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.
A Review and overview by David Boyd.
Norman Nicholson (NN) was first and foremost a ‘man of Millom’, a small, isolated, now-dying, post-industrial town in south west Cumbria. But, unlike any other member of his family or fellow Millomite, NN was a gifted intellectual who turned out to be one of this century’s leading poets and writers. He lived for virtually all his life in this confined and rather drab small community and steadfastly refused ever to leave the town he clearly loved so deeply.
In ‘Wednesday Early Closing’ NN recounts, in a poet’s masterful fashion, his life growing up in Millom from his early childhood through to late adolescence. The book was first published in 1975, when NN was 57 years old and had already accomplished most of his poetry. Two years later, he was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry and NN and his wife went down from Millom to Buckingham Palace for the ceremony, followed by much hospitality laid-on by the then-Poet Laureate, Sir John Betjeman.
The book was always scarce and sought-after, even during the period in which NN’s reputation languished in the years following his death in 1987, but Faber and Faber have now responded to popular demand with a second, paperback, edition (along with a second edition of NN’s ‘Collected Poems’, edited by his friend, Neil Curry).
NN’s decision to publish this account of his early life in Millom is in line with the ‘second-wind’ he found as a poet, following a long fallow period in his poetic work between the publishing of ‘The Pot Geranium’ collection in 1954 and ‘A Local Habitation’ in 1972.
The latter collection of poems reflected the influence on NN of the work of the American poet Robert Lowell and the publication of Lowell’s ‘Life Studies’ in 1959. Inspired by Lowell, NN too turned to his own early life and family and surroundings for inspiration and his focus changed quite dramatically from that of ‘the universe in a grain of sand’ of ‘The Pot Geranium’ to the family and Millom town matters evoked by the very apposite title of ‘A Local Habitation’.
Much earlier, in 1959, NN had published ‘Provincial Pleasures’, a thinly-disguised, lighthearted fictionalized account of a year in the life of Millom and its inhabitants. The affinity with ‘Under Milk Wood’ is fairly obvious here; indeed, this may have been the early impetus for NN’s subsequent change in literary focus.
But, back to the book itself !
NN dedicated the book ‘To JOHN EDWARD FISHER – to give him something else to grumble about’. Towards the end of the book, NN mentions Ted Fisher as one of his trio of Arts sixth-form Millom schoolmates, and speculates that the inspirational teaching of a Miss Hobson there remained with Ted Fisher when he became 25 years later an English teacher himself and the vehicle for encouraging a young lad at Mexborough Grammar School near Rotherham to study English at Cambridge. That young lad’s name was Ted Hughes.
Fisher remained a friend of NN following their school days and is in fact linked (but not in this book) with introducing NN to one of his first, adult, serious, girlfriends, a school teacher named Enrica Garnier, with whom NN was closely involved during the 1940s. Enrica taught at a private and rather select school for girls in Canterbury, part of which was evacuated to a remote Shropshire village during the second half of World War II. A visit to Enrica inspired NN’s [Collected] poem ‘September in Shropshire’ and Enrica undertook the almost-impossible job of typing-up NN’s appallingly-scrawled manuscripts. NN’s first Faber-published collection of poetry, ‘Five Rivers’ is dedicated to Enrica. For reasons so far not entirely clear, their relationship had ended by the late 1940s and Enrica herself died unmarried just a few years after NN’s own death in 1987.
Another of NN’s childhood contemporaries was one Montagu Slater, son of Seth Slater, a Millom tailor and men’s outfitter by who had originally been NN’s father’s employer before Joseph Nicholson set up shop elsewhere on his own account. Montagu was to become ultimately the librettist for Benjamin Britten’s ‘ opera, ‘Peter Grimes’
But, returning to the book under discussion – NN opens it with a poet’s vivid, arresting image, describing his grandmother’s old face as ‘shrunk like an old potato.
Here we have a fascinating account of growing-up in the Millom of the 1920s and 1930s. In a way, it’s a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ transported from Dublin to Millom and without the portrait involving bobbing-down quite so many of James Joyce’s babbling ‘streams of consciousness’
NN’s life was the subject of an hour-long study by the accomplished arts film director John Reid and fellow-Cumbrian presenter Melvyn Bragg in the form of an edition of ‘The South Bank Show’ filmed in the early 1980s, coinciding with NN turning 70 years of age. Here, key episodes in NN’s early life as first recounted in ‘Wednesday Early Closing’ were given pride of place, in particular the whole unique, closeted, environment of this isolated settlement, this incongruous tiny blot on the largely unsullied natural splendour that is the countryside of Cumbria , a place owing its existence almost entirely to the extraction of vast nearby deposits of rich iron ore and to its smelting in blast furnaces.
NN repeated for the TV show one of the recitals that had made him a child celebrity in the Millom community of half a century before, in the form of Kipling’s poem ‘Big Steamers’ and recounted graphically the profound influence his paternal grandmother had on his early development, along with that of his father and stepmother. The influenza epidemic of 1918 had led to the early death of NN’s natural mother and NN, both in the book and in the documentary, recounts how unusually cocooned and kept (figuratively) swaddled he had been as a child, well away from the rough and tumble of the lives of his childhood peers and consequently much more at ease in the company of adults.
These aspects of NN’s childhood development, both in terms of ‘nature’ (his inherited traits, abilities and predispositions) and ‘nurture’ (how he was shaped by his upbringing and social and physical environment) might be perceived as ripe for analysis from the standpoint of the psychoanalyst and (social) psychologist. For example, the sudden loss of the natural mother of a sensitive and gifted child of four cannot realistically be discounted, despite NN’s own assertion that he himself remembers his natural mother not at all and she had been totally expunged from his mind. For example, in describing his close affinity with one of his female junior school teachers, he himself states ‘It was partly, no doubt, that, at that age, any reasonably kind woman teacher became a substitute for my dead mother.’ However, might this at the same time not amount to a tacit admission that the boy NN needed such a substitute because his stepmother and his father failed to provide sufficient support in this regard?
Another notable aspect of NN’s early social development has to be the influence of the town’s pervasive and very strong Non-conformist church life, Millom having been both a completely new industrial community and a strong employment magnet for West Country immigrant labour, in particular those attracted to work in the iron ore mines by prospects of the mining work at which they were already skilled. As NN himself observed, ‘Methodism, however, was not just a Sunday religion: in fact, it was what happened between Sundays that meant most to us.’
Methodism in Millom was therefore not just a religion. It was a whole way of life; as much a social club as a form of religious observance or labeling.
Allied with his stepmother’s existing credentials (especially as an expert pianist) as a leading light herself in Millom’s Nonconformist community, the young NN seems to have become a key personage in the social life of the town.
However, there were clearly tensions between NN’s paternal grandmother (C of E ) and his stepmother, whilst NN’s relationship with his seemingly rather prim and prickly father can hardly be described as close and deeply affectionate. NN might thus perhaps have been somewhat starved of affection in his formative years, especially from both parents and peers. He was also the only child of the family.
An entirely pragmatic yet most significant change in NN’s life took place when, at the age of around 15, he abandoned Methodism in order to become a confirmed member of the Church of England. NN explains that, in those days, entry to any university or teacher training college was much more open to confirmed C of E members, so, with higher education and a possible teaching career in mind, the adolescent NN changed his religious allegiance. In any event, he seems to have found more structure and greater intellectual rigour in the theology of the Anglican High Church.
At the adolescent stage, NN reflects upon how sex affected him, and his first schoolboy ‘crush’ on a fellow girl classmate. He makes the point that his loving feelings in this regard were always more akin to the thrills he experienced as part of religious fervour than to any purely sexual urges that were satisfied by the usual schoolboy ‘smut’.
The book goes on to recount NN’s teenage school experiences and, almost at its end, the serious health problem which determined the whole of his future life, namely his contracting tuberculosis, which, in this era, was almost a terminal illness.
The TB led to NN’s virtual two-year incarceration in a sanatorium deep in the heart of the New Forest, far, far, away from the dust and dirt of Millom in the south of England. This constituted the only known treatment for this killer illness. He was housed virtually out in the open, in an open-sided hut, and forbidden to speak, save in a whisper, for he had TB of the larynx.
Towards the end of the book, NN describes these sanatorium years ( elsewhere he referred to them as ‘his university’). During this time, his whole life’s only period of exile from his home town, he had little else to do but to devour books of all kinds but particularly theology and English and world literature, whilst he was really as one with Nature – with all the teeming flora and fauna, and the passing seasons of the years. There can be little doubt that this illness and its enforced treatment changed the course of the rest of NN’s life and profoundly influenced his thinking and his attitudes .
He mentions too his enforced mixing with upper-class individuals, who spoke very differently, such that he unconsciously adopted their modes of speech and found that the sound of his parents’ speech now had very rough edges.
There is further mention of the poignant fact that NN’s father had almost exhausted his life savings by funding his son’s extended private sanatorium treatment. This, says NN, was only ever apparent well after his father’s death. His parents had never, ever, mentioned the topic.
NN’s return to his home town at the age of around 19 marks the end of this remarkable, reflective, entertaining autobiography and it is such a shame that the author never published another volume, recounting his life beyond his teens, and in particular the poetry.
We are all the poorer for that omission on NN’s part, but are left with NN’s reflections, in the closing lines of the book, upon his feelings on finding himself again standing outside his familiar Millom home, following his long journey back from the sanatorium:-
‘Forty years later…….I thank God for a lifetime spent in that same town.’
David Boyd, like Norman Nicholson, is a lifetime resident of West Cumbria, an active member of the recently-formed Norman Nicholson Society and is presently researching a fuller biography about this under-rated Cumbrian poet. He would therefore very much like to hear from anyone with personal memories, etc. of his subject – and may be contacted via the email address on this site.
Wednesday Early Closing: Faber and Faber. Faber Finds. 2008. ISBN: 9780571243273. 202pp.
Collected Poems: Faber and Faber. Faber Finds. 2008. ISBN: 9780571243280. 468pp.
You’ll find Moira’s earlier piece on Norman Nicholson here.
The idea of spending your entire life in one small town sounds so claustrophobic and yet I was wondering if there is something liberating about it too.
I was thinking today how the lives of so many famous 20th century poets – including the likes of Eliot and Larkin – were kind of almost-pointedly ordinary in many ways. Unlike today where we expect writers to be like mini-celebrities, doing tours and circuits and appearing on television and becoming pundits and…
Of course, not the case with Ted Hughes who seemed to have had far more much tragedy than is fair to expect in the life of one man.
But I was wondering about this. About whether poetry needs this kind of concentration and routine and even safety. A little like painters who paint the same subjects over and over and over and can find everything they need to find and say everything they need to say with that one subject.
Think it was rather eccentric – NN himself identified very much indeed with William Cowper.
At least Larkin; Auden and most of the others had a university to inhabit, whereas NN was regarded with some astonishment by most of Millom’s inhabitants – he was so very different, and I think they disparaged what he did as not really working for a living.
Sometimes I speculate that it’s sad in a way that NN never lived in the age of the internet and the email and think of the torrent that would have flowed to and from 14 St Georges Terrace. Sure he’d have felt far less isolated, though, especially in view of his less than robust health.
NN did put himself about quite a lot giving talks and poetry readings, usually of the small gathering in the village hall variety but never achieved the ‘national treasure’ and TV celebrity status of say John Betjeman – shame, really, ‘cos I do consider NN the finer poet !
It’s far from unprecedented is it?. Consider the two Emilys … Bronte and Dickinson (now THERE are two women who could have met, should have met, but didn’t …).
I suspect that being rooted to one place like that has a great deal to recommend it. Nicholson certainly always thought so – and it’s probably not coincidental that he was a great admirer of Emily Bronte, who was ALSO an admirer of Cowper.
And yes … He’d have been an internet natural!
I think when circumstances keeps a person of imagination in a restricted locale for a large portion (if not entire) of their lives, it’s a case of “if life hands you lemons, make lemonade”. Continuing that metaphor, NN made terrific lemonade!
Very interesting review of an under appreciated poet, the background & conversational side bars was as enjoyable as the description of the book. The genuine liking of Mr. Boyd for his subject is warmly apparent & added to the piece. I’m glad that Faber is republishing NN’s books so that a new generation, as well as old fans, can find them again.
Many thanks Jackie – and no need at all for the ‘Mr Boyd’ !!
I just loved the ‘lemonade’ adage.
As part of his ‘South Bank Show’ appearance, I think, NN spoke at some length about life in cities being very stratified, such that one only tended to live and socialise amongst one’s own group – whereas in Millom, everyone from the most humble labourer to the likes of him mingled together and knew each other (and were invariably either relatives or schoolmates). An interesting take on socialism and social cohesion, maybe.
Very similar sentiments are expressed by NN in that poem where he reflects upon reading of the death of his Millomite namesake. I forget the title, but NN explains they were virtual strangers but still used to exchange greetings in the street when they bumped into each other about every other year, on average.
It’s called ‘Nicholson, suddenly’ David.
I’ve put a link back to my original article at the bottom of your review. I meant to do it at the time, but forgot ….
‘The Seventeenth of the Name’ contains very similar stuff, as well, and has an almost-comic ending.
I’m so glad you’re planning a biography of this splendid poet. As you say, Wednesday Early Closing leaves the reader wondering and wanting more. Are you aiming for publication to mark the centenary of his birth? Best of luck – just wish I could help.
(Belated) thanks for the kind and encouraging words, Jackie.
Figure I’ve got until 2014, so I’d better get weaving !!
it’s already an entirely fascinating and enigmatic story (the life, post-‘Wednesday Early Closing’), but all and any further input / insights most gratefully received !…………(discretion asured !!) – via this website.
I run a U3A Literature group in Penrith and believe we might be able to make some contribution to your NN biography. In particular one of our members held a senior position in Cumbria CC education service and organised many NN poetry reading sesions, mainly with teachers. Please be in touch if you feel this might be worth following up.
I’d be exceedingly interested to discuss this further, both with you and the U3A member involved.
Direct email is
if one of you might get in touch, that would be very helpful indeed
We’re just like a dating agency really, aren’t we? … :0)
I live in hope that it may be a little acorn, but might contain all the nascent components of a very mighty oak !
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