Poet finds the right pitch

19th September 1997 at 01:00
A football club's latest signing is more at home with the field of verse than the field of play. Kevin Berry reports on Ian McMillan's dazzling debut in the classroom

Somebody walked by...and knocked my meat pie." Ian McMillan, newly-installed poet laureate of Barnsley Football Club, giggles his approval and encourages an eager class of seven-year-olds to develop the story of the half-time meat pie. It sails up in the air, lands on the pitch and takes on a life of its own, demanding to fulfil a lifetime's ambition to play for Barnsley FC - in its natty silver foil shorts.

"Listen ref, are you deaf? I'm not a pie, call me Jeff." The ideas rattle out like firecrackers, none of them rejected, even the one about Jeff having bad breath. During a day at Hoyland Springwood Primary School, on the outskirts of Barnsley, the word "no" never passes his lips. There are no crestfallen faces, no negative retorts. His style is about as far as you could imagine from the red-shirted, football-mad bully of a teacher played by Brian Glover in the film version of the 1960s novel Kes, which was filmed nearby.

"I just take what they say and write it down," he says. "It becomes somehow right. You can't ask for an idea, then say no. The ones who aren't confident with writing come up with ideas and I accept them. I'm here to validate what they suggest."

Ian's signing as Barnsley FC's poet-in-residence has been given a good deal of space by the media, but the idea was born long before the team secured promotion to the Premier League. Ian, a well-known voice on Radio 4, was in the pub one night with Julian Rowe, Hoyland Springwood's headteacher, when the idea came. So it seemed appropriate to go to Hoyland to see him in action on his debut. The boy, as they say in football circles, done good.

Ian is keen to encourage writing about the unusual. Not for him tired old flowers and chocolate box themes. He picks up a margarine tub and it becomes a deflated football with an alien inside it - an alien looking for its mum. He is suddenly interrupted by a boy from another class looking for a lost pullover -the pullover becomes part of the action. "People assume certain things are poetic and others aren't, they think in tramlines. People ask me if I write poems about flowers or trees, but nobody ever asks if I write poems about meat pies," he says.

Ian has not planned for verses praising football heroes or variations on terrace chanting. He starts with simple ideas, looking at footballs in various situations. Some children are asked to imagine finding a deflated, 100-million-year-old football in the hedge, some a football hurtling into the cockpit of an aeroplane. Others have to look up and imagine hundreds of footballs hovering in the sky - one falls, what happens next?

He works by creating a class poem and letting children finish it with their own lines. They are encouraged to "make it funny, try to make it daft".

Ashley Chalk, 8, writes of the old football: "It blows itself back up, gets cleaned up into a new ball with Barnsley FC written on it. Then I kick it and it breaks into a million pieces."

There are many moments of pure joy, even the slightest "hm, hm" is seized upon and incorporated into the poem. Asked for a rhyme with folk, one girl suggests "okey-doke" and immediately Ian voices his approval. Rhymes are often hit or miss, but he seems to relish the rhythm and power of words.

"I'm going to tell you a story. Look there!" he yells. "There's a football falling out of the sky. It's got writing on, it says . . ."

A tiny voice pipes up - "STAMPED."

"Hey," says Ian, staring up at the roof, and the imaginery football. "It does as well."

Ian has worked at the school on other occasions. Mr Wroe says he has raised the awareness of writing a thousand-fold, with children "writing out of their skins". Parents and families have been encouraged by enthusiastic children.

Teachers praise Ian and appreciate the effect he has had. Deputy head Josephine Ransom says: "He picks on a word and does so much with it, I find I can work afterwards and use the same style. Once, we were looking at some photographs of Barnsley in the past and he asked us to look at the people and imagine what they were saying - instead of just comparing then with now. "

Class teacher Jan Stokoe talks of Ian unlocking ideas and banishing inhibitions. She says: "I had never experienced poetry like this. He's made me aware of other ways of approaching writing."

Ian's work for Barnsley Football Club is often co-ordinated with Football in the Community, an organisation backed by the football team. When Ian was in the Springwood School classrooms, Football in the Community workers were outside developing ball skills and team games with pupils of both sexes.

Mr Wroe takes the opportunity to slip on his sparkling, all-red Barnsley FC kit. Then he spins round, suddenly aware of the obvious connection.

"Hey," he growls. "I'm nothing like Brian Glover."

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