Ian McMillan: Averse to rhymes

Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan
Have your say

When I first started running writing workshops all over South Yorkshire in the early 1980s I was naïve and enthusiastic and keen that everybody who came through the door should have a go at writing a poem, even if they didn’t want to, and even if they’d announced in a stentorian voice as they entered the room: “Whatever you do, don’t try to get me to write a poem; they couldn’t get me to do it at school and I’m too old to start now!”

I’d ignore the loudness of the voice and hand out my poetry exercises. Some, like Eddie Henigan, who I wrote about a few weeks ago, took to poetry like a duck to orange sauce but quite a few wouldn’t even attempt poetry because what they really wanted to write was a thriller, or a whodunnit, or a series of thrillers or whodunnits that would make them very, very rich indeed.

They’d toss my poetry exercises aside and say: “Look, Ian, lad (as I was a lad in those days) all I want to do in this writing game is make money. I’ve been to the library, you see, and I’ve read the thrillers and it’s all down to a formula. There’s a crime at the start. There are some suspects, including an obvious one, a couple of red herrings and somebody who couldn’t possibly have done it, and they’re always the ones who turn out to have done it! All you have to do is get the words in the right order.”

I’d listen and then politely ask if they’d like to have a go at writing a sonnet. They’d completely ignore me.

“I’ve worked it all out, Ian. You can have a bit of a chase sequence on pages 16, 78 and 254, some violence at the end of chapters 5, 9 and 12, and two bits of sex separated by another chase and a comedy scene involving deckchairs.”

Then they’d take a deep breath and read out the opening paragraphs which always began an unlikely name and a description of what they were wearing and where they were: “Mason Brick adjusted his fedora as he stepped from the ferry on the windswept Hebridean island of Minchinch…”

The writing workshop would carry on, the weeks and months would pass, and eventually the thriller/whodunnit would be finished and sent off to publishers. As far as I know (and this makes me a failure) none of the people who came to my classes ever got a thriller published. The wider world will never know what happened just after Mason Brick’s fedora blew into the lap of the retired M15 agent Miss Jazz McAloon as she gazed out to sea.

Maybe it’s time I had a go. Maybe I should put a halt to this poetry-scribbling lark and write a book that will make me a million quid before the ink’s dry.

Here goes: “Thornbury Smuke unbuttoned his expensive overcoat and strode into the lobby of the five-star Reyt Grand Hotel…”