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.
Millom in Cumbria was once a rural community with a scattered population that relied heavily on farming and fishing to scratch a living. All of that changed forever in the first half of the 19th Century when the discovery of high grade haematite at Hodbarrow catapulted the area into the industrial age and lured thousands of people to the once quiet backwater. Victorian terraced housing sprang up to cope with the influx, followed by the usual slew of civic and public buildings. The Free Public Library, Science, Art, and Technical School was built in the late 1880s – a rather grand and solidly respectable red brick edifice of a design familiar across the UK, with the words ‘PUBLIC READING ROOM’ and ‘FREE LIBRARY’ proudly picked out in fancy stonework across the front. It couldn’t last of course; by the 1920s the industry was in decline and Hodbarrow Mine finally closed in 1968 having produced in its lifetime 25 million tons of haematite and Millom became an undistinguished former mining town on the road to nowhere. The buildings remain though and the Free Library still stands on George Street, its imposing frontage, leaky roof and air of slightly dilapidated grandeur speaking silently but eloquently of past glories. This then was where I first encountered the poet Norman Nicholson. Not literally and in person you understand, because he’d died several years earlier, but in written form, on a wall. I don’t specifically remember the weather that day, but given that the default setting in south west Cumbria is grey and drizzly, there’s a very good chance it was grey and drizzly. I do remember that I’d only recently moved to the area and was wandering around Millom, hopelessly confused by its labyrinthine ‘made it up as we went along’ road layout, trying to locate my car. When I came upon the library, I decided to kill two birds with one stone and register with them while asking for directions back to where my car was parked (which turned out, embarrassingly enough, to be just across the road). Newly enrolled and clutching my tickets (for this was back in the days when libraries still gave you little brown tickets with your name and address on) I was browsing in the Local History section when I glanced up and saw on the wall a large framed poem by someone I’d never even heard of – Norman Nicholson. The title and opening lines were attention-grabbing enough:
I’m rising five” he said “Not four” and the little coils of hair Un-clicked themselves upon his head. His spectacles, brimful of eyes to stare At me and the meadow, reflected cones of light Above his toffee-buckled cheeks. He’d been alive Fifty-six months or perhaps a week more; Not four But rising five.
… but as I read on, I felt a familiar prickling sensation running up the back of my neck – the one which unfailingly tells me I’ve found something out of the ordinary. The poem’s theme is very simple: we human beings never live in and for the moment – we’re always in transit. The message is driven home by the repeated ‘Not … but rising …. ’ closing lines of each verse:
Not May but rising June.
Not now but rising soon.
It was the final verse though that literally left me slack-jawed and eventually sent me hurtling over to the ‘Norman Nicholson’ section to seek him out: the final verse and its last line, which still has the power to take my breath away. I don’t intend to diminish the impact of those lines by reproducing them here, but the whole poem isn’t hard to find. That poem, found so unexpectedly on the wall of a Victorian temple of self improvement at the end of a road to nowhere introduced me to a poet who has been my constant companion ever since. I’ve written about him before on Vulpes Libris, and his ‘Complete Works’ sits on my bookshelf beside Ted Hughes, such is my regard for him. The ‘live in the present’ message is hardly a new one. John Lennon put it succinctly:
Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
… but Norman Nicholson simply sends the cold wind from the Irish Sea across your soul. (The photograph of Millom Library on a suitably grey and drizzly day is by Alexander P Kapp and is reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.)