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16 November 2016

In South Yorkshire, no-one notices an ex-miner and schoolboy reading poetry aloud

It’s 1971 and I’m 15 years old, reading Dylan Thomas. Then I run in to George.

By Ian McMillan

It’s 1971 and I’m 15 years old, so my hair looks like a busted cushion and I’m wearing an old army greatcoat that I got from Wombwell Market, near Barnsley. I’m going for a walk down the field to the River Dearne in the shadow of the pit wheels from Houghton Main so that I can sit on a bench and read a book of Dylan Thomas poems, borrowed from the local library. Yes, I am that pretentious teenager.

Later, I might try to write some poems of my own as my dad washes up in the kitchen and sings Andy Stewart songs in his thin, brittle tenor.

George is walking up the hill towards me and I know what he will say. He’s an old miner who feels in his ancient bones that the revolution is only a few days away at most and he will greet me, as usual, with a raised clenched fist and the word: “Utopia!”

The word will echo across the valley and set him off coughing, like it always does. Linguistic and cultural continuity, you might call it. His bald head gleams in the weak autumn sun, and his glasses remind me of Sergeant Bilko’s.

I brace myself for the word, knowing that it will embarrass me, because I’m a sensitive 15-year-old. As I do so, the Dylan Thomas book falls out of my pocket and on to the unforgiving floor.

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George darts like a wading bird and picks it up. “Poetry, kid?” he asks, his voice like a creaking gate. He gestures to the path. “I’ll read some to them under theer!” he says. “They’re not that far down, and they’ve not got much to pass the time.” At first, I think he means the dead, then I realise he means the men on the afternoon shift down the pit.

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He slowly folds himself up to be nearer to the floor. He makes a great ballet of putting on his reading glasses. He opens the book to begin to read, his face inches from the dirt. He starts to intone “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”, one of Thomas’s more opaque works.

I turn sunset-red and I think that I might explode with self-consciousness. Time slows to a trickle. George falls over. He rolls a little. He gasps for breath and his face twists in pain, because he’s banged his knee.

I lean towards him to help and I fall, too. We lie on the ground like a novelty cruet set, or a toppled representation of Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic. George, with great strength of mind and purpose, carries on reading the poem.

Mark’s dad appears, on his way to work. Because he is a man from South Yorkshire, he takes no notice of the old man and the boy lying in the dust, one of them reading poetry aloud. He walks past us, or almost past us, and then says, “Utopia, George?” George raises his fist feebly and squeaks, “Utopia, kid!”

Mark’s dad walks on, towards Houghton Main. Utopia. It’s coming. It’s coming. 

This article appears in the 10 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse