Ian McMillan: Plane truths about clashing dates

I was once walking by the side of a canal when I also walked out from behind a hedge and started walking in front of myself. Of course that isn’t really true, it’s just there to grab your attention, but what actually happened is almost as strange: I was once walking by the side of a canal when a bloke who looked so much like me that he could have been me appeared from behind a hedge and started walking in front of me. He had a dark coat like mine, he had grey hair like mine; he walked like me, with his head slightly lowered as though he was looking for something. He was my body double, the lucky chap.

I hung back, because I didn’t want to walk past him and discover that he wore glasses like mine and had a red spot on the end of his nose just like I do.

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As I gazed into the murky waters of the canal I recalled the time I once really did have a body double, although the people who organised him to stand in for me have always denied it. It was way back in 1997 and somebody rang up asking me to write some new versions of the poet Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, a set of nasty children’s rhymes (or rhymes about nasty children) that were very popular decades ago, featuring kids like Matilda who set fire to a house and Jim who got eaten by a lion.

I agreed to write the verses and they said they’d be staged in a big theatre in London and they’d be accompanied by improvised music, and I should perform them as the improvisers improvised. That all sounded good to me: I like working with musicians, especially improvising ones. They told me the 
gig was to be in early October. That was also fine, but I pointed out to them that until the day before I’d be in Mexico reading my poems to the citizens of Oaxaca and Chihuahua and making a TV programme about the experience, so I wouldn’t be available to rehearse, but of course it didn’t matter because I’d have the poems written down and the music would be made up on the spot.

They seemed to agree but as I criss-crossed Mexico with a book of poems and a film crew, driven by a toothless chap called Hector in an overheating minibus that dated from pre-Aztec times, there’d be a fax at every hotel we stayed in from the organisers of the Hilaire Belloc show asking when I’d be able to rehearse. I spent hours in back rooms of the aforementioned hotels faxing back, at great expense, the news that they already knew: I couldn’t rehearse as I was either across the Atlantic or flying above the Atlantic. I landed back in Heathrow the evening before the gig and went home. I got an early train to London the next day for the morning gig, clutching my poems. I went straight to the dressing room, lurching and dizzy with jetlag and two weeks of Mexican food. I burst in and greeted the band. A little fat bloke in a Hawaiian shirt looked grumpy and left the room in a hurry. I asked who he was and the musicians were evasive but years later one of them dropped the hint that they’d employed a chap who looked like to read my poems in case I didn’t show up because I’d missed my plane. “I was Ian McMillan’s Body Double”: now, that would be a best-selling volume!