Ian McMillan: 50 shades of Dorian

I was once doing a poetry reading at a literature festival and I was being met at the station by the organiser. 'How will I recognise you?' I asked, really hoping that they'd say they'd be holding up an enormous piece of cardboard with my name on it in coloured marker pen because I think that for a writer being met at a station or an airport by somebody holding their name up is something that really strokes their ego. 'I'll be holding a photograph of you,' she said, and I said 'That's okay.' Perhaps I sounded slightly disappointed, hoping for the felt-tip name, because she said 'It's all right: it's a recent one!' Well, that's all right then. I'd still have preferred a name board.

Ian McMillan

Mind you, the poet Matthew Sweeney once wrote about the time he was met at an Eastern European airport by two men standing next to each other each holding identical placards with his name on. He didn’t know which one to walk up to, and as he tried to decide, the two men walked towards him, then ran towards him, jostling each other, then began to fight each other with the placards, swinging them like medieval clubs. Maybe a recent photograph would be better.

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I got off the train and there was someone smiling and holding up what appeared to be a picture of Humpty Dumpty wearing huge glasses. It could have been Dame Edna Everage going to a fancy dress party as Timmy Mallett. It wasn’t: it was me, as a much younger man. My hair was dark. My glasses were Jodrell Bank bottle-bottoms. The woman from the festival looked amongst the throng for someone who might resemble the person in the picture, and she saw nobody.

This is the curse of the author photograph, the picture that appears at the back of your book and in the publicity material your publisher sends out for you. The photograph, necessarily because that’s what photographs do, captures a moment in time, but the trouble is that the particular moment was often years and years ago. That shot of me with the big glasses on haunted me for years; it was taken in the early 90s by my mate Simon Thackray on Malton Station. I’d just missed a train which is why my thoughtful expression is really a look of deep misery. At the time the photograph was a good one (well, it still is) but over the years as I aged, it stayed forever young, like the opposite of the one in Dorian Gray’s attic. So many people, expecting the young buck in the image, have been disappointed by the grey-haired grandad of reality.

So maybe that’s why, fundamentally, I prefer the name on cardboard to the photo. The name, unless I change it to Alphonse because that’s more poetic, will stay the same; the author photo will only serve to remind the author how young they once were, how full of promise, and how huge were the glasses they wore.