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"Something about a mermaid ..."
He breezes through the corridors crooning "Wells-next-the-Sea ... it's my kind of town ..." to astonished young students, and reeling off the kind of one-liners that no-one should be able to deliver with such poise and panache this early in the morning; already he's taken a stab at the "how-much-money-in-the-jar" fundraising challenge at reception, and is particularly keen to visit GCSE Food Tech students at breaktime when he hears that they've got a cake sale on today ...
These are the opening few moments on the day when poet Ian McMillan & cartoonist Tony Husband brought their astonishing talents to bear in the role of PNTS Education Programme ambassadors at Alderman Peel High School in Wells this February.
Ian - put simply - is a wave of restless energy, a truly pyroclastic flow of word and gesture, his Barnsley blarney never failing to delight and inspire staff and students alike throughout the day, armed as he is with all the timing and precision of a stand-up comedian. His enthusiasm for the shapes and sounds thrown out by the process of words kissing, bumping against, and snuggling up to each other is almost virulent, and yet his ability to subtly marshal and corral the vivid thoughts and fleeting impressions of these teenagers is always present; whenever it seems as if Ian has jumped off the path in pursuit of a piece of deliciously surreal wordplay, his sense of design and scope remind us that he is also a subtle and sophisticated poet of the page.
Tony, by accident or design, is a quieter presence, the straight-man in the double act as it were. Whilst Ian riffs away on whatever comes to hand during the morning assembly, Tony calmly works his graphic magic on a whiteboard behind his partner - conjuring up a horned and fearsome dinnerlady-from-hell, some very odd creatures in a supermarket, and a number of affectionately comic portraits of the gaping students arrayed before them. (Many of the latter are presented to their respective "sitters", signed and dated - let's remember here that Tony is an award-winning cartoonist, much in demand for the best dailies and magazines in the country).
The lucky students who got to work more closely with Ian and Tony in the morning workshops that followed were given the rare opportunity to open their imaginations fully in continuing the freewheeling ballad-like narrative that was woven from the ready-to-hand ingredients of the whole school assembly: mermaids and their daughters, Jaffa cakes, "the cheese-that-ate-time", and broccoli-eating footballers were among the elements sloshing around in the rich verbal and visual brew concocted by the children. "Weaving", then "brewing", there's a mixed metaphor for you ...
The emphasis was squarely on the fun and unpredictability of language and image, and the fruits of this were amply demonstrated in the joy and anticipation that marked the afternoon's feedback session, with students thoroughly enjoying each other's efforts.
Those who took part in the sessions will be working up their bizarre and quirky narratives, ready to air them at our APHS Event in May's festival, and whatever the outcome, the Mcmillan & Husband charabanc will ensure that we'll probably never look at broccoli or mermaids in quite the same way again.