What will survive of us: in praise of U A Fanthorpe


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

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
And right there you have the reason why, for all his manifold talent, I’d rather spend my time in the company of U A Fanthorpe than that of Philip Larkin. Because I don’t so much think of poems I like as artefacts, but as the voice of someone I want to spend time with. I don’t require to be comforted and reassured and agreed with. I’ve spent hours with Ted Hughes’ terrible pent-up-ness, and I’ve been energised by being unnerved. But there’s a cold reserve in Larkin, a witholding. Why does he assume his Count and Countess ‘hardly meant’ that fidelity? Essentially, why does he deny its possiblity? I think it’s because he didn’t feel it was possible for himself. My bet is that if U A Fanthorpe had felt that, she’d have said so, and celebrated a love that couldn’t quite be hers, but made her life better for having encountered it. Carole Ann’s keyword is ‘subversive’. Mine is ‘love’. I’ve rarely felt so much love in a writer as I have since I lost myself in this collection. Fanthorpe herself said that she writes about England, power, and powerlessness. Let me share my favourite moments (so far) of her doing exactly that. What follows is as far from a considered piece as you can get. It’s a self-indulgent tasting menu, it’s the best bits, it’s a badly curated shop of treasures. And if that’s  not for you, then it’s OK, and I’ll see you in a couple of weeks. I’ll have a break, a ciggie, and put the spuds in the oven, and you can slip out quietly……………………………………………………………
Right I’m back. Oh! That’s nice. A lot of you have stayed. Tell you what; I’ll start with the Tyndale in Darkness sequence, and after that I won’t say which poems the extracts come from, and you can either buy your own Collected Poems and hunt for them, or you can go to the ‘comments’ box and ask. And if I can rein myself in, I’ll not say what it is that moves or excites me about each one. You can say them aloud and make your own minds up.
Tyndale,  like so many of my favourites, is a monologue. Fanthorpe liked Browning, and like him she has that dramatist’s imaginative ability to inhabit the voice of another. You need to think of Tyndale in prison, in the cold and the dark, imminently expecting his death at the stake after a life of fugitive exile. And for what? For believing that the English should hear the word and voice of God in their own language. She loves the subversive and courageous, does this poet. Here’s the bit that caught me in the diaphragm, and took my breath away. It still does. I think I have no religious faith, but I read this and believe in its possiblity, its reality.
“Vigilavi et factus sum sicut passer solitarius in tecto
(I watch and am as a sparrow alone upon the housetop. Ps 102, v.7)
He is the sparrow, the Friday lord.
I hoped to be the watcher on the rooftop,
but He was first. I’m flake of his fire,
Leaf-tip on His world-tree.
                                                 But I watch too
as once I stood on Nibley Knoll and looked
…..down on the dear preoccupied people”
[Tyndale then turns to the matter of the disciples in Gethsemane]
 “They couldn’t keep their eyes open, poor souls.
Vigilate. As well tell them to stand on their heads.
Erant enim oculi eorum gravati. For their eyes were heavy.
I doubt I’d have done much better.
    ……………………..Why did He ask them to stay awake
when he knew they couldn’t? Because He always does.
He picks the amateurs who follow Him
for love……………….God sets his mark
on us all. You start and it’s easy:
I heard the ploughboy whistling under Coombe Hill,
and I thought, I could do that. Give him God’s word,
I mean, in his own workaday words. And I did.”
[That was the Tuesday poem of the sequence. This is from  Friday… Good Friday….]
 “The powerlessness. This is the day he dies,
Jesus, the Friday sparrow, the watcher on the cross
who forgives those who put him there. He’s dying now,
and His world is dying too. I made this world twice
After God. Twice I translated Genesis. I know
the deep places in it. And God said,
let there be light, and there was light,
the accurate voice of God. And after Him, me;
Tyndale of Nibley. The human small-scale words
for the unimagined thing……………………………
No light. No light. God said, Let there be no light,
while Jesus is dying.
                                         I want to die like that,
brave and forgiving. I may not be able.
The grace is not in us. We have to ask. “

[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

3 thoughts on “What will survive of us: in praise of U A Fanthorpe

  1. Thank you so much for this, John. I love U.A., and you will know she was a glorious, rumbustuous Lesbian, who lived until the end with her scholarly bespectacled partner, Rosie Bailey, also a fine poet. They did readings together; i saw them do the Finzi lectue slot at Reading University — one of the most wonderful evenings of poetry i have ever experienced. The two of them adjudicated a Mslexia poetry competition a few years ago and commended one of my entries — poem about when i trod the boards as Prince charming and the 18 year old Cinderella fell in love with me. It’s still one of my favourite poems because they liked it. Rosie is still fit and writing: a tiny woman, ramrod straight in a man’s correct black suit’! I love her and whenever we meet i remind her of the Finzi and her dark eyes light up with love for her dead partner, the glowing U.A. and she squeezes my hand and nods vigorously. I expect you are off to Whitby with the Sansom’s. I was not invited. I think i must have offended Ann this summer by being so ghastly in the workdhops — am hardly writing, generally low, but keeping busy helping with my new grandson and editing a poetry collection for my wonderful, ill cousin In California. Again thank you for giving me back U.A. How can her selected be out of print when so many inferiors are flourishing?. Incidentally Margaret Atwood writes wonderfully about hospitals, Selima Hill, in a psychiatric inpatient’s voice, and there’s a contemporary ‘novel’ i recommend called ‘Poppy Shakespeare’ and for heaven’s sake do not forget ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ or Marge Piercey’s ‘Woman On the Edge of Time’. You’ve only scratched the surface where writing about hospital’s is concerned, though i agree Fanthorpe deserves medals in that and every other respect! Be well! Love, Wendy x


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