Ian McMillan: Yorkshire’s heart and soul in its own words

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IT was a hot summer’s afternoon a couple of years ago and I was sitting in the steamy offices of a publisher in London, or as we officially have to call it in the pages of this newspaper, That London.

Outside the blue sky seemed to be full of planes taking off and landing, and as the publisher shuffled notes on his desk and cleared his throat, I had this very vivid fantasy that he was about to commission a travel book that would involve me getting on some of those planes and criss-crossing the map (First Class, of course) to discover the essence of something or other.

He looked me in the eye. He’s from Lancashire, which is relevant to this story. “I’d like you to write me a book,” he said, as more planes passed behind his head, one of them appearing to go in one ear and out of the other. “about Yorkshire. About the meaning of Yorkshire, the essence of Yorkshire, and exactly what it is”.

My jaw must have hung open. I must have looked amazed. It seemed that my passport was to remain firmly at home; it seemed that I wasn’t going to be flying anywhere for a while.

He ploughed on: “Yes, you appear to understand quite a bit about Yorkshire, and I know that you’re always getting asked to comment on Yorkshire matters, and some people…” (here he allowed a chuckle to litter his voice daintily) “call you a Professional Yorkshireman, so we reckon you’re just the man for the job.”

He stood up to shake hands on the deal and I hope he didn’t notice my momentary hesitation before I allowed his Lancashire paw any near my Yorkshire digits.

On the (Standard Class) train home I was initially disappointed, but by Stevenage I’d started to cheer up and by Peterborough I was grinning from ear to ear; this book could be a real journey, a journey to the heart of a place and people and a way of thinking that I thought I knew well.

I could travel the world and the world could be Yorkshire. It was a challenge: a glove had been thrown down and I was the one to pick it up. I would shine a light on Yorkshire and illuminate its beauty for all to see.

I settled back in my seat and watched the world go by, only feeling fully settled in my seat once we’d crossed into Yorkshire, somewhere between Retford and Doncaster.

Except that when I thought about it, this really was a heck of a challenge. The essence, the meaning, of Yorkshire in a book? Just one book, not a set of 12 like those encyclopaedias we used to have?

Almost impossible, given the vastness of the subject. I got off the train, went home, got a new notebook out and wrote “Yorkshire” on the front in big bold letters. And then I stared into space for what felt like months.

As I began to write the book, various ideas as to what the meaning of the place could possibly be bubbled to the surface. Perhaps the meaning of Yorkshire is contained within its urban and suburban landscapes, in a way that people these days call Psychogeographical; in other words a terraced street near an old mill or beside where a coal mine used to be can tell you stories about place through its architecture, through the layers of wallpaper on the sitting room walls, through the state of the garden and the number of times the bricks have been pointed.

And somehow, in these older houses, the voices of those who lived here before can still be heard, grumbling as they have to get out of bed for an early shift, laughing as they fumble the key into the lock after a Friday night out, doing homework at the kitchen table and asking the answer to something that somebody, anybody, in the room might know.

Maybe, though, to really find what made Yorkshire tick, I had to walk away from the streets and up into the hills, onto the moors, down the old paths and by the sea.

Yorkshire is a very natural place; there’s a kind of harsh Yorkshire nature everywhere you look, a nature that blows your hat off as you try to walk along the front at Scarborough, or a nature that freezes your sheep as you try to gather them in, or a nature that fills your allotments with gorgeous abundance.

In these natural settings the very kernel of Yorkshire-ness might be found, grimacing in the hail or mopping a brow in the warm, warm sun.

As I continued my quest and the seasons changed and the pages of my diary turned, I kept writing single words down on the page where they floated like boats. Words like “sen”, which is of course Yorkshire for “self” as in “Get thissen darn!” shouted to a child climbing a tree; or “brussen”, an almost untranslatable Yorkshire word meaning something between over-confidence and aggression: “Eee, he were brussen wi’ that traffic warden!”

And maybe, in the end, it dawned on me that that’s where the meaning of Yorkshire is to be found: in its language. Its language built by farm-labourers and mill-workers and miners and fishermen. It’s a language of work, of instructions shouted out in deafening steelworks or hurled across valleys in the driving rain.

Language: that’s the meaning of Yorkshire, tha knows. A language of short but beautiful words and tight gorgeous vowels. Listen to the way we speak, and there’s profound meaning in that, even if do say so missen. Ah’ll sithi.

Ian McMillan, from Barnsley, is author of Neither Nowt Nor Summat: In search of the meaning of Yorkshire published by Ebury Press, price £14.99. Don’t miss The Yorkshire Post’s Magazine today for his weekly column.