This will be a labour of love. I hardly know where to start. By saying something I’ve said before, I suppose. I come late to poetry…as something which is essential to my days, that is. I ‘taught’ it for long enough. But I wonder if when you to start feeling as though you simply have to write it, if that is the moment when you realise you’ve never read the stuff properly before. I don’t know whether I envy the bloggers like Anthony Wilson who document the central part it’s played in their lives, and who know so much, who are on familiar terms with so many poets, many of whom I’ve barely heard of.
Part of me thinks I don’t, because it’s like falling in love. If you’ve never done it, then when it happens, you’re flooded by it. The world glows.However unwise or unseemly, you want to tell everyone about it. Perfect strangers included. And right now, for me, that’s how it is with U.A. Fanthorpe. I imagine that would make her chuckle. The thing is, if we have a passing aquaintance with poetry, as many teachers do, we think we know more than we do. Ah, we think. Ursula Fanthorpe. Oh yes. national treasure. Carole Ann Duffy says so. The cleaner ? Wonderful. Not my best side ? Love it. Collected poems out of print? Really? Are you sure?
And, if you’re like me, you leave it at that. I sometimes wonder how many poets are ‘well-known’ like that. Consider analogies with music. Dylan? We all know something of Dylan…The times they are a-changing, Lay lady lay, Subterranean Homesick Blues, so we think we know him. His collected lyrics weighs in at just short of six kilos. How many of us have patiently and happily listened again and again to Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands, or Tangled up in Blue, or Desolation Row, or It ain’t dark yet, or Visions of Johanna. Ditto Cohen. Hallelujia, Susanne, I’m your man. Natch. Yes, we know Cohen. I thought I knew something of Norman MacCaig because I knew Aunt Julia and his Annotations and I took my mind a walk. You get the point. We know the anthologised bits. But a year or so ago, I bought a Collected MacCaig, and read three poems every day (pretty well) till I’d read them all, and realised I’d known nothing about him at all, just how good he was, how remarkable and wonderful.
Well, I just bought myself a lovely hardback Collected U.A.Fanthorpe. Second-hand, ‘as new’ because that’s all there is. It’s a sin and a shame. I’d lay good money that wouldn’t happen if she’d been a Faber poet, but that’s a different argument, and I don’t want to get distracted, because I think I can see where I’m going.
Why did I suddenly so late in life buy the Collected Poems? Because earlier this year I came across a sequence she wrote called Tyndale in darkness. And that night I read it and re-read it. It made me breathless, like a punch in the diaphragm, like falling in love. It made me cry and I wanted to shout for joy. Not many writers have done that to me. So this post is a sort of clumsy thank you, or a love letter. And if you think you know U A Fanthorpe, I’m betting you don’t and it’s time you did. There’s no bigger bore than a convert, is there? If you switch off at this point, I’ll understand. But bear with me.I want to preach to the ones who think they’re already converted.
I suspect I’m probably programmed to be in love with her. I grew up amongst women, and older or elderly ladies. Which was good. I also grew up in a world of surnames. Teachers called us by our surnames. Ordinary working class boys, the sons of millworkers, we called each other by our surnames. When I started teaching, teachers called each other, and their pupils, by their surnames. As did many of the women teachers in the girls’ school with which our boys’ grammar school amalgamated in the 1960s. Button, Whittle, Webster, they called other. And my hero, Miss Lamb, the head of Maths when I was acting-head of English. Miss Lamb who looked a bit like Virginia Woolf, who was maybe in her late 40’s or early 50’s in that summer of 1969. Born around 1920, and maybe ( I would speculate) one who lost someone she loved in WW2. Another country; I had no passport. Miss Lamb who gave me a copy of Melanie Klein’s Mathematics in Western Culture, and said one day, out of the blue, I like you, you know. You remind me of my son. Stern, gentle and beautiful Miss Lamb, generations older than 27 year-old me. One day in 1970 she got married. She did not announce it; but I saw her in Saltburn one afternoon hand-in-hand with her chap, skipping down the middle of the main street. When I read U A Fanthorpe, I think of that.
U A Fanthorpe wrote : on 18th April 1974 I started writing poems. Isn’t that wonderful! Born in 1929, she was 45 before she started. You wouldn’t (if you were into stereotypes) have given much for her chances. Daughter of a judge, studied English at St Anne’s Oxford in the 40’s. Head of English at Cheltenham Ladies College. Let that sink in, alongside all you know of Betjeman. Impeccably- comfortably-off – upper-middle-class-spinster.
And what’s the keyword Carole Ann Duffy chooses to champion Fanthorpe’s cause? Subversive, that’s what. ‘this subtly subversive poet’. Yes. Absolutely. I wonder if she meets up in heaven with Richmal Crompton, another unmarried woman teacher who gave up the career, and was a much-loved writer instead. Although the first thing U A Fanthorpe gave it up for was to become a hospital receptionist, a clerical worker. Which is unnervingly radical if not actually (on the surface) mad. I do wonder what her colleagues made of it all.
When I think of this I think of Irina in Tinker, tailor who explains to Ricky Tarr the concept of ‘the mole’….a deep penetration agent, burrowing deep into the fabric of capitalist society, watching, watching, unremarked and unsuspected. And also, of a touch of George Smiley in Smiley’s People when he assumes the role of the dull bureaucrat as he interrogates the Russian diplomat, who is thus unable to keep his secrets. And above all of the dark watcher…possibly my favourite metaphor for any kind of artist. I’ve riffed on it before, as in a post of January this year:
Dark watcher? why? I think (but I’m not checking – it’s not a proper review) that I came across this haunting phrase sometime in the 70s; I think it was in an article by Geoff Fox in Children’s literature in education…maybe about ‘A wizard of Earthsea’. It’s phrase that a 12 year old girl used to describe herself as a reader …. a sort of hidden, secret eavesdropper on, and fascinated observer of, other lives. Not sinister, but, simultaneously, emotionally involved and moved and engaged, and distanced and disengaged. It makes me think of Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden who observes because she’s basically left out, curiously detached, rueful, and occasionally cross.
I actually can’t imagine U A Fanthorpe being cross, to be honest. She can be angry, but always righteously when she’s appalled by cruelty and injustice. And she is much more loving than Mary Lennox ever managed. There’s actually more love in her poetry than that of anyone I know.
Which brings me to the title I finally settled on for this cobweb strand. What will survive of us is love. Now, as every fule kno, Larkin wrote
[That was Fanthorpe as Tyndale. And now, as herself in an early poem:]
“I am a watcher, and the things I watch
are birds and love
The love I watch is rare, its habitat
concealed and strange.
The very old, the mad, the failures. They
have secret shares”
[As a watcher and recorder of the secret sharers, she empathises with St Peter.]
“I have a good deal of sympathy for you, mate,
because I reckon that, like me, you deal with the outpatients.
Now the inpatients are easy, they’re cowed by the nurses
(in your case, the angels)”
[Another poem. Once the inpatients are tucked up for the night, and the visitors have gone, crying like gulls:]
“All’s well, all’s quiet as the great
ark noses her way into the night,
caulked, battened, blessed for her trip,
and behind, the gulls crying”
I think there are two writers who have successfully written about what a hospital is and what it’s like to be kept in one for any time. One is Hilary Mantel. And the other is U A Fanthorpe. Listen. I think that’s about enough for tonight. What I’m going to do is share more of the things she wrote that have moved me, and made me more alive. I’ll post 4 or 5 extracts every day for a week. And because I’m off on a writing week next Sunday, there will be no post then. If I get the feedback, though, I’ll give you the answers –the titles of the poems and the collections they’re from — the week after.
Go well and take care of each other xx