Ian McMillan: Why the best thing about books is the characters never get old

It was sitting there at Barry Hines's funeral the other week and glancing across at Dai Bradley, the actor who played Billy Casper, that set me thinking about the way the characters we read about in books are forever frozen in time: Billy will always be the skinny dreamer gazing into the sky hoping his kestrel will swoop back to his arm. He'll never age, never go down the pit or not, never escape Barnsley or stay wandering its streets forever.

Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan

I’d aged, Dai had aged, everybody else in the church that day had aged from the first time we opened the book, but Billy was still a lad. Of course, as a fan of the book and the film, I’d speculated about a sequel involving Billy as a man my age, redundant from the pit, spending time with his bird of prey in an allotment overlooking a complex of call centres, but the book was never written and now never will be.

It’s a peculiar kind of time machine, the book; it’s like one of those pictures on the mantelpiece of your parents on their wedding day gazing to the future with the optimism of youth. They matured, they aged, but on the mantelpiece they’re forever young.

Of course some writers break the grip of time on their characters, in both directions: Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes retire to keep bees and Roy Clarke gave us the younger versions of the Holmfirth trio in First of the Summer Wine but most writers don’t, presumably because they think that the character’s tale has to end somewhere.

It’s the young people in books that make me ponder hardest, to be honest. As a child I read about kids who were nothing like me and I wonder where they could be now. Billy Bunter would be Something In The City, dozing in the office of his dad’s family firm high up in a glass and steel Canary Wharf high-rise; William from the Just William books would surprise us all by becoming JW the Beat Poet, hitch-hiking across the USA with Kerouac and Ginsberg; and Heidi would enter the Eurovision Song Contest and win for Austria with a song about life in the mountains.

Goldilocks, though. What about Goldilocks? Runs out of the three bears’ cottage with porridge round her mouth and then what? Does she go back the next day and meekly knock at the door and beg forgiveness, strike up a friendship with the bears and eventually go round once a month for breakfast? Humpty Dumpty, though. What about Humpty Dumpty? After years of surgery and physiotherapy he goes, against doctor’s orders, and sit on the wall again and we can all guess what happened next.

And what about Ian McMillan? What happens to him at the end of these columns because he is more-or-less a fictional character after all? Ah, that’s an easy one: he goes and puts the kettle on.