Tuesday Poem: Remembering Norman Nicholson

On the Dismantling of Millom Ironworks

............They cut up the carcass of the old ironworks
Like a fat beast in a slaughter-house:  they shovelled my childhood
On to a rubbish heap.  Here my father's father,
Foreman of the back furnace, unsluiced the metal lava
To slop in fiery gutters across the foundry floor
And boil round the workmen's boots:  here five generations
Toasted the bread they earned at a thousand degrees Fahrenheit
And the town thrived on its iron diet.

The Faber and Faber edition of Norman's Collected Poems
Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Lake District poet Norman Nicholson, who is being remembered more and more for his fervent environmentalism. He spent his life in Millom, a mining town at the southern end of the Lake District, and some of his best poems are about the interaction of human beings with the environment. They record the de-industrialisation of the north and the human as well as environmental cost.  This is another extract from the poem describing the attempt to restore the area to something resembling a natural landscape:

Drowned under stagnant water, chimneys felled and uprooted,
Slagbanks ploughed down to half their height, all cragginess,
Scrag-end and scree ironed out, and re-soiled and greened over . . .

But now, the residents and workers are pensioned off along with their  'hopes, gains, profits,' and desperations, with little to look forward to other than the newly built 'Old People's Bungalows'.  'The town shrinks and dwindles'.  His stark description of a landscape devastated by heavy industry will ring true for anyone who has witnessed it.

Reservoir tanks gape dry beside cracked, empty pig-beds;
And one last core of clinker, like the stump of a dead volcano,
Juts up jagged and unblastable.  Stand on the rickety pier,
Look left along the line where gantry and crane and coke-bank
Ten years ago blocked all the view - and now you're staring
Bang at Black Combe.  The wind resumes its Right of Way.

In another poem on the Closing of Millom Ironworks, Norman describes the men who 'morning after morning' stand out side the churchyard gate 'Hands in pockets, shoulders to the slag,' - the fathers of boys he was at school with, all without work.  'It's beautiful to breathe the sharp night air', Norman observes,  but what use is all this beauty if there is no work? Whichever way the wind is blowing, 'its a cold wind now.'

Many of Norman's most famous poems have a strong environmental message.  'Windscale' was written just after what is now regarded as one of the world's worst nuclear emission disasters of the 20th century, though it was downplayed at the time.  Norman privately blamed his wife's breast cancer on the radiation.  He was also acutely aware that the planet couldn't sustain human beings in the way we were behaving.  'Elm Decline' is a frightening poem describing deforestation and the consequences of industries that 'channel a poisoned rain' down onto the land.  In 'Gathering Sticks on Sunday', he writes of  what he sees as the consequences:  ....... 'soon,

The living world of men
Will take a lunar look, as dead as slag,
And moon and earth will stare at one another
Like the cold, yellow skulls of child and mother.'

There will be a celebration of Norman's life and poetry on Saturday afternoon  in St George's Church, Millom (where you can also see his commemorative stained glass window) at 2pm.  All welcome. Various members of the Norman Nicholson Society (including me) will be reading his poems and talking about his life. 

If you'd like to know more about Norman Nicholson's life, my biography 'The Whispering Poet' is available on Amazon or to order from all good bookshops.  Paperback £8.99 and Kindle edition £2.58


  1. I am looking forward to seeing you there on Saturday, when I will be reading 'Ravenglass Railway Station' and, if time permits, one of my own poems inspired by NN and 'Comet'.


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