What’s the bard of Barnsley doing in Mexico City?

Chris Arnot on the cultural mission of poet Ian McMillan

Alan Curry of the British Council makes his welcoming speech in Spanish, its flow slightly disrupted by a name that seems as unlikely in this context as a miner’s helmet under a sombrero. Heaven knows what the great and the good of Mexico City make of the intrusion of “Barnsley” into their native tongue, and its coupling with another, slightly more familiar intruder, “BBC Radio 4”.

Those of us visiting from the UK know that the link is forged by the deep, flat-vowelled voice waiting its turn to address the Mexicans in its own native tongue: northern English. The poet Ian McMillan is in town. This is his second visit to Mexico in three years. There is more to McMillan, 44, than his capacity to churn out instant rhymes as the bard of Barnsley FC and Northern Spirit Railways. Radio 4 recognised this some years ago. The British Council has recognised it, too.

“We could bring out endless Turner exhibitions and string quartets to promote British culture,” Curry tells me. “But we like to balance that with a contemporary view of Britain.” This is a view of Britain as a collection of regions with different accents and customs; Britain as a multicultural country with writers and artists who have roots in other parts of the globe.

What’s happening in Mexico City tonight is happening in other ways in other capitals around the world as the British Council continues its struggle to change outdated perceptions of Britain’s arts scene. It is a struggle that the government evidently feels to be worthwhile, judging by the chancellor’s recent gift of a 9.1% increase in budget over the next three years – the biggest rise in a decade.

“We work on two levels,” says Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, who became chair of the council two years ago. “Yes, we still send out the RSC and the National and various top orchestras. But it’s important that that’s not all. We have to present more cutting-edge work to give a flavour of the zeitgeist in our country now. This is a process that began a long time before I came here.” And it will have to go on a lot longer if it is to make any telling progress. The UK may have 16% of what is called “the world market in creative industry products”, but when the council recently commissioned Mori to carry out a worldwide survey on its behalf, our claim to be a centre of artistic creativity and design excellence took rather a knock. Even among apparently informed young people, the best known British artist abroad is Sir Elton John.

When I remind Kennedy about the survey she says: “Perception is always slightly behind reality. If you asked me about contemporary German writing, I’d probably home in on Günter Grass. The fact is that British arts and creativity are a strength. It’s one of the areas where we have a great story to tell.”

Among those telling it are writers such as Caryl Phillips and the poet Benjamin Zephaniah, with their roots in the Caribbean. “In certain parts of the world, they’ve only just realised that there are black British writers and artists,” says Peter Elborn, the acting director of arts, who is conscious that changing perceptions can be a delicate process. “You have to respond to what makes sense in a particular country – push back the boundaries a bit, but not enough to provoke a backlash. When I was working in Pakistan, we brought in Nahid Siddiqui’s contemporary dance group from Birmingham and it was the first time in more than 20 years that a group of visiting women dancers had performed on stage. The district police commissioner in Rawlpindi tried to get me to cancel it in case there was a riot. It was a risk I was prepared to take and it all passed off peacefully.”

McMillan reading his work in Mexico City represents a different kind of risk. “When I was here three years ago, it was the only time I ever got nervous before a gig,” he says. “I knew I was going to have to read my poems to a Mexican university audience and I suddenly thought: ‘None of this is any good. It’s too English, too Yorkshire.’ Yet I got a standing ovation.”

There won’t be a standing ovation tonight, because it’s not that kind of gig. Instead of being on stage in front of a seated audience, McMillan is leading them along what he calls “the corridor of art”. Pictures line the walls. They are drenched in colour, sometimes tempered by dark and brooding backgrounds. Flowers of shocking pink seem poised to burst out of the canvas. Bright blood trickles down the human face of a bull with startling blue eyes. Skulls and masks, so much a part of Mexican culture, stare from the canvas with haunting expressions.

They are the work not of a Mexican, but of another son of Barnsley. David Beresford, 56, is a graduate of the Royal College of Art. In 1997, he made a documentary, Ian McMillan in Mexico, and now he has been commissioned by Yorkshire Television to produce a follow-up series. The experience three years ago had a profound effect on both men. McMillan’s already fevered imagination was fired even further, while Mexico gave Beresford the inspiration to take up serious painting again.

Towards the end of their trip, McMillan and Beresford set each other three Mexican subjects to interpret in their own way. These six ideas form the basis of tonight’s gig-cum-exhibition. And McMillan is our guide, moving from painting to painting with his jaunty stage walk, like a prop forward barging his way to the rugby-club bar.

On he goes, pausing to read his poems by pictures of the screaming faces of The Skinned Man, flayed alive as a sacrifice by Aztec priests, and a skull from The Day of the Dead. McMillan’s final poem is called Descending into Chihuahua, Descending into Barnsley. The Chihuahua part of this equation, he tells us, catches the moment when he finally lost his fear of flying and learned to enjoy airplanes. This is all the more remarkable since one of Beresford’s paintings on the same subject shows the runway apparently bursting into flames.

Once again I find myself pondering how a Mexican audience is grappling with the notion of Barnsley bus station and Gala bingo. But I needn’t have worried. The day after his return from Mexcico City, this cultural envoy will travel into alien territory, a place where the British Council has no office: McMillan is crossing the Pennines for a gig in Wigan.

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