Skip to main content

Line of verse

Always searching for a fresh platform for his work, poet Ian McMillan boarded an Alpine train to host workshops with Swiss students

It's Sunday, it's past midnight, it's pitch black, and I'm standing with my little bag of poems and my little bag of clothes at Berne airport in Switzerland. When I say airport, I don't want you to imagine Gatwick or Manchester. I want you to picture a bus station in a small Dorset town, or a ferry terminus on an almost uninhabited Hebridean island. I'm here at the invitation of the British Council to work with groups of school students on trains, getting them to make up poems about the journeys we take, as well as listening to mine.

They're billing me as "the railway poet" because at home, through the Poetry Society's splendid Poetry Places scheme, I was poet-in-residence the summer before last on Northern Spirit trains, which serve a vast swathe of Britain from Lincoln to the Scottish Borders.

Much of that placement involved working with children on trains, from excitable infants who screeched with a delicious mixture of delight and fear when the guard switched the lights out in a tunnel outside Ilkley, to cool secondary students who gazed out of the train windows into the rain and wrote limpid fragments about love and loss while glugging enormous bottles of pop and forcing industrial quantities of crisps into their mouths.

A series of mechanical mishaps forced a diversion from Berne to Basle so I've had to come by bus to Berne. I'm three hours late and the airport is closed and deserted. I'm on my own in a strange country. All right, a strange, clean country. My mobile phone doesn't work beyond Dover and I've only got huge-denomination Swiss franc notes, so I can't use a payphone. I know what the people at home would say: you'll write a poem about this. Well, I don't want to. I want to cry.

Luckily a fellow traveller, a man in an astonishing Tyrolean hat, takes me under his wing and we share a taxi into town. I tell him what I'm doing and he's impressed. He asks me what my poems are like and I tell him they're funny. He looks at me gravely from under the wide brim of the hat. "I wish you good luck in making the Swiss laugh," he says, as I get out of the taxi and ring the bell of the dark hotel. He hasn't put me off: I love travelling on trains and I love working with young people, so it's going to be a good week. The man in the taxi has worried me a bit, though, and as I fall into a troubled first-night-in-a-hotel sleep, I dream of me in a Tyrolean train guard's hat telling desperately unfunny knock-knock jokes to carriages full of unimpressed teenagers. No change there then.

The next day I meet Barbara Mosca, my British Council guide, and we go to the station. Back in the UK, as we expats call it, people on stations are queueing and cursing and tutting and looking at their watches as destination boards tell depressingly repetitive stories of cancelled and disrupted trains. In Switzerland it's very different: the trains really are on time, even up the highest, most snowblown mountain. In fact, in a strange parody of the situation at home, when a train is one minute late the Swiss tut, curse and look at their Swiss watches.

I tell Barbara I've been looking at my timetable for the week and that as some of my connection times are only three or four minutes, maybe I should get the train an hour earlier, just to make sure. She gives me an old-fashioned look and tells me I'm being a bit English, and perhaps I am. I'm thinking about the work I'm going to be doing with students; at home I like to engender a bit of anarchy, a bit of creative freedom, a bit of laughter, a bit of joy. I'm a bit worried about this country that appears to run like clockwork, that might not want to admit such a departure from the rulebook. The man in the hat is haunting me.

At Lucerne we collect a big gang of students and teachers from two schools. We also pick up a butler in a bright red uniform, but more of him later. The day's journey shows the educational and literary advantages and disadvantages of poets doing gigs and workshops on trains. In short, you get lovely views but it's flipping loud. I was once a passenger on a Poetry Train from Huddersfield to Barnsley. There were no microphones and the hapless poets belted out intimate verse about special moments on the hills near Honley above the sound of rattling engines and rhythmic rails. On the line from Lucerne to Brienz, I was almost that hapless poet. Good job I'm used to belting it out. The Shirley Bassey of performance poetry, that's me.

The idea is that on the way up (one hour and 37 minutes exactly) I teach one class, and on the return (oddly, one hour and 34 minutes exactly) I teach the other. Teach. They are very specific about that word. The first surprise is that the young people are quite old - 18, 19 - some with a better grasp of English than others, but all keen. I always expect junior school children, I'm not sure why. The second surprise is they have little paper and few pens. It shouldn't have been a surprise, actually; if I had a quid for every time I've gone into a writing workshop and the teacher or the person in charge has said: "I'm sorry, but we've not brought anything to write with. We didn't think we'd need to," I'd be richer than Camilla Parker Bowles's cousin. It is good to know the Swiss aren't efficient at everything.

When I'm working with students outside the classroom I'm already at an advantage because they're excited and interested simply by being somewhere new. Most of these students haven't been on this train before even though they live nearby, because it's usually quite expensive, so it's a new experience for them, as it is for me.

I burst into a carriage and I'm introduced by the teacher, Jurg Zortea, who looks more like a poet than I do with his red cravat and blue, Greek-fisherman-style flat cap. I brace my legs on the rocking train, and do a few poems, mainly about trains, including my train favourite, "Trainspotter", about an unsuccessful member of that unusual breed: "He's got the anorakhe's got the duffel baghe's got the big notebookand the pocketful of pensfountain pensand cartridge pensand all those flipping Birosyes all those flipping Biros..."

It strikes me as I perform the poem and the students display whatever the Swiss equivalent of gobsmackedness is, that maybe trainspotting is a very British thing. I don't know if other poets on tour get this feeling, but whenever I'm working abroad I leaf through my little bag of poems and each one seems so peculiarly English, or peculiarly Yorkshire, or peculiarly Barnsley, that I've no idea how they'll go down.

When I've worked abroad in the past, particularly in Mexico, I've concentrated on rhythm when I perform the poems. My poems aren't subtle, but any subtlety they've got has to go out of the (train) window when you're performing to a group whose first language isn't English and who are listening in less-than-recital-room conditions. I reckon there's a kind of primitive meaning in rhythm anyway.

Maybe that's why I like trains so much. I move about the train like Ian the Poetry Guard, talking to small groups about rhythm and poetry, and trying to get them to make their own poems, in groups, about Derek, the eponymous trainspotter.

I get them to look out of the window and see something funny and something tragic. The butler brings me a cup of tea. He was the train company's idea and he's great. They've really worked hard for this event, giving the students badges and waterbottles, giving me a translator who tries gamely to keep up and then abandons it, smiling. I do talk a bit fast.

By the end of the journey (on time, of course) they've created quite a few starts; I've had good chats with them, and with one group I've created an interesting cut-up piece from the Cosmopolitan they were reading.

One of the teachers takes me on one side and tells me I spoke too fast. She says only the ones who have good English got anything out of it, and that's why two of the students got out of the train at the station before the terminus and legged it. I smile but I don't tell her that some of them only seemed interested in looking out of the window.

It doesn't matter; on the whole it's been an excellent day, and I know that in years to come they'll remember their encounter with an English poet. I made some of them laugh, too, so Yah Boo Sucks, Man in Tyrolean Hat!

For the rest of the week, though, I manage to speak more slowly, and I make sure they all get something written. I forget - teachers like that sort of thing.

The next day I'm up the Jungfrau, at the highest station in Europe; there's a bit of a snag in that the teachers in that area are having a demonstration about pay, so I've only got one teacher and 57 kids, and a journalist from a local paper. I can tell by the journalist's face that he's not quite sure that making poems with kids on a train will do anything for their education, and it certainly doesn't help that there's only me and one keen teacher. Up the mountain, the air is thin and Japanese tourists are running to take pictures and collapsing.

The kids laugh at my poems and we talk and some things get written, but not many. I can see the journalist making notes. I can see that he thinks I'm not working very hard, but then one of those miracles happens that sometimes lights up a workshop. I get them to write a poem called "The Funny Fat Man on the Train" and they come up with some wonderful verses, which I read out and they all whoop and cheer. In one of the poems I'm the funny phat man on the train, which makes me feel cool. The journalist says:

"I didn't think you were doing very much, but you were." I glow.

I'm back at Manchester airport clutching my poem bag and my clothes bag. I've reconfirmed, as if I ever needed it confirming, that rhythm and humour are universal. What next? I tell everybody that poems can be made anywhere, anytime. How about on this train from Manchester to Sheffield? Nah, I'm off duty now. Pass me my Tyrolean hat.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you