Ian McMIllan: Poet on a train

I’m on a train that keeps slowing down unaccountably; it wanders along in the hinterland between two post-industrial towns and every so often, like an old miner gasping for breath, it wheezes to a halt and has a minute.

Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan

I’m on a train that keeps slowing down unaccountably; it wanders along in the hinterland between two post-industrial towns and every so often, like an old miner gasping for breath, it wheezes to a halt and has a minute. It’s not raining but it feels like it might very shortly. Outside, a police siren merges with the sound of an ice-cream van playing Greensleeves like a mash-up of hope and despair.

I sit there gazing out of the window at a neglected area of nothingness. Well, not quite nothingness. It’s on some sort of vaguely-defined border between thingness and nothingness. There are bushes grown wild through neglect or inertia. There’s a wall with some half-hearted graffiti splashed on and behind the wall a deserted factory. A supermarket trolley rusts at the bottom of the wall, and there are two footballs and a teddy bear sitting in it like suspects in a surreal identity parade.

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So in fact this view, framed by the train window, isn’t empty in any way. There’s drama here, and detail, and a kind of art. These in-between places were memorably dubbed Edgelands by the poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts in a book of the same name. Maybe they were once sites of engineering, maybe they were lived in, maybe they just fell between the cracks of usefulness.

If you take your time with these edgelands, though, they can be beguiling and mysterious places; and for a writer they’re a great challenge to write about without making them too bleak. Once you start to look, they’re everywhere. Those enormous warehouses that litter the landscape next to motorways and A-roads; they’re edgelands of a sort, especially the unoccupied ones that just squat behind tiny hedges and manicured areas of grass. Imagine them late at night with just a solitary security guard wandering around; those angles, those harsh lights, those roads and paths that seem to lead nowhere are worth trying to write stories and poems about. In their way, these half-empty spaces can be as resonant as cathedrals, and we need to find ways of writing about them if, as writers, we want to describe how life is lived in 2022.

Once you start thinking about these places, you notice them everywhere. That scrubland behind those garages. That house that seems to have been empty for ever and a day. That gathering of trees that’s too big to be a copse and too small to be a wood.

After all, very few of us live in places that are bright and shiny all the time. And the places we live should be available for literature. So let’s start writing. What are we waiting for?

Ah yes, I remember. We’re waiting for the train to move.