Ian McMillan: Lingering ... to find that life is not full of beans

Picture the scene: I’m at Stanley Ferry, that beautiful canalside location near Wakefield. I’m wandering along with an artist called Alastair Cook (he’s heard all the Letter from America jokes, thanks) and he’s filming me with an old super-8 movie camera for a project we’re doing. The old camera whirrs like a bee stuck in treacle and our footsteps echo on the towpath.

We approach a bridge. At the other side we can see a man fishing and we also notice something unusual beside his fishing bag: a huge plastic carrier full of broad beans, still in their pods, obviously straight from an allotment. Now, as far as I’m concerned the broad bean is the King of Vegetables; if vegetables have a gold standard, the broad bean is platinum.

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They even look great: the pod is a thing of beauty, the inside is furry like the inside of a luxury car, the slightly oval, slightly plump bean itself radiates promise and fulfilment in equal measure. And the taste! The taste! The broad bean tastes like that moment when you wake up in a rented cottage by the sea and you smell the fresh air and there’s a hint of last night’s barbecue smoke still hanging imperceptibly in the garden; it tastes like that moment when you open the envelope with your exam results in and you’ve got A-stars; it tastes like that moment when you managed to stay up to watch Neil Armstrong step onto the Moon when you were little in 1969 and you wondered if he’d have to eat his broad beans in tablet or liquid form. In other words, the broad bean tastes great.

Alastair was training his camera on some dappling and reflecting that was happening in the water because that’s what artists do. I encouraged him to move on, because I thought he should film the big bag of broad beans; they’d add something to our joint words-and-images project, and it might mean that I’d get to write poems about broad beans.

He lingered, not wanting to shift. He lingered on the dappling and the reflecting. He spent a long time on what, to me, was a fairly uninteresting bird that landed on the water. A couple of people in walking gear and matching cagoules wandered towards the fisherman. As they passed, he said, “Do you want some broad beans? I’ve just been to the garden and got these, and I’ve got so many I don’t know what to do with them.” The walkers, of course, said yes, nodding enthusiastically so that their matching cagoules made matching rattling and scraping sounds. “Take them all!” the fisherman said, with characteristic Yorkshire generosity. And they did. They took the bulging bag of wonderfulness and wandered off with it. Broad beans for tea! And supper! And breakfast! Alastair was still filming the dappling and the frankly dull bird. I got irritated. I wanted the bird to fly away in a boring fashion. The walkers walked by us, clutching the broad bean bag. “You beat us to the free broad beans there,” I said, hoping they’d say, “Here you are: have a few. We’ve got more than we need!” but they didn’t. They obviously liked broad beans as much as me. “Wasn’t that a lovely effect of the light on the water?” said Alastair. I grunted. We walked past the fisherman. He smiled at us. I tried to smile back. All those broad beans and I missed them by a minute. Life’s cruel.