Ian McMillan: Why make haste?

Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan
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The sharp starting point of January is inevitably full of predictions for the year ahead, and it’s always a good exercise to save these articles and look at them a few years later. Holidays on Mars? Not yet. Monorails to work? Afraid not. Only working half a day a week for the same amount of money you work all week for now? In your dreams. Yorkshire dialect dying away? Tha must me evvin me on!

Let’s face it, who would have dared to write down at the end of 2015 the momentous events of last year as though they were things that would actually happen, like the election of Donald Trump and the voting to leave the EU and the deaths of all those pop culture icons like David Bowie? As people often say, if you’d written it as a script nobody would believe you; and maybe, as a writer, that’s what I’m looking forward to the most when I glance into the years ahead. I’m waiting for the definitive novel, or poem, or play about 2016.

The thing is, in my opinion I reckon it’s often best to leave this kind of writing to marinade. The past has a way of redrafting the present, which should make anybody nervous of making high-handed pronouncements on the next few years before the ink has dried on last year.

Of course there are always going to be topical columns and blogs about current events, and there are always shelves and shelves of hasty cut-and-paste books rushed out after history-shifting moments, but I want to see creative writing about the last 12 months that really takes its time, that considers each paragraph, that refuses to jerk the knee.

That said, there are plenty of marvellous pieces of writing produced quickly in reaction to the globe shifting on its axis that stay with me. I’m thinking of one of my favourite novels, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, created rapidly in response to the huge migrations across the USA by poor farmers from the Midwest in search of the American Dream before the Second World War. In poetry there are the works of people like Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg, who made poems from their immediate surroundings in the First World War, but I often speculate what would have happened had Owen survived the war and lived to a grand old age like Siegfried Sassoon did. Maybe he’d have written poems about the conflict that were better for having been left for a few decades. It’s one of those interesting “what ifs” that history is cluttered with. Is the passion of the moment better artistically than the considered language of the long perspective?

Maybe it’s up to me; perhaps I will be the scribe who writes a best-selling but intellectually demanding novel about the last turbulent 12 months. I’ll take my time with it, of course. I don’t plan to finish it until 2021 and I’ll buy myself a week’s self-catering on Mars with the advance. See you there!