Barnsley’s Bard on search to find essence of Yorkshire

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We all know him as the Bard of Barnsley but poet, writer and broadcaster Ian McMillan worries that he’s not Yorkshire enough!

This is revealed in his new book about the county, Neither Nowt Nor Summat, which he is talking about at Sheffield’s Off the Shelf literary festival in an event next week sponsored by The Star.

Ian said: “I’m reading from my new book, where I’ve been exploring the essence of Yorkshire. It started with my publisher, who rang me up. He’s a Lancashire man and he said I’d like you to write a book about Yorkshire.

“I met him and he kept pointing at me, saying, ‘you could write me a book about Yorkshire’. I’ve written stuff before but not a full-length book.

“He publishes Stuart Maconie’s books so I asked him about it and he said, ‘it’s a proper book’. I asked ‘how many words?’ and was told around 100,000. I said ‘Christ almighty!’

“I sat there and thought, actually I often get asked to spout about Yorkshire but I only know about Darfield and a bit of Barnsley, so I thought I’d make an exploration.”

He added: “The book begins with this terrible recurring dream where I’m walking through Wombwell. People come up to me and start singing to me like the chorus of a musical, ‘You’re from Yorkshire but you’re not Yorkshire enough, you’re not Yorkshire enough’.

“I think perhaps I’m not Yorkshire enough because my dad was from Scotland. My mum was from Barnsley. Him and my mum met as penpals in the war and he was in the RAF and she was in the WAAF. There was a scheme where service people could write to each other.

“They got married on a 48-hour pass. It’s a romantic tale and I’ve written a play about it.”

Ian realised that many of the Yorkshire people he admires aren’t Yorkshire enough, either.

“A number of my heroes turn out to be not from Yorkshire. For instance, there’s Sir Alec Clegg, who was the chief education officer of the West Riding in the 60s and 70s. He said that every child has an imagination. He’s from Nottingham. They said, ‘pursue that in the book’.”

Ian said he also noticed that people he meets tell him they love Yorkshire but they mean the tourist hotspots, not the real Yorkshire.

He said: “I thought I’ll try and work out what the difference is between the Yorkshire that people like and the Yorkshire I know. That involved me going to Harrogate with Ian the artist, who also lives in Darfield.

“We did that trip out to discover tourist Yorkshire. That was interesting. We went to Whitby, Harrogate and a little village in the middle of nowhere. That comes towards the end of the book.”

He also decided to do something that would make him into a proper Yorkshireman. “I went to Ilkley Moor and had a flat cap on and I took my flat cap and flung it on the moor.”

But a lot of the book involves what Ian describes as “the two presiding spirits of Darfield”, Mad Geoff and Maurice Dobson.

Mad Geoff was a barber whose shop was a centre for all sorts of eccentrics and Maurice has a museum dedicated to him and his partner Fred Halliday, which Ian volunteers at.

He says it’s the only museum dedicated to a couple of cross-dressing ex-Marines!

“In the 1950s and 60s they were walking around Darfield in posh frocks looking like Barbara Cartland and Joanna Lumley. Because they were ex-marines no-one said anything.

“My dad, who worked down the pit, would just say, ‘there’s Maurice and Fred’. They were accepted. Maybe that’s what Yorkshire is, a place that accepts people.”

Mad Geoff’s barber’s was more like a coffee house, said Ian. “I sat in Mad Geoff’s and it was like a fantastic Restoration comedy. Someone would walk in and say, ‘I’ll tell you this, who knocks up the knocker-up?’ and walk out again.

“There was a massive fish on the wall and Geoff would tell you the story of the fish. Then someone would come in and say ‘Owreight Geoff?’ None of these people would come in for their haircut.”

Sadly, Mad Geoff died while Ian was writing the book, so his death became part of the book too.

Then there’s Uncle Jack who lived on Marlcliffe Road in Hillsborough and the recurring gag about the rubber jam tarts, but you’ll have to come to his talk to hear that one.

Ian is speaking about his book at Off the Shelf at the City Hall Memorial Hall at 6pm next Thursday.

To book tickets for the show, which is part of the 25th Off the Shelf fesitval, go to or call 0114 223 3777.

n Go online to to see Ian talking about the show and reading an extract from his book.

n The Sheffield Star has five pairs of tickets to give away for poet Ian McMillan’s appearance at Off The Shelf in the Memorial Hall on October 1.

To enter, answer the following question – what is Ian’s nickname?

Email answers by 5pm next Tuesday, September 29, to with ‘Ian McMillan Competition’ in the subject line and include contact details.

Winners should collect their tickets from the Sheffield Star shop on York Street in the city centre.

Usual Sheffield Newspapers rules apply.