Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

NORMAN NICHOLSON – AN ESSENTIAL POET

I was in Millom on Monday, to record a conversation with Eric Robson (of Gardeners’ Question Time fame) about Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson. We walked out on the nature reserve at Hodbarrow – former site of the Millom ironworks and the haematite (iron ore) mines that gave rise to them.

NormanNicholson

Norman Nicholson

Eric is making a programme for BBC Radio 4, to go out in early January around the time of Norman Nicholson’s centenary. Nicholson (1913 – 1987) was certainly the most important Cumbrian poet of the twentieth century, but I’d say his writing was valuable and excellent in a wider perspective, whether you’re interested in Cumbria and the Lakes or not.

images[1]

Sidings and blast furnaces at Millom haematite works – now vanished.

He’s very much identified with the small coastal town of Millom – which from the 1850s until 1968 was a hub of heavy industry, with mining, iron smelting, and ships mooring at the quay to take pig-iron all over the world. Nicholson spent almost his whole life in the town, stubbornly (perhaps neurotically) refusing to move away. I say ‘almost’ because he had a couple of years down south in a TB sanatorium in his late teens. It may have been the experience of this frightening illness that led him to stay, lifelong, at home: that, and becoming somewhat institutionalised during those years when his airy hut at the sanatorium was his entire world and he was hardly allowed to get out of bed.


But he wrote about the town, its inhabitants, and the nearby landscape and geology of the Lakes in a unique way. Rather than  spreading wide, he dug deep, and he found a way of talking about the unyielding facts of the land and the rock, and the ultimate decline of the industry he had known, which is memorable and unique.

In ‘Millom Old Quarry’, he looks at a hole in the ground and, guided by an older inhabitant, sees the houses that were built from it:

 ‘They dug ten streets from that there hole,’ he said,

‘Hard on five hundred houses.’ He nodded

Down the set of the quarry and spat in the water

Making a moorhen cock her head

As if a fish had jumped. ‘Half the new town

Came out of yonder – King Street, Queen Street, all

The houses round the Green as far as the slagbank…’

Nicholson says ‘I saw the town’s black generations / Packed in their caves of rock’ – and he imagines it all going back again, buried once more:

All that was mortal in five thousand lives.

Nor did it seems a paradox to one

Who held quarry and query, turf and town

In the small lock of one recording brain.

During his lifetime people wondered why Nicholson didn’t move. His London publishers, Faber, were grudging about his work, and didn’t produce a Collected Poems until well after his death, when readers lobbied for it.

But now it’s evident that it was his artistic mission to function as that ‘one recording brain’. He did something no one else could have done, showing us a world that is now largely gone but remains fully human and valuable, and also chronicling its disappearance.

When Millom ironworks was finally demolished, Nicholson wrote

They cut up the carcase of the old ironworks

Like a fat beast in a slaughter-house: they shovelled my childhood

Onto a rubbish-heap. Here my father’s father

Foreman of the back furnace, unsluiced the metal lava

To slop in fiery gutters across the foundry floor

And boil round the workmen’s boots…

But Nicholson was also an environmentalist before the word existed. He wrote about the damage done to land and people by industrial exploitation; he believed that ultimately man must became ‘farmer rather than miner; cultivator rather than exploiter’. He wrote a protest poem about the Windscale nuclear accident (at the present-day Sellafield); and when they cleared away, too drastically he felt, the remains of Millom’s derelict industrial heritage, it wasn’t just the pits and foundries he lamented:

It’s hard to tell there ever was a mine: pit-heads

Demolished, pit-banks levelled, railway-lines ripped up,

Quarries choked an d flooded, and all the lovely resistance

Of blackberry, blackthorn, heather and willow grubbed up and flattened.

An expert botanist, he felt that nature could repair herself better than mankind could. Hating pollution and ugliness, he also believed the National Trust should preserve some mines, factories and pitheads, so that future generations could appreciate the achievements and struggles of the industrial age.

His little  prose book Provincial Pleasures is a miniature masterpiece: looking at the town in twelve essays, one for each month of the year, he shows the interconnected lives of the inhabitants, the wildlife, the daily work, the intrigue, the small psychological and spiritual dramas of a tiny provincial town in the late 1950s. Even as he wrote, supermarkets and chain stores were moving in and Britain’s first motorway was being built. He captured a world perfectly and delightfully.

But his work isn’t just a matter of nostalgia. Eric Robson asked me ‘Is Nicholson a great poet?’ No, I said. He isn’t Shakespeare or Dante. But he’s an important poet. He has vivid colloquial language, he has an extraordinary, individual and deep perspective – man in the environment, man living on, through and up against geology. He showed how a poet can take the most ordinary-seeming place and make it extraordinary – in such a way that every reader looks at his or her own place and sees it freshly and more vividly. Not a great poet then – but an essential poet.

A new biography – the first – is about to appear from Kathleen Jones; I’ve read it and it is excellent, so I’ll put in a link for it here, before I stop:

Save Ennerdale from this Nuclear Dump Madness

ennerdale-9836b[1]Most of my posts about the Lakes have been celebratory. This one isn’t. We are facing a risk that a huge dump for nuclear waste will be created in the Lake District, specifically in and under Ennerdale, the quietest and one of the most beautiful valleys in the Lakes.

The plan is to dig a vast underground cavern in which massive quantities of lethal waste will be stored, which will remain immensely dangerous for the next million years or so. Even the plans put forward by those in favour show that the foothills of Great Gable and Scafell will be permanently scarred by construction and maintenance buildings.

Other counties have already turned down the idea of becoming the world’s nuclear dustbin. The nuclear industry hopes that the lack of jobs in Cumbria will persude the local authorities to give in.

But Bill Jefferson, Chair of the Lake District National Park authority, warns of ‘potentially disastrous effects’ on both landscape and tourism.
He said: “Tourism brings in far more than Sellafield [nuclear processing complex] ever would, and let’s face it, there are going to be more than enough jobs in dealing with the clear-up and improvement of above-ground storage which is happening there.
“We have 15 million people coming to the park every year, and the prospect of having the world’s largest nuclear waste dump could make that considerably fewer.”
On 30 January, three Cumbrian councils will decide whether to agree a full preliminary planning proposal for an underground storage facility four times larger than the vast Sellafield complex from where the waste will be transported.

This lunatic scheme needs to be stopped now for everyone’s sake and for the sake of the future. What you can do at once is to sign the petition at

http://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/no-nuclear-dump-in-the-lake-district

We need signatures, and we need them right now. It will take about a minute.

And if you are able to be in the Lakes, please join the protest walk at Ennerdale on Saturday 26 January. The organisers say:

“Ennerdale Protest Walk – 12:00hrs Saturday 26th January 2013
We have organised a protest walk in Ennerdale on Saturday 26th January 2013.
This is the potential route that heavy lorries and site equipment could take through the Ennerdale valley. The walk will start at Bowness Knott Carpark and continue beside the lake and end at the River Liza Delta just below Ennerdale Fell. This would be the anticipated site for the temporary Drilling HQ if seismic testing is to be carried out in MRWS Stage 5.
The closing sequences of the movie 28 Days Later (2002), directed by Danny Boyle, were filmed around the Ennerdale area and people will remember the message laid on the grass and viewed from above. We have arranged for the walk to be photographed from the air, weather permitting. It is our intention to recreate the final scene and provide footage and stills for use by the media.
The proposed walk will be a gentle stroll of 1.5miles each way and is easy enough for families and walkers of all ability. Please make sure all your friends, family, colleagues and anyone else who will listen comes along and supports this protest. We need as many people as possible to create media interest.”