Ian McMillan: The columnist’s craft leads us to an ending...

MANY years ago, as a callow youth, I went across America on the Greyhound bus with my mates Bob and Dave. We landed in New York and went to LA and then back to New York over two unforgettable weeks.

Keith Waterhouse

By judicious budgeting and spending most of our nights sleeping on the bus, I managed to stretch my little stack of dollars until the last day, when I ended up at Kennedy Airport in New York with just a handful of change.

I could have bought a burger. I could have bought a bottle of pop. I didn’t: I bought a copy of The New Yorker magazine. Bob and Dave, munching their burgers and quaffing their pop, thought I was daft. I knew I wasn’t: if you want food and drink, read words on a page. They’ll fill you up. I’ve still got that magazine somewhere in a drawer; you can’t open the pages because Dave spilled his pop on it, which served him right.

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Words on a page are addictive and nourishing; they, in the words of Lord Reith, the first director general of the BBC, “inform, educate and entertain”. The reason I bought The New Yorker that day at the airport was because I used to love those old American columnists like SJ Perelman and Robert Benchley and the way they could write about anything and make it funny, and relevant, and the way that the beginning of the column somehow led you to the end of the column through various twists and turns until you thought “he’s never going to tie it all together”. But they always did. Well, almost always.

I think the newspaper column is one of civilisation’s great achievements, along with the mousetrap and the flushing toilet. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but isn’t that what columnists do? I used to love reading Patrick Campbell and Michael Parkinson in the Sunday Times, and Leeds’s own Keith Waterhouse in the Daily Mirror. In the Yorkshire Post, I was a huge fan of the late great Jake Thackray’s pieces, and I used to cut out the Northerner columns and stick them in a scrapbook.

My method for writing my columns is always the same. I have to have an idea first. Having the idea is the main thing; this might seem obvious but you’d be amazed how many people ask me ‘Do you just start writing about owt?’ as though the column’s theme will emerge as I write. Some people might be able to work like that but I can’t.

So I think of an idea. I write it down straight away in one of my big notebooks. The idea might just be a line, or a phrase, or a single word. It has to be relevant to the world, because a column won’t work if it doesn’t reflect the world around it, and it has to be relevant to Yorkshire because, after all, Yorkshire is the world. I stare at the idea. I find the first line of the column bubbling up in my brain like those bubbles that rush to the top of a bottle of fizzy water as soon as you open it. I could write the first line down next to the idea but I don’t; I leave it to marinade and grow, overnight.

Then, early in the morning when my brain is clear and my mind is fertile, I sit in front of my laptop and I begin to write. As I tap away, I imagine everybody who’s ever written a column standing behind me in a long, long line. They’re making sure I get it right, making sure I uphold the great tradition. Sometimes they tut with disappointment. Sometimes they clap a finely-turned phrase. I know that my tendency is to show off, to make a simile ring like those little bells jesters have at the end of their pointy shoes but I try to curb that. Sometimes I succeed. Often I don’t.

The first couple of paragraphs flow. Then the hard work begins as I shape the rest of the piece. Keep the sentences fresh. Try not to use fire-damaged phrases or images that are past their write-by date. Never refer to “blankets” of snow or “war-torn” countries because those terms are threadbare. Remember to keep Yorkshire at the front of your mind. That bit’s not hard.

I always like to write my columns conversationally, so that anybody reading them can imagine me sitting next to them in a café, talking. I try to edit out any sentence that feels like it’s written rather than spoken. I try to make them sound as much like me as I can.

And I try to return to the end at the beginning, imagining somebody down to their last pile of change coming home from their holidays and spending their money on a Yorkshire Post rather than a cup of tea. Good for them!

This is my last Tuesday column; I’ll see you all in the Magazine on Saturday. If I can have a good idea!