A poetry reading, sixth formers and a literary mix up - Ian McMillan

Many years ago I was invited to read some of my poems at an event in a library in Cheshire.

Poet and broadacster Ian McMillan.
Poet and broadacster Ian McMillan.

It had been well advertised and the room was just about full. I spotted that there was a block of about 15 empty seats that said 'RESERVED'.

My hope, in those more innocent days, was that these reserved seats might be for visiting talent scouts who might be poised to whisk me off to Hollywood, but it often turned out they were for the Mayor or Lord Mayor and their party and I would spend much of the evening squinting to read my poems because I was being blinded by the brightness of the ceremonial chain around the mayoral neck.

I asked about the seats and the organiser said they were for a school party who were reading my work for wider study around their A-levels and I felt myself swelling with pride and also a kind of bafflement because I had no idea that my poems were being studied at all, by anyone, anywhere.

It looked like they weren’t going to show up, though, so the chief librarian introduced me and I was about to begin but then the school party trooped in.

The teacher was an eager young man who was full of apologies; the coach was late and there was a knock-on effect but I told him that it didn’t matter and I was pleased they were there.

The teacher smiled but carried on looking worried; he kept gazing around the room and glancing at his watch and I guessed one of the kids hadn’t turned up. I started to speak, doing a couple of gags that normally went down well; most people laughed but the young people stayed silent.

Good, I thought. Serious young people. They’re what this frivolous world needs.

Then I noticed that they were all carrying books. They were all carrying the same book, The Cement Garden, by the great novelist Ian McEwan.

They weren’t holding my first collection of poems, The Changing Problem. The teacher was leaning forward, trying to catch what I was saying and at the same time frantically leafing through the book to see if he could find any evidence of my words there.

The book had a picture of Ian McEwan on the back and the only visual connection between me and him is that we both wear glasses.

The sixth-formers and their increasingly discombobulated teacher kept staring at the picture and then looking at me. In those days I was quite chunky, not the lean mean poetry machine that I am these days, and it’s fair to say the two Ians were almost complete physical opposites.

At the end of the reading there was a Q&A and one lad put his hand up and said: “Would you say that Jack in The Cement Garden is a reliable narrator?”

What choice did I have? I had to answer him. I hope he got good grades.