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.

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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:

Tom Rawling: Rediscovering Ennerdale’s Poet

I’m just back from a visit to Ennerdale – one of the most beautiful and least changed valleys in Lakeland. BBC TV’s Countryfile had called to ask if I’d be filmed talking about Tom Rawling, the wonderful Ennerdale poet, beside How Hall,the farmhouse where he spent so much of his childhood. (The programme goes out on 19 Feb. 2012).

How Hall, the Ennerdale farm where Rawling spent much of his childhood

Rawling (1916-96) was a magnificent poet – perhaps Cumbria’s best 20th century poet in my view – and, though largely forgotten at the end of his life, he’s been undergoing a renaissance of appreciation since his poems were reissued by the Lamplugh and District Heritage Society in 2009. The name may sound parochial, but believe me Rawling is a fine and perhaps major poet, bringing to life in vividly textured words the farming life of an earlier generation, the landscape and the fishing. All of it, as you read, is gritty and real enough to get your hands on, and profoundly beautiful at the same time.

(Do email [email protected] and get hold of a copy of his poems – it’s only £7.50 and I’m sure will become a collector’s item in the future.)

I enjoyed meeting a very friendly BBC team, including producer Dean Jones and presenter Ellie Harrison, and despite the cameras, radio mics and freezing temperature we talked pretty spontaneously in the sunshine and open air, with a rich authentic odour of cow muck in the background (the farmer was manuring his fields at the time).

 

After filming I had a wonderful walk in the freezing air and bright sunshine around Ennerdale Water.

And the previous day, I’d taken time out to walk up in the snow to Bowscale Tarn, that amazingly dark, melancholy and beautiful place. I’ll put some pictures in here.

 

Snow on Haycock across Ennerdale Water; Angler's Crag in middle distance

Bowscale Tarn: a study in subtle blacks and whites just before sunset