Ian McMillan: Sid, the beetles and our search for fame

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Me and my mate John wanted to be famous writers and we had a very specific idea of what fame would entail.

We’d be sitting by the pool of a posh hotel in Malibu. We’d be sipping odd-coloured drinks from glasses the size of fruit bowls. Unfeasibly beautiful women would giggle and flutter their eyelashes at our every quip. A waiter would bring a phone on a cushion. He’d say “Stephen Spielberg wonders if you’d like to script his new film” and we’d laugh and say “We can’t speak to him now! We’re busy!” and we’d turn back to the drinks in the big glasses, one of which would have an eyelash floating in it like a snake.

The reality, of course, was different. It was the early 1980s and I’d been a freelance writer for a year or so and, at least one day a week, I’d catch the 228 to Rotherham. The journey took longer than some of Michael Palin’s and involved a change of drivers or a change of buses at Parkgate.

When I got to John’s it would be nearly dinnertime so we’d have a sandwich. Then we’d pace. Then we’d have a cup of tea. We hoped that the combination of white bread, milky tea, and synchronised pacing would jolt our tired brains into producing ideas that would eventually lead to the poolside. It didn’t often work, to be honest, so we just had another cup of tea. One day, though, a phrase popped into my head just as the bus was making its steady way through Rawmarsh. I wrote the phrase down on my ticket and when I got to John’s I burst in and shouted “Metamorphosid Arkwright!” John, in the act of putting the kettle on and buttering some bread, looked aghast, as though I’d just turned into a bloke who spoke only his own private language.

I explained. I’d been reading Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, about a man who turns into a beetle: hilarious and poignant events ensue, as they often do in classics. Suddenly I thought the story could be transformed to a Yorkshire setting and the words Metamorphosid Arkwright drew themselves in my head with a big felt tip pen.

John got his typewriter out and we began to write a radio play. In our story Sid Arkwright, committee man at the Westhorpe Social Club, turns into a beetle gradually. He begins to grow extra arms. He stops talking and rattles. He won’t eat his Yorkshire puddings but prefers his wife’s knitting wool.

At the climax of the action Sid turns into a beetle completely and flies into the club turn, El Magico, knocking him off the stage. Sid is subsequently banned from the club and thrown out by his wife.

Even at the end of the play when he turns back to good old Sid she won’t let him return, saying “once a beetle always a beetle”, a line that brought tears to our eyes and a sudden rush to the kettle.

The play was on the radio that year and has just been revived at the Civic Theatre in Rotherham and John and I, as older, wiser men, were in the crowd. Lots of things have flowed from that play so I’d like to thank Sid for the push he gave to my career. And I’d like to thank the 228 bus, of course. And the time it took.

And the fact that I had a ticket to write my idea on…