could read me like an instruction manual called How To Build a Middle Aged Man With Grey Hair From A Sprightly Kid With No Lines on His Face; let’s hope that particular book doesn’t have a sudden ending, or the last page ripped out.

In the end, we’re not books, but that doesn’t stop us trying to read other people as though they are, which is okay as long as nobody bends our ears over or sticks a bookmark in the waistband of our corduroys.