I’ve often heard it said that people from Liverpool are the funniest, quick-witted folk in Britain and that might be true, but I think the title for driest sense of humour belongs to people from round here.
Many years ago I was having a conversation with the local playwright John Godber. He told me he once took a job as a dustbin man during a summer break from his studies.
In those days, dustbin men were still allowed to ride on a step at the beck of the lorry. John told me he was standing next to an old flat-capped bin man from South Elmsall, holding on to a grab rail.
The bin man said: “Is thy a student?” and John said he was. The bin man said: “What does tha do then when tha’s not on the bins?” John told him he was studying drama. The old lad thought for a bit and then turned to John and said: “Reeight then, do some acting.”
John was flabbergasted and said: “What, now?” and the bin man said: “Aye, let’s see some of thi acting.” John said: “Well I can’t really act on the back of a bin lorry.”
The old lad thought a bit more and then turned to John and said: “Well tha can’t be very good at it flower, that’s all I can say.”
I hadn’t thought about that story for ages, until recently when something similar happened to me. I was coming back on the train from Leeds, when a middle aged man came down the aisle and said: “Will you come and say hello to my wife, it’s her birthday today and she’s a big fan of yours.”
I didn’t want to be impolite, so I looked round to see how many people were watching and went to say happy birthday.
I told the lady I hoped she was having a lovely day and turned to go back to my seat and finish my crossword. The man said: “Will you say a poem for her, she’s called June.” I must have been as red as a beetroot by now, I said: “I’m sorry I can’t just make a poem up like that.”
The man said: “Well I wouldn’t have thought you were backwards at coming forwards. I thought you were supposed to be a writer. I’ve read one of your books and you weren’t shy in that.”
I was saved by the announcement that the train was about to arrive in Castleford, so I made my apologies and made my way back down the aisle.
As I pressed the lit up button to get off, the man shouted: “Hey up author, what rhymes with September? I’ll write one for her.” I thought about the lady called June who was born in September all the way home and I wondered what rhyme the man came up with, I bet there’s a limerick in there somewhere.
When I got home the penny dropped. I realised that the man on the train had probably mistaken me for my friend, the bard of Barnsley, Ian McMillan. The train I was on was on its way to Barnsley.
It happens quite a lot to both Ian and me.
Once, we were on the same bill at a charity event and we both joked that for some in the audience it was the first time that they had realised we were in fact two different people.
When I was on the telly a lot, I had to get used to people I didn’t know coming up to me and saying: “What the heck’s that over there?” I did a few series of programmes about unusual Yorkshire landmarks and saddled myself with a catchphrase.
I didn’t mind it at first, but like all catchphrases, it becomes tedious, unless of course you’re Bruce Forsyth or somebody who has built a career around them.
One day, a lady in Scarborough came up to me and though she didn’t say what the heck’s that to me, she said: “I know you...telly man.”
I said: “Yes, that’s me.” She said: “Eeeh, it’s lovely to see you again. How long is it now, since you came to mend my television?”
I was standing next to my cameraman and sound recordist, you can imagine what stick I had to put up with for the rest of the day.