Ian McMillan: Do something differently; it might be bohemian

THESE past few days I’ve found myself standing in a couple of very interesting places; last Thursday I was at the Academy of Urbanism Congress dinner at the magnificent Alhambra Theatre in Bradford.

JB Priestley

Each year the Academy of Urbanism gives awards to the best city, the best place, the best town, the best street and the best neighbourhood, and I have to write a sonnet for each of the shortlisted locations.

Yorkshire’s done well from the Academy over the years, with places like Scarborough, Skipton and Hebden Bridge picking up awards, and indeed the poem I wrote to celebrate Sheaf Square in Sheffield, by the railway station, has been put up beside the fountain.

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Each time I walk past it I stand for a moment in the hope of hearing a passer-by say ‘Eeee, that’s a lovely poem!’ I’ve not heard it yet, mind you. Still, there’s time. Maybe I should stand nearer to the poem and point, first at the poem and then at me.

Anyway, at the Alhambra I had to read a couple of these poems to welcome the delegates and instead of standing up by the top table as they filed in for their dinner, the Alhambra management and the Academy decided that because the meal was actually happening on the stage, I should stand in the circle and address the crowd from there. I felt like a minor royal on a balcony watching a fly-past. I looked out over the rest of the seats and the stage and I thought: “What a bold idea this is. What a Yorkshire idea this is!”

Then, on Saturday morning bright 
and early, I was somewhere very different but still extremely 
interesting. I found myself walking gingerly down some stairs and coming face to face with a shop-window mannequin wearing a hat.

Behind the mannequin, a leering cat was painted on the wall, half-obscured by posters and photographs. I carried on down the stairs, nodding to the mannequin. I don’t think she nodded back.

I was at the big old terraced house of my mate Pete Mortimer up on the coast, reading poems at a festival he’d organised. Pete is a bohemian and his house reflects that; there’s a huge mouth painted on the door, and windchimes chuckle continuously, even when there’s no wind.

As I stood in his front parlour I was sure that I could hear, above the windchimes and the rain on the window, something hissing: some water was paddling round the radiator, perhaps, or there was a leak somewhere in a distant room. It sounded like snoring. And that’s because it was snoring: somebody I hadn’t seen before was sound asleep on the settee, snoring under a blanket.

My taxi came and I walked out of the door with the mouth painted on it; the taxi driver and I were both laughing with shared glee despite the cold and the rain because of the joyous absurdity of the mouth on the door. “You could never miss that house!” the driver said. I agreed.

And what links my experience at the Alhambra and my evening in Pete’s house is the idea of doing something differently. The Academy could have done things in the usual way and booked a big room in a hotel or a conference centre, but they didn’t: they suggested the “meal on the stage” idea to the Alhambra, and the theatre people loved it.

It was, as people say when they’re not sure about something, “different”. It’s the same with Pete’s house; I reckon that if he ever eventually moves out or moves on they should make his house into a museum; a Museum of Possibilities or a Museum of Everything. It’s certainly not like those rows of identikit newbuilds you see all over the place; the concept of a “utility room”’ is totally alien to Pete.

If a room in his house was utilitarian, he would soon make sure it had a mural on the wall, a statue on the floor and a Chinese Dragon hanging from the ceiling to make it the opposite of a Utility Room.

At the meal-on-the-stage at the Alhambra, I got talking to some people from Incredible Edibles, that amazing group from Todmorden who grow and campaign for local food and they said that what we need in these hard times is to be different, to be positive, to think locally and to use local ideas to generate new thinking and regenerate the economy from your street up.

And maybe that’s right; before I 
read my poems in the theatre I 
stood before the assembled guests 
and read some JB Priestley to them 
in front of a view of the City Park. 
And that wise old Yorkshireman had written that full employment is no 
use unless you’ve got fountains to play in and loom at. Give us fountains, he said, and the rest of the things we need might well follow. Fountains and windchimes.

New thinking, local thinking, bohemian thinking, different thinking. What do you think?