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An outsider on the inside

28 March 2014

Norman Nicholson, the Cumbrian poet born 100 years ago this month, was stirred by his faith, but recognised for his environmentalism. Martyn Halsall tells the story


Home territory: Norman Nicholson writing in the living room at 14 St George's Terrace

Home territory: Norman Nicholson writing in the living room at 14 St George's Terrace

ENTER Carlisle Cathedral purposefully, looking straight ahead, and you will miss him. Instead, you need to pause just inside the door and look up, to see the bust of Norman Nicholson, sea-coal black, face clamped between mutton-chop sideburns, staring from a niche. He was born a century ago, and was lauded, at his death in 1987, as "the most gifted English Christian provincial poet of his century" in his obituary in The Times.

Contemporary concerns make Nicholson's anniversary a vital time for his historic whisper to be amplified. "There is an upsurge of writing about the environment at the moment," the Cumbrian poet and essayist Mary Robinson wrote. "The time is ripe for a reassessment of Norman Nicholson's work. Let's ditch the 'provincialism' debate, and look at his writing in the context of ecology, edgelands, and sustainability."

Nicholson's "provincialism" is rooted in his static address. He lived for all but 20 months of his 73 years in a terraced side-street in Millom, an "edgeland" town on the west coast of Cumbria. Views from the second-floor attic where he wrote include the sheep pastures of Black Combe and the mountain grandeur of Coniston Old Man, but his immediate environment was the iron and steel industry, and its savage decline.

He celebrated the curlew's call, but also the apocalyptic fires ofthe slag banks. In his poetry, the shepherds invited to the nativity were men who knew the Cumbrian fells; and Christ's earthly father, St Joseph, strolled through local allotments.

Nicholson must have seemed always a partial outsider. While his father, another Joseph, was the meticulously dressed "Millom's popular outfitter", and a life member of the Millom Conservative and Unionist Club, many of his schoolfriends' fathers were unemployed.

"I was not encouraged to play with other children," Nicholson remembered. "I was not allowed out into the street; I was cossetted, comforted, protected, and I grew up - as I could hardly help growing up - pale, timid, dependent, self-absorbed, and rather girlish."

LOCALISM pervaded his early life. Nicholson's mother diedin 1919 from the Spanish flu epidemic, and when his father remarried in 1922, his new mother was Rosette Sobey, who worked in the music shop next door. The Sobeys, like many who followed the iron-ore Klondike, had moved north from Cornwall. Advancement saw them exchange the United Methodists at Haverigg for the Wesleyan Methodists in Millom.

Nicholson's religious practice was founded in social Methodism. "The concerts, bazaars, socials, faith teas, and harvest-festival sale of fruit and vegetables all took their part in the Nonconformist ecclesiastical year," he wrote in a book of essays published in 1966, They Became Christians. "They did not seem very different from the Sunday services -a little less formal and a little more boisterous, but with the same cosy friendliness, the same readily roused enthusiasm."

His parents kept their faith at a social distance. "My father explained that when I entered the pew, I was to sit down and lean forward for a few seconds, with my elbows on the hymn-book ledge, and my head in my hands, and I did this at his side for several weeks, before I realised we were supposed to be praying," Nicholson wrote in the autobiography of his early years, Wednesday Early Closing.

When a formal mission was held, every five years, Joseph Nicholson would remark: "It's the same crowd that gets saved every blessed time. You'd wonder how they ever found time to get lost." Young Norman would have liked to have "once or twice . . . gone forward", and "signed a little ticket saying we had accepted Jesus as our Saviour, rather as if we were applying for membership of the public library", but knew such assent would lead to his mother accusing him of "showing her up in public". "It only makes people start wondering what you've been up to," she would say, "if you go traipsing out there."

GRANDMA Cornthwaite had already briefed him about the disadvantages of being saved. "It's going to Prayer Meetings and pulling a long face and thinking you're better than other people and telling everybody they're going to Hell - that's what being saved is."

Given his academic ability, it was assumed that Nicholson would enter college or university, and become a teacher - "the bright boy's only practicable escape from the hopelessness of local unemployment".

Anecdote suggested that college entrance was lubricated by confirmation; so he began attending St George's, the imposing red sandstone Anglican church that sat socially and theologically above the rest of the town, and was built from Millom Ironmasters' dividends in 1876, for about £11,000. It was here that faith met poetry: "The lovely platitudes of Cranmer, hearing the Flesh taking word".

Tuberculosis intervened, and his university became a rural sanatorium in Hampshire, where his condition meant that he was allowed to talk only in a whisper. He lay in bed, reading. His early Anglo-Catholic rapture stilled to agnosticism: "I neither knew nor cared whether I was a Christian or not." His joy in the natural beauty of his surroundings, however, enhanced by reading Shaw and Wells, led him to revere creation: "This world matters."

His path to faith was paved with literary paradoxes: T. S. Eliot, "the seemingly unbelieving, disillusioned, harsh poet of The Waste Land", and Sir James Frazer's then controversial setting of Christian beliefs alongside other world faiths in The Golden Bough.

From a celebration of creation, in all its diverse physicality, Nicholson was able to embrace the reality of Christ's incarnation through another paradox, arguing with Christians. "[I] found, to my great surprise, that some of them believed in the incarnation no more than I did. . . . I was appalled by this attitude and began to argue," he wrote in They Became Christians.

"I said that to deny the uniqueness of our Lord's divinity was to take the whole point out of Christianity, to remove the one concept that made it Christian at all. I do not know that my arguments convinced anyone else, but they certainly convinced me. . . I proclaimed myself a Christian almost as an act of protest.

"But once the key had been turned, all the rest turned with it: creed, liturgy, theology - the imagery, wisdom, and experience of Christendom. One hesitant creak, and the whole door swung open."

IN HER new biography of Nicholson, The Whispering Poet, Kathleen Jones offers a more precise conversion. Friends associated with the Student Christian Movement (SCM) led Nicholson to its summer conference in 1939, and George Every SSM, a member of the Kelham community, persuaded him to make a retreat there.

In this Nottinghamshire "gothic extravagance . . . he finally becamea spiritually committed Christian rather than just a ritual-observing Anglican", Jones writes. Faith and literature were to grow together. Every sent some of Nicholson's early poems to T. S. Eliot, who went on retreats at Kelham. "I do think there is very likely something here, if he is young enough," Eliot responded.

Nicholson's adoption of Christianity, within the tensions of a natural world threatened by industrial domination, formed the recipe from which he was to write his life's work. More than 30 books and pamphlets - poetry, plays, novels, criticism, and essays - flowed from his fountain pen, and later typewriter.

The adolescent who had been allowed only to whisper in Hampshire began to publish from Cumberland. "I stayed at home very, very quietly, I read and read and read and I started to write . . . round about the age of 30 I started to publish," he later told the PN Review.

Adjacent forces of nature and industry, shot through with faith like the veins of iron ore that sustained, then abandoned, his community, particularly hallmark his poetry, providing its energy. When members of the Norman Nicholson Society added their tree to the Christmas-tree festival in St George's last Christmas, their theme was Nicholson's poem "A Turn for the Better". Typically, this celebrates a story from the Gospel of James, outside the New Testament, where Joseph records everything standing still at the moment of Christ's birth.

Joseph comes to a halt "between the allotments", snow pauses in its fall; the robin never moves to shake a feather from its head. Workmen are stilled at their excavation, or eating lunch:

Workmen on the electric cable track
Swung picks in the air and held them there, rigid,
Raised bait to mouths and never took a bite.

The whole of the cosmos changes to "a brand-new now", released by the cry of the Christ-child. Tree decorations included snowflakes, and inverted flower-pots, hung like reimagined bells over a miniature allotment. Society members were attempting to convey "something of the poet's intention, and his fresh view of the Christian story", one of the founders, Peggy Troll, said.

NICHOLSON published that poem in 1954, in the collection named after his most famous poem, The Pot Geranium; but religious poems emerge among those celebrating local, unsung towns, overshadowed by war, in his first collection, Five Rivers (1944). The issue of social class, like the Sobeys' social ascent, is written into "Shepherds' Carol", with its Cumbrian geographical vocabulary of ghyll, scree, fell, and dale.

The contending paganism and Christianity of Cumberland are also part of that landscape for these religious outcasts, called from their flocks to greet the Christ-child; for this is also the place of "the stones by the sacred tree" - perhaps a pagan gathering-place, perhaps Christ's cross.

It is there that the shepherds take "the lambs that were dropped in the snow", in an echo of the sacrifice inherent in the "lamb of God" they have just welcomed. The poem ends in ambiguity, arguably prophesying the sacrifice of Christ:

It was never ourselves we thought to give -
But we gave ourselves that the lambs might live.

TODAY, Nicholson is revered more as an ecological than a theological prophet; yet the two are interlinked. When he wrote "The Cathedral", published in Seato the West (1981), Nicholson was taking reference not from the 12th-century mother-church in Carlisle, but from an abandoned slate quarry in Little Langdale. But this "cathedral", built by taking stone away, is also an argument for how the presence of God can be encountered through his apparent absence, the "Negative Way" he cites in the poem.

Similarly, the 12-line ecologists' anthem "Windscale", about the nuclear plant, now cosmetically rechristened Sellafield, "where sewers flow with milk, and meat", ends with a theological indictment: "And children suffocate in God's fresh air."

This charge, if not its theological resonance, was picked up by Seamus Heaney, one of the 40 poets assembled by the Cockermouth poet and critic William Scammell, who edited Between Comets as a tribute to Nicholson on his 70th birthday. Heaney referred to "Windscale" in his "A Paved Text, for Norman Nicholson", reaching across the Irish Sea:

Now nuclear poisons
re-anglicise a sea
that is yours and mine as well.

"The Sea to the West" of Nicholson's Cumbria laps ashore on "The Nuclear Coast", and international nuclear-reprocessing has replaced mining as the staple, and only large-scale, industry in West Cumbria.

His former home in St George's Terrace has become the Norman Nicholson Coffee Shop. A chamber pot holds paper and crayons for visiting children in the fireplace of a room behind the former outfitter's shop, although Nicholson and his wife, Yvonne, were childless. A rusting blue plaque by the single first-floor window is set on stained pebble-dash. "Home of Cumbrian Poet Norman Nicholson," it records; "Man of Millom".

Broadcasts, a memorial service, lectures, readings, and a concert are celebrating Nicholson's centenary, but his memorial window in St George's can be seen only from the outside. His old church is locked during the week, and the vicarage is empty. His "Christian attitudes" may have limited his literary audience, the academic Philip Gardner has argued.

Nicholson, ever the native outsider, lies in the new churchyard, in a grave shared with Yvonne - his head towards Black Coombe, and his feet facing the Duddon estuary that inspired Wordsworth's sonnets, just as Nicholson's work is inspiring today's poets who are increasingly concerned about threats to God's creation.

The epitaph, in his own words, is nevertheless celebratory:

Let our eyes at the last be blinded
not by the dark
but by dazzle.

Norman Nicholson: The whispering poet by Kathleen Jones is published by The Book Mill at £13 (Church Times Bookshop £11.70 - Use code CT533 ).

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