Norman Nicholson - A Labour of Love - or Madness, by Kathleen Jones

Just Published by The Book Mill
No biographer should write anything for love - biographies are expensive to write and they promote the work and life of someone else, taking time and effort away from your own writing.  But, I've just spent two years of what little life I might have left writing about someone else, spending money on air fares, train tickets and hotel rooms which I will probably never get back.  I reckon I've probably spent the best part of £10,000, if you add in the permission fees and the printing costs.  Does that shock you?

When I was approached by the Trustees of the Norman Nicholson literary estate, they (and I) hoped that the book would be funded by one of the big publishers.  Norman was one of the Faber poets and had been published as a prose author by Robert Hale and Penguin.  But publishing has changed massively in the last five years and there's been a seismic shift in attitude to literary biography. Unless there is some kind of marketing angle, they just aren't interested.  A centenary isn't much of a marketing angle, so, unless I could reveal some kind of scandalous revelation, I was never going to get a contract.

Drawing by Percy Kelly

But I carried on - why?  Because I loved his poetry and I was intrigued by his life - a motherless, gifted, working-class boy who survived teenage tuberculosis and the loss of his ambitions and who locked  himself away in his attic room like a hermit and refused to go to London, even when he became famous. Seamus Heaney described him as 'a fathering voice'.  Norman was a poet of landscape - writing about the coastal fringes of the English Lake District - a very unfashionable place at the time.  And he was what is now called an 'eco-poet' writing about humankind's relationship with the landscape - in his case the rise and decline of  a small industrial town and what it meant for the environment and for the people who relied on it to make a living.  His poem 'The Closing of Millom Ironworks' sets out the bleak dilemma.

 .....  The hum
And blare that for a hundred years
Drummed at the town's deaf ears
Now fills the air with the roar of its silence.
They'll need no more to swill the slag-dust off the windows;
The curtains will be cleaner
And the grass plots greener
Round the Old Folk's council flats.  The tanged autumnal mist
Is filtered free of soot and sulphur,
And the wind blows in untainted.
It's beautiful to breathe the sharp night air.
But, morning after morning, there
They stand, by the churchyard gate,
Hands in pockets, shoulders to the slag,
The men whose fathers stood there back in '28,
When their sons were at school with me.

It's companion poem 'On the Dismantling of Millom Ironworks' apparently moved the Queen very much.  She awarded him the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1981 - a year after Ted Hughes got his.

....  They cut up the carcass of the old ironworks
Like a fat beast in a slaughter-house;  they shoveled 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....'

Another working-class northern author
Norman was subjected to a lot of literary snobbery - it didn't become fashionable to be a northern writer until well into the sixties.  Indie Authors know all about literary snobbery.  But thank goodness for Indie publishing, because otherwise the centenary of Norman's birth and his extraordinary story would have gone uncelebrated.  Ironically, it's also due to another northern writer, Catherine Cookson - (whose own poetry is excruciating - she called it 'prose on short lines') - that this  biography has ever seen the light of day.  My biography of Catherine was a best-seller, before it was suppressed by her estate, because they felt it was unflattering, and it was the first (and possibly the last) time in my life that I ever made any real money from a book.  Some of that money has been invested in Norman - though it probably means that I will be relegated to a penurious old age.  Hey ho! I will not be the last person to waste their money on an addiction - because that is what writing is - a glorious addiction........  Just off to get another fix!

Norman Nicholson: The Whispering Poet is now published in enhanced paperback format and on Kindle.  There's a special introductory offer on Amazon - paperback for £8.50 instead of £13.00, Kindle at £4.79

If you'd like to read more about the book and the writing of it, check out my previous Authors Electric post - 'My Life as a Man'.  And you can read one of Norman's poems here. 

20 days to go until Christmas and the
Authors Electric sack of goodies!

With acknowledgement to the genius of Tenniel...


JO said…
Oh I know just what it's like to carry on spending, researching, knowing you'll never recoup it all. It's a privilege to be able to afford it - and an obsession that just won't let go!
Bill Kirton said…
Fascinating, Kathleen - not only in what you say about your subject but what you reveal of yourself and your glorious addiction. In my experience, good, committed biography can resurrect its subjects and be as absorbing and compulsive as fiction.
Anonymous said…
This is no help in your penury, I know, but I LOVE the book! It gave me exactly what I wanted to know about Norman Nicholson. It is generous, sensitive and a bloody good read, to boot. I didn't know you were a poet too, to begin with, but when I read '...the mutability at the heart of everything, that even the mountain rock we stand on shifts and erodes and and eventually finds its way to the sea as grains of sand,' it made my heart sing. Sandra
Anonymous said…
I really enjoyed this book, Kathy. It is as much a literary social history as a biography and fascinating. You didn't let your love of the poet get in the way of your professionalism. I was moved by the book and think differently about Nicholson now.
Kathleen Jones said…
You are all much too kind, but glad that you enjoyed the book - that's what we write for isn't it? To make readers' hearts sing? Thank you Sandra and Elizabeth - you made my day!!
I just loved the first line of your post. Indeed! I would say that no one should write anything for love. Which doesn't mean that they don't love to write! :-)

I have no idea who this author was but now you've put me on the path to finding out more about his life and work. Many thanks.

PS: On Cuba and its writers. There are lots. For such a small island like ours we have produced an amazing and varied range of good writers both before and after the Revolution, going back even to colonial times. The one I'm reading now is pretty good, Edmundo Desnoes. His novel "Memories of the Underdevelopment" is probably one of the classics of our literature. Try also Guillermo Cabrera Infante who came to live in London in the 60s and stayed until his death a few years. "Tres Tristes Tigres" is his most famous work. Anything by Carpentier will appeal to people who are into magical realism as he was the one who invented the genre *you read that right, it wasn't Gabriel Garcia Marquez). I could carry on for hours! :-)

Have a great trip.

Greetings from London.
Dennis Hamley said…
Kathleen, yes, you say so many true though sometimes ineffably sad things in this post. Nicholson is a wonderful poet and I'm now well into this wonderful biography. What you say about publishing and the marketing angle is horribly true and in the end will lead to the death of literature and even, if it continues unchecked, literacy. But don't get me started on this.

Cuban in London - that was fascinating. I know nothing about Cuban literature - but you've whetted my appetite. I'm very much a lover of and dabbler in magic realism but I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard of Carpentier. Are his books translated into English?
julia jones said…
Off to buy the book AT ONCE
Kathleen Jones said…
Thanks Julia - that will put a few pence back in the piggy bank!!

Cuban in London - many thanks for your suggestions. I love Cuba (I have 2 Cuban grandchildren) and very interested in the literature, though have difficulty finding things in translation. My daughter reads Spanish, but I don't unfortunately. I will look up the authors you suggest. I'll also tell Cally Phillips, who is another AE Cuban fan.
Dennis - you and I are definitely on the side. I really fear what is happening to literature at the moment. Indies to the rescue!!
Glad you're enjoying the biog...
Lydia Bennet said…
Wow what a heartening and wonderful post..a truly generous act : so often we tell others' stories. Sad the publishers no longer listen.
I think you're making writing for love, and out of glorious addiction, sound like a very fine way of life here, Kathleen...not a bad way of putting up a fight against the literary snobs and phillistines either, maybe we should hope some of your integrity might rub off on them during the battle!
Anonymous said…
Your post compelled me to buy a copy immediately(and tweet it). I feel a great sadness whenever I pass the great rusting hulk of the Carrie Furnace or the long-abandoned Homestead Steel Works, monument to Andrew Carnegie and his exploitative labor practices.
Kathleen Jones said…
Anonymous - yes I feel sadness too, when I look at those monuments to exploitation (of the planet as well as the human race). Thanks for buying the book - and tweeting it!
John - many thanks - but you make me sound much more altruistic than I am! We share the same distaste for the 'literary snobs' I think.
Val - I don't think publishers are listening at all - they're going to carry on going down the road of marketing pulp. It's the small and independent publishers that are going to be doing the real stuff! My daughter is head of sales and marketing at one of the Big 6, so I get an insider's glimpse of how they think.

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