Ian McMillan: From now on, that café is a no-go aria

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Regular readers will know that I’m a chap who fully embraces the idea of café society; give me a table and a menu and an espresso and a bit of cake and I’m happy. Let me sip the espresso and nibble the cake and watch all my cares drift away in a cloud of steam and a rattling of pots. The other day, though, my cares drifted just a little too far away and I more or less drifted away with them.

Let me explain. I was in the café talking to my mate Alan the Composer about the Yorkshire Opera we’re writing; we’re going to call it A Reyt Grand Opera and it’s going to be sung in the deepest dialect I can write. The interesting conundrum for us is that the flat Yorkshire vowels might have difficulty holding the long notes you need for an aria; a great Yorkshire opera singer like Leslie Garrett will speak in a South Yorkshire accent but sing in the kind of accent that all opera singers sing in which always sounds like it comes from the diaphragm rather than Moorends. Alan and I were so far into our work that we didn’t notice the other customers in the café looking at us oddly as we both tried to sing, him in a reedy tenor and me in a bathtub bass, the archetypal Barnsley word Reyt, which means “right” and which can be said (and sung) in other parts of Yorkshire as “reet”.

I’d go “Reyyyyt” and he’d go “Reeeet” and I’d go “No, it’s Reyyyyt!” and he’d go “Reieieiet” and we must have sounded like an old-style music-hall novelty bird-impression act. He tinged his glass of water with a teaspoon to give himself the beat and the café fell silent. We were embarrassed for a moment, but only for a moment and then we carried on. That’s how we are, us creative types, the world just seems to slip away when we’re in the act of making words and music. Then he looked at his watch and realised he was late for picking the kids up from school so we got up and scuttled out of the café, me wiping crumbs from my chops, him chugging down a last jolt of espresso.

Outside the sun was dazzling and we stumbled about like people who’ve come out of the cinema in the afternoon expecting it to be dark; we could hardly see anything at all, and I began to suspect that somebody had slipped something into the cake that rendered us incapable of making out where we were going and, indeed, remembering where we’d been.

I had to go to the station and Alan had to get his car so we walked together, still trying to sing the word Reyt in our different voices and interpretations. I heard a voice saying “Excuse me? Sir?’ and I looked around, expecting to see a member of the Yorkshire Dialect Society eager to correct our pronunciation or a theatrical producer who wanted to take our as yet unwritten opera to Broadway.

I looked around, my eyes still adjusting to the light. It was a young man and he said it again “Excuse me? Sir?” I smiled indulgently, in an avuncular fashion. He’d probably seen me on TV and wanted my autograph or advice on how to start a career in showbiz. “Sir, you’ve not paid for the coffee and cake.” Oh dear.

Swaller me up reyt, pavement, will tha?