Obituary: Hubert Nicholson

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Hubert Nicholson was a writer who spent most of his final years restricted by diabetes to an armchair but still actively exploring the subtleties of English language and literature. Surrounded by his books, including a shelf-ful of his own works, he would greet visitors to his small cottage in Epsom with a handshake and then, without further preliminaries, immediately discuss the meaning of a phrase, the origin of a colloquialism, the work of a particular poet; he would recite a bawdy limerick, recall a literary anecdote.

Born in 1908 in Hull, the son of a master printer, he left school at 16 and started work on a newspaper "copy-running, from sub-editors' room to composing room". He became a journalist and the author of 12 novels, half a dozen books of poems, biography, essays and an autobiography, Half My Days and Nights. Originally published in 1941, this was a candid account of his childhood and a memoir of the 1920s and 1930s when he worked on newspapers in Hull, Bristol, Cheltenham and Fleet Street.

"I was striving to be a witness to my times," he wrote in a preface to a new edition of the book in 1982. "Invasion, defeat, destruction, revolution all seemed, and were, possibilities. It appeared certain, as I wrote on the very first page of the book, that 'many of the kinds of life here described are gone, and gone for ever'."

The poet Charles Causley said: "As a self-portrait over a certain period of time it seems to me perfect - and most touching, written with real fire: a living book that moves under the fingers - and many many times my memories of pre-1939 led me to cry 'Exactly!', 'Precisely so!', 'It was just like that!' "

Nicholson's encounters with the famous (Shaw, Beecham, the Sitwells, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Louis Armstrong) and accounts of life in the provinces, Bloomsbury's Bohemia and Soho, took Half My Days and Nights to the outbreak of the Second World War, where the book ended.

His wartime job was metal-casting in a factory before he returned to Fleet Street. He joined Reuters, the news agency, in 1945 and retired as a senior sub-editor in 1968. In that period he wrote most of his poems and novels, probably the best-known of the latter being Sunk Island (1956), set in his native Yorkshire.

With the novelist Barbara Collard, Nicholson had two sons and a daughter. The suicide of the elder son inspired his longest poem "Monody - to my son Paul: 1939-1982".

In retirement he considered writing the "second half" of his autobiography but he never did. Perhaps the achievement that gave him lasting satisfaction began on the evening of Saturday 18 February 1950, when he invited 11 people to meet at his home for a poetry reading. Forty-six years on, the Epsom readings still continue, 10 times a year, with no formal membership, subscriptions or officials. Last September, the group, including some of the original 11, devoted a programme to Hubert Nicholson's poetry. He attended in a wheelchair. Two months later he went into hospital.

Hubert Nicholson, journalist, novelist, poet: born Hull 23 January 1908; books include Half My Days and Nights 1941, Selected Poems 1930- 80 1981; died Epsom 11 January 1996.