In May this year it will be 30 years since the death of Norman Nicholson the Cumbrian poet from Millom and I wonder if his life and works will be celebrated as they should be, even locally?
I was born and grew up only a mile away from Norman’s home but never met him and saw him only rarely. In fact he wasn’t seen very often, not because he was a recluse, but due to his being diagnosed with tuberculosis when he was only 16. I knew his wife, Yvonne, much better however as she was one of my teachers at Millom Grammar School in the 1960’s.
Norman was more than a poet, he also wrote novels, plays, essays and critiques, and I have several of his novels about local life including Early Closing Wednesday and Provincial Pleasures, sadly both out of print. I will write more of these leading up to May.
At school I was never one for poetry and even now struggle with most poets including Wordsworth and other Lakeland Poets. But I came across this one again recently and it immediately made sense, but possibly only if you are a local Cumbrian:
The toadstool towers infest the shore:
Stink-horns that propagate and spore
Wherever the wind blows.
Scafell looks down from the bracken band
And sees hell in a grain of sand,
And feels the canker itch between his toes.
This is a land where the dirt is clean
And poison pasture, quick and green,
And storm sky, bright and bare;
Where sewers flow with milk, and meat
is carved up for the fire to eat,
And children suffocate in God’s fresh air.
Here’s my very uneducated interpretation:
The toadstool towers were the cooling towers of the Windscale Nuclear Plant that belched steam (?) continuously and in any direction depending on the wind.
Based on the Cumbrian coast there was always a fear of polluted shorelines and beaches, but where this would be an invisible pollution unlike an oil spillage which would be “unclean dirt”.
The poison pasture, sewers flowing with milk and meat carved up for the fire all relate to a nuclear leak in 1957 where there was a high likelihood of poisoned fields where dairy cattle were farmed, milk was poured away and unusable for a long time and cattle burned.
I remember all this from school days when our daily gill of free school milk disappeared.
The risk to the whole of Cumbria was never fully disclosed with one of the reactors close to explosion, prevented however by a few brave but unrecognised men who fought for several days to contain it. Tom Tuohy, Tom Hughes and others risked their lives to find a way to extinguish the reactor fire which they eventually achieved using sea water, but remember they were in uncharted territory with no manuals or past experiences to help them: a nuclear fire was something that nobody had dealt with before. I wrote to Gordon Brown as prime minister in 2008 after the death of Tom Tuohy seeking formal recognition for him and his colleagues, the result? No reply!
If you want to read a full account of the accident and these brave men visit Windscale Fire
And finally to repeat myself, Norman’s poem describes the incident beautifully and you can learn more about him here The Norman Nicholson Society