How I met my match on holiday, says Yorkshire poet Ian McMillan

Here I am, leaning perhaps a little too close to the woodburning stove in the holiday cottage, trying to light the twigs I’ve gathered on my seaside strolls. I’m not a woodburning stove kind of chap, and so this is a bit of a new departure for me, or it will be if I can get the match to light. If I can just get the match to light. Maybe it’s an extreme version of the matches they used to call safety matches, and in this case it’s so safe it will never spark up.
Ian McMillanIan McMillan
Ian McMillan

It's nice to have an adventure on holiday, and using my soft poet’s hands to pick up sticks counts as an adventure as far as I’m concerned. When I was young I was allowed to light the fire in the back room while my mam and dad were still in bed. I’d nagged them and nagged them to let me do it and eventually they gave in and I was able to sneak downstairs, avoiding the creaky step, and set fire to the newspaper and sticks I’d carefully laid the night before. I have to confess that the bit I enjoyed most was the bit when the struck match burned with a sudden bright flame; it was a kind of magic, a kind of alchemy turning air to fire, turning a stick into the kind of flaming torch mobs carried in Frankenstein films. Sometimes I just looked at the match as it burned down, and then threw it on the fire and struck another. Eventually the paper and sticks caught light or they didn’t and then my dad had to come and rescue the fire and get it going but I didn’t really care because I’d struck a match and held it in my hand.

And now the opposite was happening; I was holding an unlit match in my hand and despite my efforts it just wouldn’t get going. I’d been looking forward to this firelighting ritual all day as I picked up a bit of driftwood on the beach and imagined it smouldering into life with a salty smell, and I even imagined that, as it burned, it might give off the faint sound of shanty or the cry of a gull. I found a thick twig at the edge of a field and wondered if it would burn in an ancient way, burning like its ancestors had done in the village at the edge of the field for hundreds of years. I found a wooden chip shop fork and I was interested to see if it would burn with a vinegary odour.

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And I still couldn’t light a match. I almost gave up but then one flared briefly and I made the mistake of waving it in triumph and it went out. I blamed the matches; they must be old and damp. I blamed the air: it must be old and damp. I blamed the time of day and the time of year. I struck a match so hard that it broke. All the stories those bits of wood could tell, and they’d never get to tell them. There’s something there for a writer, surely, about untold stories, about people who never get to tell their tales because nobody sparks their imagination.

My wife comes into the room. ‘These matches are useless’ I say, my voice almost breaking with frustration. She leans over and strikes one straight away and lights the fire. Well, apart from that match. That one wasn’t useless. Or was I the useless one? Surely not.

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