A little while ago I had a couple of days in York.
As I strolled around the streets and tramped along the city walls and sat in cafes testing espressos for strength, the writer in me kept looking for stories and images and ideas that I might save for later and use in the barren mornings when the ideas refuse to drop through the mind’s letterbox.
It’s a thing I’ve always done, keeping my eyes and ears open for something that might make its way into a poem or a script or a story or a column. It’s like being a trainspotter or a birdwatcher except that you’re spotting ideas and watching images.
Ian McMillan: Travel writing and adventures close to home
There was a rich harvest too, as you’d expect. There was the man who took ages to take a photo of the two people waving from the top of Clifford’s Tower; by the time he’d finished they seemed fed up of waving but I got the sense that he wanted to get everything just right. Now there’s a short story in the making.
There was the posh woman in Bettys who compared York unfavourably to Margate as she slurped her tea. Another short story, or a travel piece.
There was the young man who kept adding more sausages to his plate in the hotel breakfast room. First three, then four. Then a slight pause, then another sausage. Then another two.
Seven sausages piled up on the bacon and the mushrooms and the hash browns and the beans. And the odd thing was, he wasn’t a big lad, although if he carried on eating like that, he soon would be. And he came back for toast. He would make a comic poem, maybe.
The main thing that struck me, though, was that I was walking in the footsteps of so many people as I ambled around. Everywhere is historic, of course, but York wears its history on its sleeve.
So, as I moved around I imagined the Romans who had walked here before me, and the Vikings, and the Saxons.
I thought about the Victorian business people who had made money on these streets and the tourists who had loved the place so much that they carried on coming back year after year, starting as newlyweds and ending up as an older couple taking their sweet time.
My Yorkshire: Ian McMillan
All of these people, all of these lives, all of them as unique as I hope I am. And maybe that’s the real job of being a writer and a human being: to try to understand the people who have been here before us, to work out their feelings and hopes and dreams and to see them as real and complicated men and women.
Too often (and I do this as well) we just see people from the past as two-dimensional characters far removed from us, and in fact they’re not. Here they all are, lining up to wander these ancient streets and ask us to understand their unique stories.
Seven sausages, though: that’s just wrong!