As a pretentious and precocious young man at Grammar School I signed off one of my English Literature essays with the phrase ‘Ian McMillan, future Nobel Prize for Literature Winner’ and Mr Brown took me one side when all the others had gone out of the room and gently told me that he didn’t think Nobel Prize winners came from Barnsley, something I disagreed with then and I disagree with now.
He also told me that it was the Nobel Prize in Literature, not for literature, a fact that I’ve been able to show off to people with ever since, like I’m showing off to you now. Mind you, I was so daft that I thought ‘essay’ was spelled S.A. and it stood for Special Assignment. Well: I’d only heard it spoken, not seen it written down. That’s my excuse. It was the same with the German writer Goethe. I called him Go-eth.
Looking back, though, the reason I wanted to win the Nobel Prize in (not for) Literature was that it had a special allure to a lad like me who was desperate to be a writer. It felt that a poet or a novelist who won the prize was somehow not just an author: they were saying important things about the world.
I think this is because of specific writers who were around and winning the prize when I was growing up. We did Waiting for Godot in English and I was at first intrigued and then delighted that Samuel Beckett won it in 1969. I was moved and thrilled by Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s defiance of the Soviet regime and then I was very excited that he won the Nobel in 1970. After that, when a writer won, I’d check out their books.
The Nobel Prize led me to the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in 1971, and the German novelist Heinrich Boll in 1972. I still read and enjoy the work of Saul Bellow, who won in 1976, and William Golding, who won in 1983.
The writers who really intrigue me, though, are the ones who are largely forgotten. Step forward, Frans Eemil Sillanpaa, who won in 1939, and Grazia Deledda, who picked up the prize money in 1926. Sillinpaa, in case it’s slipped your mind, was a Finnish writer who really defined and articulated the national myths of that country, and Deladda described her native Sardinia with great clarity. I can drop these facts into the conversation because once I researched and read these obscure laureates for a radio programme, and their writing let me into times and places that I otherwise would have known nothing about.
Anyway, there’s still time for me to win it, I reckon. I’m about the right age. I’ve got grey hair. ‘The Prize this year goes to Ian McMillan for his The Yorkshire Post columns which bring joy and enlightenment to the people of that county and beyond.’
Take that, Frans Eemil Sillanpaa!