Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Life of a Poet - Harry Nicholson

Kids, this week we’re nipping Across the Pond to visit a talented writer and artist in England. Today we’re sitting down with Harry Nicholson of  1513Fusion.  Having been enthralled at age thirteen by Wuthering Heights, Cathy and Heathcliff wandering, doomed,  on the wild moors, (a time when surly heroes still appealed to me), my heart skipped a beat when Harry mentioned he lives near thirty miles of moors. I may have to excuse myself for a few minutes during the interview to run amok among the ruins! AND he has Standing Stones! Be still, my heart!

Harry calls this "Old Codgers at Danby" :-)

Poets United: Harry, so nice to visit with you today! Poking around your blog, I discovered  you are a very creative writer and artist. Would you set the scene for us, tell us about where you live, and what life looks like to you on any given day?

Above Eksdale

Harry: I'm in a village in Eskdale - that's near Whitby in North Yorkshire (England). My wife and I (we were married in 1959) have been in this little house for ten years. It's on the edge of the village, just below the escarpment of heather moors that stretch for thirty miles. The landscape is lovely with steep hills and fields full of grazing sheep and cattle, and sometimes families of roe deer. A moment ago, from the garden, I could hear a red grouse on the moor top; he was calling: 'Go back! Go back! Go back!'

Fylingdale Moor and Harry

My day often starts with a half hour spent in our meditation hut before I wander off to my enamel workshop or stroll around the garden to inspect the leeks and onions. We are just four miles from the sea, so I'm often on the shore or walking the clifftop. The upland moor is rich in prehistoric remains, burial mounds and strange arrangements of standing stones; I like to spend time among them - musing alone. Sadly, I've no dog now to take onto the hill; I do miss Megan and Nell, my old labradors.


Remains of stone circle


This photo of Ravenscar, Harry tells us, shows the battlements of the house where George III (of the 'Madness of King George' film fame) was sent when he was having a bad patch. The bay to the left is 'Robin Hood's Bay' - there are various legends: he may have landed here when he returned from the Crusades and before he became a renegade in Sherwood.

Poets United: Oh, I envy you those standing stones, and the sea. And how you must miss your walking companions! I so miss mine! Where  were you born and raised, Harry?


Harry: In Hartlepool, an ancient sea port just forty miles north of here; my mother's ancestors arrived there in the late 16th century. Hartlepool and Whitby have a shared history based on the sea; the people have intermarried for centuries, and so I feel at home here. 

A Coble - a small clinker-built fishing boat said to be introduced to the area by Vikings. 
My forebears fished from these for 300 years.

pines above Rosedale

Poets United: How wonderful to have all of that history behind - and around! -  you, and to live on the land of your ancestors.  

Whitby Abbey

Harry, I see you were a seaman, a radio officer, and that you miss being on a ship. Would you like to tell us some of your best memories of being at sea?

Harry in 1958, on duty in the wireless room, aboard the SS Mahronda

Harry: At seventeen I went to sea to work in the wireless rooms of cargo ships, keeping watch, sending Morse and looking after navigational gear such as the radar. Many of my voyages were from Liverpool to India. Sometimes we would then take tea from India to New Orleans, the round trip could last seven months with lots of obscure little ports in between. Those old ships were not air-conditioned and so we sweated in vests in breathless tropical air on seas that were like glass, or we pitched sickeningly in rain-lashed South-West Monsoons, or we shivered in serge uniforms while tossed about in North Atlantic winter storms.

A page of Harry's seaman's record

A beautiful memory is of starting work before daybreak in the port of Chittagong (now in Bangladesh). We would do our maintenance work in the cool of the morning and try to spend the hot mid-day somewhere out of the heat. Working on the aerials I often paused to watch glorious dawn colours fill the sky as the sun prepared to climb out of the miles of level jungle on the far side of the river. Against that splendour, the black silhouettes of sailing barges slowly drifted downstream on the tide.

Sandsend Nab

Poets United: Oh, my goodness. I can see it! So lovely.

Harry: Another memory is not beautiful. In 1957, one night 1500 miles from land, in the midst of a cyclone (the Indian Ocean equivalent of a hurricane) as our ship struggled to stay upright, a Pakistani ship was sinking eighty miles from us. I was in Morse communication with the radio man as he called for help. The 'Minocher Cowasjee' was lost with all hands. She rests now beneath two miles of water. I've since found she was built as 'Parisiana' in a Hartlepool shipyard just a mile from where I was born. I've written poems about that night.

Lost Ship

We saw nothing on the wind-glazed surface,
nothing floating in the spume as we steamed
across her last position on the chart;
no scrap of cargo, not a boiler suit,
nor a crumb of last night’s rice.

In the dark we’d talked
in bursts of dots and dashes,
that other man and me.
We’d clung in chairs chained to the deck,
one hand on the tuning knob
chasing each other’s warbling signals
as masts swayed
and phosphor-bronze aerials swung out
wild over the troughs;
the other hand thumping a big brass key -
in the cyclone.

It was sixty years ago - she flew the flag of Pakistan,
a new country. But the ‘Minocher Cowasjee’ was old
I now discover - launched as ‘Parisiana’
by Irvine’s yard in Hartlepool, where my father -
back from his war with Kaiser Bill - might well
have hammered rivets into her, hard against
his own dad’s hammer on the other side of the plate.

Three miles down they’re rusted now, those rivets;
strewn about, forgotten, like Asian mother’s tears.
She’s just another hull - after all,
the ocean floors are flung with ships... 

Poets United: What an experience! And you write it so vividly, it feels like it just happened. The connection between you and the other ship’s radio operator, and then between the hull and your home town and, likely, your father, is rather amazing.  Kids, check out Harry’s True Tales from the Rabbit Shed,  for prose based on his seafaring days. You will be glad you did!

Poets United: Harry, I have gathered, from some of your postings, that you follow Buddhist teachings. Would you like to say a bit about what drew you to Buddhism? (I am very drawn to it as well).

Harry's beautiful rendering: Vajrasattva

Harry: I was acting as field assistant on a geological expedition to the Himalayas. We marched into Zanskar ( a hidden valley that is said to be the root of the legend of Shangri-La), across the mountains with porters. Camped one night at 17,000 feet, I did not sleep. I sat on the edge of the glacier watching the stars. At that altitude and in such thin, dry air the sky is encrusted with stars, so close it's as though they might be touched. It dawned on me that whoever I was when I entered those mountains, that man would not be the one who would leave. Something had shifted.

We had traveled in a country of Buddhist mountain people; they had little and yet they seemed so joyful. When we got back to the UK, I found my way to a group of western Buddhists. My first experience of meditation was profound and I realised I'd 'come home'.

Poets United: Sigh. So lovely, Harry. I love what you say about the man who entered the mountains not being the same man who left. I also suspect, from your writing, that you have been a great reader all your life. Your stories are very imaginative – were you a boy who lived much in fantasy and in the pages of books?

Harry: An illness kept me from school for a year – I spent much of the time reading. As I recovered, I went for long walks in the woods and on the shore with my dog and wallowed in being in nature. There was lots of time for the imagination to learn how to play.

Poets United: Have you always written? When did you begin?

Harry: In 1994 I spent four months in the Spanish mountains on Buddhist retreat with twenty other men. We were engaged in serious practice and the first month was in total silence. It was a major challenge to me and my ego; I took refuge in long mountain walks looking, listening, touching rocks and trees, and thinking – going deeper. I began to write during that time.   

Poets United: I am so enjoying this conversation! What a life you have lived! I am impressed that you have a book available on Amazon, titled Tom Fleck, a novel of Cleveland and Flodden.  Would you like to give us a brief description  of what it is about?

Harry: Tom Fleck is a young farm labourer living in obscure poverty in 1513, the 4th year of the reign of Henry VIII.   In the cold clay of Yorkshire he finds two objects of gold that will change his life.   They will take him into the borderlands of belief and of race. He will find a strange woman but also face death - it is the year of the Battle of Flodden, the subject of that haunting ballad, 'The Flowers of the Forest'.

Poets United: How intriguing. And how does Cleveland enter the picture?

Harry: Cleveland (The Land of Cliffs) is the name the Vikings, as they settled here, gave to the land between North-East Yorkshire and Hartlepool (in Durham County) - about 40 miles of coast. The name Cleveland derives from 'Cliffland'.  Tom Fleck has Angle and Viking blood. He begins life as an oppressed and destitute Cleveland farm labourer on a remote manor now buried beneath the great industrial town and seaport of Middlesbrough.  Tom is thus a native of Cleveland with deep roots in its past; from that past he unearths treasure buried by Bronze-age people on the high moors that look down on Cleveland .  What he finds in that burial mound sets him free of the manor and the scornful descendants of the conquering Normans, and so his journey begins.

Poets United: Oh! NOT in the USA! I am impressed with the range of your writing, such an interesting mix of poetry, memoir and creative fiction. Which is your favourite ? And what does each outlet provide for you, as a means of creative expression?

Harry: When writing the novel, I came to feel that the boundaries of poetry and prose were blurred. This was a sort of insight for me as I tended to compartmentalise things, even though Buddhist ideas urge me to see the world as the flow of phenomena. I began to enjoy the sound of prose more - the effect one word would have on its neighbour. Of course, this is the way poetry works. I enjoy fine poetry, particularly that of Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. I'm a slow reader of good prose; when I find a choice paragraph I might read it several times, just to savour the meaning.

Memoir also seems a blurred thing. Stories come from within us, from the blending of experience, knowledge and imagination. I find it difficult to write a story that is totally free of fragments of memoir.

Harry in his workshop

Poets United: You give us lots to reflect on here, Harry. I see, too, that you are an artist in enamel.  The pieces in your Enamel Gallery are  stunning.  Do you sell your art?

Harry: I paint, but mainly to explore images for the enamelling kiln. Enamel can be seen as art or craft – but at its best it is neither. This art is subjected to the transformations of the furnace. It gives rise to the unexpected.  Enamel is a sort of alchemy.

A few local galleries sell my work. The income allows me to be experimental and lavish with what are expensive materials. Red enamel, for instance, contains gold. 

Harry's The Middle Watch

Poets United: I love that - that it is a sort of alchemy. The end results are stunning. So! What is the best book you ever read?

Harry: I found George Elliot's 'Silas Marner' to be memorable, but so far the only book I've read twice (actually - I'll admit to three times), is Tolkien's 'Lord Of The Rings'.

Poets United: I knew it. My boys have read ‘Lord of the Rings’ about a hundred times. Who or what would you say has been the biggest influence on you, creatively?

Harry: Meditation – it is healing and can open locked doors into the creative subconcious. Everyone should do some.

Poets United: Yes! Do you write daily?

Harry: Not every day - I don't force things, but most days I take time to spend in reflection. 

Poets United: Wonderful, Harry. You have been with Poets United for a long time. What does connection with the online creative community mean to you?

Harry: It is a sort of fellowship. Poets exist in low numbers - we need each other.

Poets United: That we do. I can't believe how my output has increased, given the encouragement of my fellow poets. Is there anything else you would like to leave us with, Harry?

Harry: Readers have asked for a sequel to 'Tom Fleck'. That novel took four years, but I've gained from the journey. Just now, I'm researching for a story set 23 years later with some of the same characters and families. It would be the time of The Pilgrimage of Grace – I'm looking to use that event as background to a robust sea story.

Poets United: We will certainly be looking forward to it! And do let Poets United know when it is out. Thank you so much for meeting with us today and giving us a peek into your extremely interesting life. I have so enjoyed it.

Sigh. See, kids? Isn’t it true that the people behind the pen are some of the most interesting folks around? I so love the stories of peoples’ lives. Do come back and see who we talk to next. Who knows? It might be you!


  1. Wow, great interview. Unfortunately I have to go to work now but I will be back at 5 to look closer. Love the photos!

  2. Sherry I've been busy and have missed some interviews, but I really enjoyed this one!

  3. Such a great interview again Sherry, you really are so good at these.
    Harry, you are such an interesting subject to be interviewed. For nearly four years I lived in Hartlepool and loved all the people there. They are so happy-go-lucky and friendly. Loved it there. You should've given the story of how they 'hung the monkey' Sherry and others reading this interview of your life story would have found that fascinating :) As it is, what a wonderful life you live. (I too, lean towards Buddhism) for it's simplicity and truth.
    Lovely read, thanks to both.

  4. Thank you, Sherry. You have made a lovely job of weaving together the story and the pictures.

    'Daydreamertoo' has mentioned the monkey story. Legend has it that during the Napoleonic Wars a french ship was wrecked ashore at Hartlepool. The only survivor was a monkey clinging to some flotsam. On being questioned it replied with gibberish and so the simple fishermen of Hartlepool assumed it to be a Frenchman. It was take before the magistrate who declared it a spy and ordered execution. It was hung in a gibbet on the beach.
    So much for the legend. Even though it was probably made up by folk in the nearby new town of West Hartlepool, and the fisherfolk became known as 'Monkeyhangers' - the natives of Hartlepool now seem to be protective and proud of their reputation.
    If it has a grain of truth in it, it is certain that my forebears had a hand in the event.

    A verse about the Monkey includes:
    On the sands the fishermen stood
    Horsley, Pounder, Coulson, Hood . . .

    I find all those names in my genealogy.

  5. Harry, a very Harryish interview. Well done Sherry, for bringing out so much from this multi-talented man I call a friend. Naturalist, poet, novellist, artist, thinker, Harry is someone I met online when we were both studying the same course, and who I look up to as a mentor. I can recomment Tom Fleck as the read that anyone can enjoy on many levels - and I've now read it about six times!

  6. Sherry, quite an insightful interview of a multi-faceted artist! Great job, Roland

  7. Oh Harry, thanks for the monkey story, though of course I feel for the poor confused critter. What a tale! I thoroughly enjoyed this interview and so longed to go stand before the Standing Stones, especially the Bridestone. And Sandsend Nab - breathtaking! It was a lovely visit with you, Harry. So happy you are among the talented and interesting folk at Poets United:)

  8. It is my pleasure, Sherry.
    Don't be too concerned about the monkey, it is almost certainly a story spun by another community as a put-down; there are similar stories about other towns in Northern England.

    The old town had been sending mariners across the seas for centuries - they would have known a monkey from a Frenchman.

    Mind you - at a local election, a man stood for mayor dressed as a monkey - he is now in charge of Hartlepool! This is a fact.

  9. Very enjoyable interview, with good illustrations. Tom Fleck is a great read; anyone who hasn't already done so should buy it now and settle down for a leap back into history. Long may Harry put pen to p[aper

  10. I knew some of this but the interview told me so much more.

    You should read Tom Fleck. It's excellent.

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  12. Wonderful interview! I love the magic you have found and created in your life! Your words, view and art...I admired~
    It is a pleasure to get to know you further~

    You two did a wonderful job!

  13. What a fascinating life you have led, Harry! I'm excited to see your photos since I've just finished reading, "Dracula" for the first time, and as you must know, Whitby features prominently in the novel.

    Your poem, "Lost Ship" struck a chord with me, not least because of these words, "like Asian mother’s tears."

    I venture to say that you might enjoy my poem, "Ice Men" on my "Keepsakes" blog.

    So sorry about your Labs. They're great dogs, aren't they?

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    1. Thanks for the visit, Harry. This is quite a poem. I love the "boneless sea hare", the "devil's bodkins" and the whole feel of this poem.

      My husband's father is a Dane and mine was from the north of Ireland; this is the sort of thing to stir the soul.

  15. A very interesting interview well done Harry It;s great to have a very talented Brother-in law. Janet.

  16. Thank you, Janet. It is lovely to have your appreciation.

  17. Oh I am so glad I didn't miss this interview!

    I really enjoy Harry's work and one of my all time favourite poems is his poem 'Kelp'- I am also half way through Harry's novel 'Tom Fleck' and am enjoying every minute of it!

    It is so good to hear more about you Harry, and Sherry has done a fine job as always.

    - Susannah x

  18. A lovely interview, Sherry.

    I have followed Harry's blog for quite a while, and I thoroughly recommend his novel 'Tom Fleck'. It is a wonderful read.


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