by Alan Beattie, Lancaster, 29 July 2013
Norman Nicholson, ‘Man of Millom’ as he’s described on the blue plaque on the front of his small terrace house, was born and died in the same house, having ‘stayed put’ there all his life (1914-1987). But from this unlikely vantage point, Nicholson authored four plays, eight volumes of poetry, two novels, four works of literary history and criticism, two edited anthologies of poetry, five volumes of topographic and local history, innumerable articles – and frequent nation-wide radio broadcasts for the BBC. He was lauded in high-modernist circles (championed by TS Eliot), and acknowledged as an influence by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, amongst others; and received many honours. Yet he chose all the while to remain ‘rooted’ in the local world that he felt he belonged to. He was vigorous in his defence of ‘provincial pleasures’ (the title of one of his books), much concerned about the economic threats to the ways of life of his neighbours and fellow-citizens in the industrial settlements along the West Cumbrian coast; he also spoke ironically of himself as a ‘prophetaster’ – a (small-time?) prophet, who tried to look far into the future as well as deep into the past of his corner of Britain. His work, especially his poetry, has attracted considerable interest in the Green Movement, and (for example) poems by Nicholson regularly feature in publications from Common Ground that try to ‘revalue our emotional engagement with places [and] liberate our subjective response to the world about us’.
In a PhD study completed in 2007 at Lancaster University, David Cooper examined Nicholson’s ‘continued occupation of one circumscribed place’ in the light of ‘spatial theory’ in literary studies, and in relation to recent developments in geo-poetics and eco-criticism. Cooper shows at length how Nicholson’s writing is grounded in “a landscape charged with memories, not only his own memories, but those of his fellows, those of people around him” (Nicholson’s words), and how a sense of pastness emerges as a dominant characteristic within Nicholson’s portrait of his local environment. Cooper’s thesis is highly illuminating about (and largely appreciative of) what he calls ‘positive provincialism’, but he claims to detect a thread of uncertainty emerging in Nicholson’s poetry that is precipitated (he argues) by the instabilities created by the de-industrialization of Millom – a process Nicholson observed and documented at first-hand. Cooper suggests that Nicholson’s poetic project was problematized as things moved on from the social certainties of provincialism (in the 1950s) to a more unstable and ambiguous position in which traditional concepts of landscape and environment were no longer applicable – leaving Nicholson neither unreservedly nostalgic for the industrial past, nor entirely hopeful for a post-industrial utopia. Cooper suggests that Nicholson’s ‘solution’ to this dilemma was ‘to go underground’, to undertake imaginative excavation of the telluric, subterranean terrain of Cumbria – delving back from the recent industrial past to a pre-industrial ‘agrarian history’ and into ‘geological history’. Cooper shows how Nicholson became preoccupied with the intersection of the telluric and the temporal, with what it means to dwell in both place and time, and with the contrasts between geological and anthropological time.
I’m interested in building on Cooper’s eco-spatial analysis of Nicholson’s poetry, by proceeding to an analysis in terms of Bakhtin’s theory of the chronotope (not mentioned by Cooper), which I think offers a different take on Nicholson’s apparent descent into the telluric depths of Cumbrian geology. My counter-suggestion is that long before the closure and dismantling of the Millom Ironworks (when Nicholson was in his 50s) he was already a man haunted by time, by timetables and by timescapes. One of the reasons for his ‘staying put’ in Millom was that at the age of sixteen he’d been found to have tuberculosis of the throat; he was ‘confined’ for more than two years, and remained a ‘convalescent’ for much longer than that. This foreclosed any possibility of ‘leaving home’ to go to university and beyond. As it happens, the experience of the TB patient is the subject of a superb ‘observing participant’ monograph – a classic of medical sociology – entitled Timetables: Structuring the Passage of Time in Tuberculosis Treatment and Other Careers (1963) by Julius Roth. This shows how waiting – waiting for clinical attention, waiting for test results, waiting for symptom attenuation, waiting for the stages of the natural history of the disease to ‘progress’, waiting for discharge, waiting for recovery, just waiting for time to pass – is the overwhelming preoccupation of the TB patient. I suspect that through his own experience along these lines Nicholson – like other TB patients – was socialised into an intense awareness of the many layers and depths and divergences in the way time passes. As described also in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, the life of the TB patient is a thorough-going way of being put on ‘time-watch’ – sometimes, to the end of time…. The human experience of TB (like that of chronic illnesses – note the label) can itself be seen as a chronotope in Bakhtin’s terms: a way of imagining a configuration of time and space that defines and constitutes identity and position in a particular setting; that serves to keep alive particular stories or myths about origins and pathways and destinations – especially when the continuity or coherence of the life-course are threatened with disruption or erasure. My argument is that Nicholson in his poetry is preoccupied not merely with timelines at multiple levels – but with the way they coexist, cross, collide, fold into each other, interrupt and subvert each other. His understanding of these myriad heterogeneous clashing chronotopes extended from the quotidian, diurnal time of the TB patient and the industrial worker, to the months, seasons, and wheeling year of the rural labourer – and then on to lifespans (growing up, growing old, contemplating death), family-tree-timescapes, evolutionary sequences, and deep glacial and cosmological corridors of time. His modelling of these in diverse textual incarnations, reflects I believe, not ‘ambiguity’ on his part, but rather his distinctive grasp of the profoundly heterochronic nature of lived experience in his own locality, its past and its future. He was indeed a provincial, ‘confined as a limpet to one small radius of rock’, with ‘history squinting over the rim of a fell’ – as such, a far cry indeed from the cosmopolitan nomads, exiles and refugees of the 20th century – but his complex textures of deep retrospect and impassioned prophecy seem to me to embody an important epistemic and ethical challenge of the sort prefigured in Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotope.