Norman Nicholson: Something to Tell
Original broadcast on BBC Radio Cumbria, August 25th 2014.
Available on the BBC iplayer.
Contributors: Janine Allis-Smith, Todd Atkinson, Alan and Kay Beattie, David Boyd, Melvyn Bragg, Neil Curry, Sue Dawson, Simone Faulkner, Antoinette Fawcett, Christopher Fox, Kathleen Jones, Mel Narongchai, Mary Robinson, Felicity Wilson, the children of Haverigg Primary School and the students of Millom School.
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From Dr Malcolm Morrison 3/9/14
The Poet as Historian
The question of the continuing relevance of Nicholson’s poetry was raised in the Radio Cumbria broadcast on 25th August : Something To Tell. His poem about the Ironworks was cited as evidence; it was suggested that Millom residents would have little knowledge of the events described, and even less interest in them. It all happened a long time ago.
Today, by chance, I came across, in my dentist’s waiting-room, an old copy of History Scotland magazine. One article caught my eye: The Poet as Historian, written by Professor Hugh Cheape, from the University of the Highlands and Islands. He was writing about the Hebridean poet Sorley MacLean (1911-96).
In a long and complex article, three statements stand out:
· We seem to live in a permanently digitised present. We lack the organic relation to a public past of the times we live in ...
· (MacLean’s) memory of past events and cataclysms may be (an) under-stated component of his poetry ... he is as much a remembrancer and chronicler as any 20th century historian.
· The business of historians is surely to remember what other people forget.
We can, I think, apply these statements to Nicholson and his writing. In the poem, On the Dismantling of Millom Ironworks, he writes that the memories of that time are archaeological data – a wonderful phrase, even if it smacks of the digitised present. But I prefer to think of the memories he describes as a chronicle and remembrance of Millom’s past:
.... here five generations
Toasted the bread they earned at a thousand degrees Fahrenheit
And the town thrived on its iron diet.
As Professor Cheape wrote, any distinction between poet and historian must be an artificial one. I’m sure the people of Millom agree, and if they don’t, they should.