Before I get on with sharing more gems, I need to respond to an interesting reply to Sunday’s post that I had from Wendy Klein.[see at the end for her collections]. She challenged, quite rightly, my casual assertion that of all the writers I knew, none had done justice to the business of hospitals nearly as well as Fanthorpe, and Hilary Mantel [Ink in the blood: a hospital diary]. Well, she wrote:

“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”.

What can I say? Scratching the surface is what I’ve been doing for most of my life. That and making sweeping generalisations. So let me row back some way. I know less than nothing about psychiatric wards, so I have no way of knowing. I’ve been profoundly moved by those poems of Clare Shaw which are located in them. Bromden, McMurphy and Nurse R.have followed me down the years. The spells I’ve had in hospital for surgery for cancers have always been accompanied by Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward , which freaks out the staff, but which bucks me up no end. And there are fine poems about hospital visiting…which most of us know something about.

But what I was thinking about was the business of separation from ‘normality’, or, if you like, the world in which the unreal becomes normal, and is normalised for , say, nurses, by its expected routines and arbitrariness. The way defeated looking people wander about, disconsolately, in dressing gowns; the way a nurse will tell you ‘they’ll be doing the bloods before long, so don’t go away’. The way it’s never dark, and the air is pre-owned. The pain that you can’t put a word to. Those who call out in the night. The ones who take their drip-on-a-stand outside for a smoke. The unbridgeable gap between well and unwell, deep as Lethe. That’s the hospital experience I was thinking of, but failed, lazily, to specify. Right. With that out of the way, let’s hit the treasure trail.

Unsurprisingly, the clues are from the world of hospitals, and the viewpoint is that of the informed and unnoticed dark watcher. The unregarded clerical worker, the dark watcher who understands her link with Charon and with St Peter, the apparatchiks of heaven and hell.

“……………………You will use

the Death Book as a matter of routine.

Our shelves are tall, our files heavy.”

“Now the bed-bound rehearse

their repertoire of movements,

the dressing-gowned shuffle, clutching

their glass bodies”

“………………..It was you, Charon, I saw

refracted in a woman’s eyes.

Patient, she sat in a wheelchair,

in an X-ray department, waiting for someone

to do something to her.”

“It is the same world, only somehow

conviction has dribbled out of it,

like stuffing from a toy”

[on ‘patients’]

“Not the official ones, who have been

diagnosed and made tidy………………

…..But what can be done for us,

the undiagnosed? ………………………

There is no cure for us. O, if only

we could cherish our bizarre behaviour

with accurate clinical pity. But there are no

notes to chart our journey, no one

has even stamped CONFIDENTIAL or Not to be

taken out of hospital on our lives.”

Transcribing these extracts has once again filled me with an admiration of her craft, the deft handling of line-breaks, and her quiet, understated near-rhymes, her musicality. It’s also filled me with a sort of guilt, because you may be getting the impression that U A Fanthorpe’s world is sad if not actually bleak. It is sometimes. Life is. But I’ll end on a different note with something from a poem about drowned sailors. As you do.

“Tides passed. The mild fish consumed our flesh,

bones dropped neat and nice as rope coils.

Jaws fell, grinning welcome

to the certain resurrection, when

the lovely rigging of the bone

leaps to the last whistle

of Bo’sun Christ”.

The lovely rigging of the bone. Isn’t that wonderful. Good place to rest. More tomorrow, possibly more edgy and subversive.




Poetry by Wendy Klein:

Cuba in the Blood:  Cinnamon Press ( 2009)

Anything in Turquoise :  Cinnamon Press (2013)

Mood Indigo  :  Oversteps (2016)

4 thoughts on “U.A.Fanthorpe: a treasure trail (2)

  1. thanks for that one, Jo. Mind you, I’m still waiting for the ones that will challenge UAF and Mantel when it comes to being ‘in the system’ . But you know what I mean, and every comment is treasured. Because it means someone’s reading xxxxxx


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