Ian McMillan: Stan and folly

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These days, literature festivals are everywhere, and that’s got to be a good thing. In our region we’ve got festivals in Ilkley, Wakefield and Penistone, Bridlington, Beverley and Headingley. There’s the Ryedale Book Festival, the Off the Shelf Festival in Sheffield and the Sheffield Poetry Festival as well as the Harrogate Crime Writers Festival, where you can’t move in Bettys for people looking over their fat rascals for suspects and victims. There’s the Humber Mouth in Hull and the Ted Hughes Festival, and I’m sure there are some I’ve forgotten for which I humbly apologise; just put me down as a fat rascal who’s more of a victim than a criminal.

You’ll see that in the previous paragraph I’ve used the word “festival” a lot; many years ago it wasn’t considered an appropriate word for an event involving readers and books. A festival was more of a musical thing, with rock gods strutting across a stage or orchestras plucking and sawing and blowing notes from the air. Ilkley was the first big one round these parts and it gradually dawned on publishers and public that getting writers and the people who consumed their work together in the same room was a good thing. It could lead to understanding, joy and sales, and literary festivals began to grow and flourish.

We’d sold no tickets. Not one. I’m not sure why. Maybe I should have printed more than one poster. Maybe I should have stuck up the one I did print.

I remember years ago organising a mini-writing festival in Sheffield when I was Poet in Residence at what was then the polytechnic. It was so mini that we only had one event – a reading featuring the great Ossett Prose Stylist Stan Barstow, who turned up early as I was putting the chairs out; I’d arranged 30 of them. Stan was appalled. “Ian, lad,” he said, his Ossett tongue cutting the South Yorkshire evening, “we’ll need more chairs than this. Sheffield’s always been very good to me, very good indeed! So between us Stan and I carried another 20 chairs from a dusty back room. “That might not be enough, Ian lad,” he said, a little out of breath. “Let’s stack some more at the back, just in case there’s a rush. Sheffield’s always been very good to me.”

I, sadly, knew something that Stan didn’t. We’d sold no tickets. Not one. I’m not sure why. Maybe I should have printed more than one poster. Maybe I should have stuck up the one I did print.

At the appointed hour, the room was empty. Stan was incensed. “Sheffield’s always been good to me, Ian lad! I’m going outside to drag them in!” He went into the street, where, unbelievably, Barry Hines, who I wrote about the other week, was walking past. They were old mates and Stan said: “Barry, lad! Are you coming to see my reading?” And Barry replied “Sorry, Stan, I’m just going to the chip shop.”

I know it’s not like that these days at literature festivals, and that’s a good thing. Remember: print more than one poster. And make sure you put them up.