On The RiseOn a night of one bright star next to the sickle moon I rose early. The Pleiades looked like fuzzy felt triangle. On my mind was Kathleen Jones’ Norman Nicholson biography, due out soon.

I thought I might have upset Kath recently by my earlier blog post comment that biographies were ‘prurient’ or ‘unhelpful’. Chocolate half-coated digestives are sugary and fatty, but that doesn’t stop us from devouring them – well, me anyway! – greedily and with pleasure.

The Norman Nicholson biography will be prurient and unhelpful, for me at least, in a very special way though, not merely getting between me and the subject’s writing, but also, perhaps, by getting between me and my memories of the man himself. I cannot claim to have been a friend of Norman Nicholson, but we did have a friendly acquaintanceship that ran from the early seventies up until his death in the late eighties. It was an intermittent connection. We met through the Brewery Poets, which I was involved with from the beginning, and for whom Norman read on a number of occasions. Once or twice I called upon him at his Millom home, and was received graciously – fed and whiskied! We corresponded, but I have mislaid all but one of his roughly typed and ink-corrected letters.

In the late nineteen seventies I was involved briefly with a couple of characters who worked for a school sponsored TV studio. As part of my work with Country Council I had helped to develop the old Morley Street School in Carlisle into a fully equipped TV studio: Aidanvision. We filmed Basil Bunting reading Brig Flats there, and took him for a pub lunch at the Bee Hive pub on Warwick Road. When we poured him into a taxi later that afternoon, I recall a bottle top projecting from his raincoat pocket. I have often wondered, and once enquired – without response- of the Basil Bunting Society, where that recording ended up. If you go to Morley Street now, a row of houses stands on the site, and my guess is that several good stories lie beneath their foundations.

My two collaborators wanted to set up an audio recording project specialising in the spoken word, and as I knew Norman I asked him to be our first subject. He kindly agreed, and I spent a day at Millom talking to him, and listening as he spoke about his work, and read a baker’s dozen of poems for me. His skill as a speaker, and presenter of himself and his work, turned my ill-judged and badly formulated questioning into a series of verbal gold-nuggets, and of course, the poems needed no input from me. This collection of readings is probably the largest single recording of his work in existence, and for years I kept it to myself. The same vanity that marred the questioning, now embarrassed the hell out of me! But, as I got older I began to realise that his voice was more important than my sensitivities, and when I heard that Kathleen was writing her book, I offered her copies of the recordings.

Talking to her about her project I realised that she had found the same charming and hospitable man that I had known: a ‘grand old man’ of Cumberland (not Cumbrian) poetry. But her gaze, I’m sure, has been steadier and more searching than mine was, and certainly less blinded by the light of reflected glory. As the publication of the biography draws closer, I’m eager to know Norman better, but I’m also aware that I shall come to know him more – and that is altogether a different matter.

Advertisements