Ian McMillan: I still believe in stories, I still believe in myths

I ALWAYS wake up early but last Thursday my eyes popped open at a ridiculous time: 04.32. I don't know what roused me, made me "wakken" as they say round here. It could have been a passing car, or a slamming door, or my own "misfiring Lambretta/wasp in a tin bucket" snoring that did the job.

I lay there with my eyes open and two words shuffled into my head. Pit time. This stark hour was the time the miners used to get up in Darfield and all over the Yorkshire coalfield to go out of the house if they were on days.

When we first moved into this house a quarter of a century ago, you'd hear the footsteps and the bike wheels and, on the top road, the bus rattling down to Houghton Main, and I was often jolted awake by the sounds.

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As the pits shut, there was no reason to get up at dawn and now there are no early-morning bikes or buses that fill up with choking coal dust if you bash the seats, and I've gradually got into waking up a little later – 05.32, maybe. Luxury.

Last Thursday was a busy day for me, though, so I stayed awake and planned it in my head. I had to go to London to give a talk and present some prizes at an award ceremony for landscape architects, and then go down to Fareham near Portsmouth to a lovely little arts centre to introduce a screening of the great Yorkshire film Kes, based on Barry Hines's classic text, A Kestrel for a Knave.

I knew that at the awards do I had to speak for 10 minutes, and I also knew that if I wrote something down it would just end up sounding stale and obviously rehearsed. Of course, I'd think about what I was going to say, I just wouldn't make notes. That makes it more exciting for me and the audience, and I always trust my brain to come up with something. It's not failed me yet. I got up, and a phrase popped into my mind: Available for Myth. I said it to myself in the kitchen as the kettle boiled: Available for Myth, a nice resonant trio of words that I could hang my ten minutes on later in the day.

The landscape architects awards were for places that had been regenerated, restored, given a new sense of purpose. There were parks in run-down inner cities, gorgeous and breezy roof gardens, riverside areas made pleasant again. They were all beautiful but, as I said in my little speech, they had to be places where stories could grow, where legends could be found around every corner, where poems could be written and songs sung.

In Darfield, there was the tale of The Valley Ghost, who scared people half to death then disappeared; there was the story my Uncle Charlie told of the bloke who got out of his coffin on his way to his own funeral because "his neck felt a bit stiff", and there was the eternal question "who knocks up the knocker-up?" which referred to the man whose job it was to rattle the windows of lig-a-beds with a big stick. Available for Myth, you see, because it's these tales and legends that give a place an extra, human dimension, and a means of survival. And Barnsley's always been a pretty mythical place to me anyway, and I live there. The landscape architects clapped my words, and I'm sure I heard a whoop or two.

Then it was down to Fareham to introduce Kes to a small but keen audience. On the train, I tried to think of any connections I could possibly make between Billy Casper's northern tale of tragedy and hopelessness and a small south coast town. Maybe the connections were the human ones of loss and grief, maybe any community has its Billy Caspers, wanting to better themselves when the odds (and Jud, who is pretty odd himself) are stacked against them.

I stood in front of the crowd. Some were Yorkshire ex-pats, some were local people who'd simply come out of curiosity, and one lady thought it was a nature documentary. I talked about Barnsley, about how the film was from a lost era when the mine was virtually the only career choice and if you couldn't play football and you weren't academically bright then you'd end up like the kestrel, ultimately unable to fly away, partly because you couldn't and partly because something invisible held you back.

That night in my hotel, I couldn't sleep. I thought about the changing landscape of my home town, about the drubbing it had had in the past and the kicking it was about to get from the cuts. And I thought: well, I still believe in stories, I still believe in myths, I still believe that words, and the mastery of words, will help to get us through these terrible times.

And then the fire alarm went off, but that's another story.