The day when two dead poets almost got me into bother - Ian McMillan

It’s the mid-70s and a very excited but throat-catchingly nervous Ian McMillan in a badly-fitting shirt and awkwardly loud tie is getting off the train in Stafford to go to his interview at North Staffordshire Polytechnic to study Modern Studies, a degree that involves English, History, Politics and Sociology and which will be, he is convinced, a great adventure.

Ian recalls memories of his student days in the 70s. (JPIMedia).
Ian recalls memories of his student days in the 70s. (JPIMedia).

That Ian McMillan and the 65-year-old me have very little in common all these years later but I still think about that moment of getting off the train and gazing around and feeling like something amazing was about to happen.

To be honest, North Staffs was the only place to offer me an interview because I hadn’t worked very hard at school but I didn’t mind: three years of excitement in a small Midlands town beckoned as long as I could get through the interview.

I asked Miss Grey in the English department what kinds of things they might ask and she wisely said that they’d be looking for evidence of wider reading.

She said: “The degree is called Modern Studies but they’ll be pleased if you showed interest in older writers.” She gestured to the crammed bookshelves in her office and pointed at books by Keats and Yeats. If only she’d spoken and not gestured, I would have been saved a lot of pain.

I walked up to the main site of the polytechnic as I wanted to take in the town and get my bearings. It was a warm day in spring and soon my tie began to seem even more ludicrous than it actually was so I loosened it, hoping to look like a cynical detective in a cop show but actually succeeding in looking like an overweight schoolboy, which of course is what I was. I arrived sweaty and flustered.

Students who looked impossibly glamorous and sophisticated wandered by with books under their arms.

A boy said to a girl: “See you for coffee after the seminar” and I thought that was the most amazing collection of words ever uttered. Other people who looked brighter than me were waiting to be interviewed. I was the only one in a tie, albeit a loosened one.

I was called in. Clever older people sat behind a desk. They asked me some questions about why I wanted to go on the course and I trotted out answers about wanting to make sociology a big part of my life.

Then they asked about wider reading and this was my moment. “I very much like the work of Keats and Yeats,” I said, except that I said Kates and Yeets and I knew straight away that that was wrong. I went as red as my tie.

One of the clever older people wrote something down. I left the room and walked back into town, almost weeping. I sat in a Golden Egg and had a bacon sandwich. I took my tie off. I felt that Keats and Yeats had ended my academic career.

And two days later I got a letter offering me a place. Thanks, Kates and Yeets!