A Passion for Sport : Ian McMillan and Owen Sheers. Manchester Literature Festival at The Green, Oct 16th.
Reviewed by Sara Allen
As I walk through the heavy doors of Manchester’s premier sports bar ‘The Green’ with its leather sofas, virtual golf machine and snooker tables, I can’t help but think it the most fitting venue to see Ian McMillan and Owen Sheers express their ‘Passion for Sport’.
Owen Sheers, poet, dramatist and author, is well known for poetry collections such as ‘The Blue Book’ and ‘Skirrid Hill’, in addition to his verse drama ‘Pink Mist’ commissioned by BBC radio four, which I am assured by a woman in the audience is “incredible”, so much so that it brought her “to tears”. Immediately I am expecting big things from his new book – ‘Calon’ (meaning heart in welsh) : A journey to the heart of welsh rugby, and his time as Welsh rugby union artist in Residence. Not forgetting the hilarious Ian McMillan, poet, journalist, playwright and broadcaster author of verse autobiography ‘Talking myself home’, as he talks about his role as writer in residence for Barnsley F.C.
In the interest of sportsmanship, the pair toss a coin to decide which will speak first. As Sheers exclaims “tails for wales!” he wins the toss and is welcomed to the stage with an enthusiastic amount of applause. He describes writing the book as beginning like a “blank canvas” to then learn what tethers the Welsh so devotedly to rugby. In his book he is able to show the fragility, and even pain that the players endure due to their dedication and love for the sport. He explains how after witnessing “The wedding game” (winning), and “The funeral game” (losing) he then had the full narrative of the book, showing the shocking extremes of emotion from the players behind the scenes. Aside from various witty comments and anecdotes it’s easy to see how passionate Sheers is about encouraging readers to get into reading through their passion for sport, a view also shared by equally passionate Barnsley supporter, Ian McMillan.
An extremely entertaining man, with his strong Barnsley accent he keeps the audience laughing throughout the evening. McMillan begins by telling the audience how he became Barnsley FC through “a drunken phone call” and a bit of courage. He explains how through his role as residence he was able to connect with people who “didn’t usually read poems”. Going by the name of “poetry man!” he was recognised and clearly adored by the football fans, despite some minor occasional heckling. When asked in the Q&A part of the evening why there is such a gap between sport and poetry, both men agreed that thankfully that gap is recently getting smaller. McMillan simply exclaims “You can put a poet or a writer, or an artist anywhere”. Making comparisons to sports commentators and poets, McMillan shows how “sport always has a narrative”, something clearly and humorously shown through McMillan’s poetry, and likewise displayed in Sheers’ book.
From the witty readings of McMillan’s poetry such as ‘under 14s’ and ‘how the mighty fell’, and the humorous anecdotes from Sheers, at one point comparing himself to the welsh rugby team as “old enough to be their father, short enough to be their son”; it’s clear how the pair both share so much enthusiasm for their favoured sports, and how it truly shines through in their writing. With one last question answered, it’s as if the audience are supporting their teams at a match; the two men are practically cheered off the stage. And I leave a truly entertaining night, with a deeper understanding of literature and sports, along with a strong desire to never get caught in a scrum.