A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
1914 – 1987
In his introduction to the 1947 Camden Classics edition of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights Norman Nicholson said,”No artist is an accident, yet if we try to explain genius in terms of heredity and environment we are very likely to misunderstand it greatly …”
He could have been talking about himself, or he could have been warning us off trying to define him by reference to his heredity and environment, for Norman Nicholson lived in the same terraced house in the small mining town of Millom, in what was then Cumberland, for the whole of his life.
Inevitably he was, and still is, referred to as a ‘provincial’ poet … the term (or at least the implications behind it) plainly rankled, for in 1954, in a broadcast entitled “On Being Provincial” he went on the offensive:
If you want to annoy a man who comes from the provinces, call him a provincial. For the word, used in this sense, implies the smug, the narrow, the short-sighted; implies a mere second-hand, second-rate, out of-date-existence, a bad copy of the life of the capital.
Human beings, he continued, are naturally provincial, and cities are not natural places. “Instead of a community”, he said, “we find an enormous heterogenous collection of people gathered from all corners of the country and deposited like silt at the delta of a great river.”
He went on to argue that being provincial – having roots, and a shared culture – was actually a strength, not a weakness: and for him, it was.
Norman Nicholson’s Cumberland was not the Cumberland of the English Tourist Board or the picture postcards sent in their thousands every year from the honeypots of Windermere, Grasmere and Coniston. The poems in his first collection, Five Rivers (1944), speak of Egremont, Whitehaven and Cleator Moor. They are being “regenerated” now, but then they were unlovely mining and mill towns:
In this town the dawn is late.
For suburbs like a waking beast
Hoist their backbones to the east,
And pitheaps at the seaward gate
Build barricades against the light.
In his second collection, Rock Face (1948), he lost his way a little. They’re still good poems, and certainly better than many written by more lauded poets, but they’re oddly anonymous, as if he became self-conscious about being provincial and deliberately tried his hand at a more ‘literary’ style.
In 1954 however, he published The Pot Geranium. In it, he returned to his roots and he did it with a vengeance. He writes of Millom, the surrounding countryside, the streets immediately around him and even the interior of 14 St George’s Terrace. The world had come to him:
It is the Gulf Stream
That rains down the chimney, making the soot spit; it is the Trade Wind
That blows in the draught under the bedroom door.
(from The Pot Geranium)
Oddly, having found his voice again, there was a lapse of 18 years before he produced another volume of poetry – which is not to say he wasn’t writing – he was. He produced most of his prose work in that time – much of it books about the Lake District – Portrait of the Lakes, Greater Lakeland, The Lakers. Perhaps he felt he had said everything there was to say, in poetry at least, about Millom and West Cumbria.
When he did finally return to poetry in 1972 with A Local Habitation, he came roaring back with a will and a whole new approach … not the places this time, but the people. His family, his friends, the shopkeepers, the local characters … we meet them all through his eyes and hear them all through his verse. There’s the local shopkeeper Harry Pelleymounter who was an amateur musician in his off duty hours; the inaccurate but enthusiastic baritone in a music competition launching into a song with gusto and “giving it Wigan” … He even wrote about himself and his grandmother:
Her forehead …..
Puckered in puzzle at this old-fashioned child
Bright enough at eight to read the ears off
His five unlettered uncles, yet afraid
Of every giggling breeze that blew.
“There’s nowt to be scared about,” she said,
“A big lad like you!”
(from Boo to a Goose)
Most poignantly perhaps, there’s the other Norman Nicholson – also a native of Millom. He and his namesake were born “two years and three streets apart” and in Nicholson, suddenly, one of his most deceptively simple poems, we get the poet Nicholson’s reaction to reading in the local paper of his alter ego’s sudden death:
And now, perhaps one day a year
The town will seem for half a minute
A place with one less person in it,
When I remember I’ll not meet
My unlike double in the street.
In 1981 he published his final collection, Sea to the West. Considering that he was then in his late 60s and in rapidly failing health it’s a surprising work. Even at that stage in his life – and knowing it could well be his last hurrah – he was experimenting. He returned again to a more literary form, but this time the poet’s own voice is heard, and it contains some of his most beautiful, elegiac poetry.
He was a man of firm Christian beliefs, and that permeates much of his work – not least the title poem of Sea to the West, which vividly describes the Irish Sea at sunset. The closing lines of that same poem provided his epitaph – carved on the headstone of his grave at St George’s Church in Millom, where there is also a beautiful memorial window to him.
Let my eyes at the last be blinded
Not by the dark
But by dazzle.
All of the individual volumes of Norman Nicholson’s poetry are long out of print, but can usually be bought secondhand at a reasonable price.
Faber and Faber produced two anthologies of his poetry – Selected Poems, which is still available, although with difficulty, and the far more complete Collected Poems, edited by Neil Curry which is not. The biographical detail, publication dates and quotations from “On Being Provincial” were taken from Neil Curry’s introduction in Collected Poems.
His prose works are readily and cheaply available secondhand, but his 1975 autobiography – Wednesday Early Closing – fetches very healthy prices on eBay and AbeBooks.
You will find a consideration of Nicholson’s novels HERE.