Ian McMillan: Windmills of the mind play tricks on the eye

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Everybody works out just where they are in the world through the use of landmarks. As a kid I would unconsciously calculate how far I had to walk to school by taking note of when the pithead gear of Darfield Main loomed through the mist; as a young man going to work at the Tennis Ball Factory I would know I had to stand up on the bus just as it passed Kendray Hospital. We all have these personal maps in our heads, to help us find our way.

Mind you, if we have private names for these places it’s best to keep them to ourselves because if they see the light of day they can confuse and disorientate a listener. Once, in Darfield, I saw an elderly denizen of the village directing somebody in a posh car. “Tha turns left through’t buildings then tha guz past t’ New Un,” he said to the baffled driver. I took over.

“Hello, my man” I said, employing a demotic that the stranger might understand, “I think what he means is that you have to go up Morrison Road and pass The Darfield Hotel.” “That’s what I said!” the old man spluttered, exasperated. Over the past couple of years, though, my inner radar has come adrift because of the presence of four big windmills at Marr; less a wind farm, more a breeze allotment. If you don’t know Marr, it’s a tiny village on the A635 between Barnsley and Doncaster, very near the A1M, and fairly recently (in Marr years) the aforementioned windmills appeared in a field. The trouble is, they seem to be everywhere. So when we’re taking our grandson Thomas to school in Grimethorpe I can see them revolving in a place they shouldn’t really be. Surely, if we’re driving that way towards the roundabout, they should be over here, and yet they’re over there. If I’m coming through Wombwell surely I shouldn’t be able to see them through the trees, should I? But there they are, whirling like the propellers of a huge plane about to take off from Marr International Airport.

Recently I was on a train coming out of Selby towards Doncaster and I’m sure I saw them glinting in the early morning sun even though they must have been 20 miles away. I began to feel like I was trapped in a Hitchcockian thriller, haunted by windmills that seemed to be on wheels. I imagined villains laughing as they trundled them around the Yorkshire countryside, trying to send me mad so that I would reveal where the treasure was hidden. I often wake up thinking I’ll find them in my garden. Near the treasure.

I’ll tell you what it’s like: it’s like that moment, towards dusk, when somebody is walking away from you a little bit ahead on the pavement, and they appear to be walking towards you. Or it’s like when the Moon seems bigger in the sky that it could possibly be. It’s supposed to look like a table-tennis ball and it looks like a beach ball. It’s a trick of the light. A trompe l’oeil as the French call it, or a Trompe Le Coil Oil as they call it round here. And actually, I’ve got to say that I’m getting used to them encroaching on my personal atlas. I look for them wherever I am and I feel slightly disappointed when they’re not there. And I’m waiting for somebody to ask directions so I can say: “You see those windmills…”.