UA Fanthorpe: Life of the English poet

UA Fanthorpe, iconic poet and 'national treasure', left Cheltenham Ladies' College to work in hospitals. She tells Christina Patterson about pain, laughter - and love

UA Fanthorpe was born in Kent in 1929. After boarding school in Surrey, she read English at St Anne's College, Oxford before training as a teacher. She taught at Cheltenham Ladies' College for 16 years and was Head of English for eight before deciding to do something radically different. It was while working as a receptionist at a neurological hospital in 1974 that she started writing poetry. After various residencies (Lancaster, 1983-5, Northern Arts Fellow, 1987) she left the hospital in 1989 to pursue her poetry full time.

She has published 10 collections of poetry, including Side Effects (1978), Standing To (1982), Neck-Verse (1992), Consequences (2000) and Queueing for the Sun (2003), all published by Peterloo. Her Collected Poems are due from Peterloo next spring. UA Fanthorpe was appointed a CBE in 2001 and awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry earlier this year. She lives in Wotton-under-Edge, in an Elizabethan cottage, with her partner, Rosie Bailey.

The woman sitting opposite me, a sprightly 74-year-old in jeans, tank-top and rather owlish glasses, might have been our poet laureate. When Ted Hughes died, in 1998, and the media launched its usual frenzy of speculation about the next in line for the butt of sack (or perhaps the poisoned chalice), UA Fanthorpe was one of a number of names thrown into the poetic ring. She would have been a laureate in the Betjeman mould: quintessentially English, wry and humorous with widespread popular appeal. But, of course, she didn't get it. "I never really thought I would," says the poet once described as a "national treasure". "Andrew's worked so hard - and I haven't got that much energy left in me".

UA Fanthorpe may not be a household name, but in the poetry world she is loved and revered. One of a select group of poets to feature on the A-level syllabus, she was the first woman to be published in King Penguin. She was also, in 1995, the first woman in 315 years to be nominated for the post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford. "There were all these people wanting me to win," she recalls, "but fancy going up against James Fenton! You know, the brilliant boy, the wonderful man, the Independent reporter. We went to lunch in his rose garden and there were two armed motorbike police, escorting Salman Rushdie". It was clearly more exciting than her own brief moment of fame.

After two near misses, however, Fanthorpe has now been honoured by the very heart of the establishment. On St George's Day this year, she was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, only the fifth woman in 70 years to get it. As one of the judges for last year's Golden Jubilee Poetry Competition and a CBE since 2001, she was no stranger to the Palace. This time, she had an audience with the Queen. "She's got a very good sense of humour," she confides, "and she's very quick off the ball. You don't think this is an old lady of 80 or whatever she is, she's just somebody who's very good at her job." The Queen is, in fact, a mere three years older than Ursula Askham Fanthorpe, but it's not hard to see what she means. There is something both ageless and slightly child-like about this gentle poet with the wide eyes and the extraordinarily sweet smile. In spite of the fierce intelligence, the wisdom and erudition that are all evident in the poems, there is something about her that isn't quite of this world.

It all started in the early Seventies when Fanthorpe suffered what might now be called a mid-life crisis. She had been Head of English at Cheltenham Ladies' College when she suddenly decided that she "wanted to find out more things about the way life worked, the way people are", and that she must "do something else before it's too late". After a year off and an "illuminating" course in counselling, she "joined a thing called Manpower", where she discovered that her inexperience with photocopiers and the paraphernalia of office life was a serious obstacle to employment. She temped as a "telephone clerk" at Butlers Chemicals and Hoover, and then applied for "a real job with a hospital". It was to change her life.

Working as a receptionist at the aptly named Burden Neurological Hospital in Bristol, Fanthorpe certainly discovered more about the range of human experience. Here were men and women with head injuries, epilepsy, obsessional neuroses, a young curate paralysed in a road accident, a woman "who had had an epileptic fit and fallen into the fire". "I found it moving, horrifying and beautiful," she confesses, "all the things that human life is, the things that are swept under the curtain that you're not expected to see." Suddenly, she had something to write about. In poems about "Julie (encephalitis)" or "Alison (head injury)" she made her first attempts to capture the voices of people who could not speak for themselves, in acts of literary ventriloquism that were to become something of a trademark.

In addition to a whole new palate of human pain, she discovered another new world, one of bureaucracy, hierarchy and the petty machinations of office power. "One of my advantages was the fact that I wasn't used to being treated as if I was dirt," Fanthorpe explains with a smile. "And some of the doctors did treat me as if I was dirt. It was a challenge. I had my own technique. I based it on PG Wodehouse. Being extraordinarily polite and well bred and doing exactly what they said - rather over the top!" she adds with a slightly Wodehousian chuckle. Her poem "For Saint Peter" is an ironic assertion of solidarity, conflating the difficult outpatients who "cry,/or knit,/ Or fall on the floor in convulsions" with those jostling at the holy gates and comparing both groups, unfavourably, with the inpatients who "know what's what in the set-up" and "know about God (in my case Dr Snow) and all His little fads". Her final stanza, a chummy aside to the saint, sums it up: "If you know what I mean, they haven't yet learned/ How to be reverent."

Elsewhere, she writes about the list she has typed and "spaced/ At the proper intervals" which has not yet turned "nasty,/ Senile, pregnant, late," or otherwise "stained by living". The voice throughout this first collection, Side Effects - and, indeed, all her work - is wry, laconic, clear-eyed and, above all, compassionate. The poems are like acts of witness and remembrance, in some cases literally so. In "Lament for the Patients", from her second collection, Standing To, she remembers all the ones who committed suicide. "I can quite see that it's hard for the doctors and nurses," she says with characteristic generosity. "They have to forget the failures, but I was a clerk. A clerk keeps going through the card index and all these things, and I would remember and I wanted to remember them. It seemed, in a way, a job for a poet... It was difficult living with the unhappiness. Sometimes I would come home and feel I smelt of it and Rosie would say, yes you do, you need a bath."

Rosie is Dr Rosie Bailey, a former academic, now a poet herself and undoubtedly the power behind the Fanthorpe throne. It was Rosie who stopped the car under street lamps in those early years, so that UA (she prefers not to be called Ursula) could scribble down the poem that had started to come to her on the way home from work. It was Rosie who encouraged her to write, Rosie who collated the early poems, Rosie who told her which magazines to send them off to, Rosie, indeed, who posted them. Today it is Rosie who has picked me up from the station, waited an hour and a half for my missed connection and driven me through the sunlit Gloucestershire countryside to the book-lined converted stable they have shared since 1975. It is Rosie who has prepared the dainty sandwiches we are munching now. When UA Fanthorpe does a reading, Rosie shares the platform with her, supplying the second voice that crops up in so many of the poems. "Quite apart from loving her," says Fanthorpe simply, "she's quite the most marvellous person I've ever met."

The couple met at Cheltenham Ladies' College and have been together since 1965. How difficult, I ask slightly nervously, was it for them to be open about their relationship? "We weren't really open about it to each other, were we?" says Fanthorpe with a shy smile. "We were never out, but we were never in," adds Rosie, who is present throughout the interview at Fanthorpe's request, pouring coffee, offering sandwiches, and supplying missing snippets of information and the odd laconic comment. "Of course, there's the invariable occasion when people think that Rosie's a man," Fanthorpe volunteers cheerily. "She's got a deep voice you see and she's got this natural authority. When people say, 'And what does he think?', I have to think she's he. You just keep with it and hope that nobody who knows you will turn up."

There is something about this statement that makes me want to hug them both. I have tried to ask Fanthorpe her feelings about being something of a lesbian icon, but have been deflected, as I half expected, by eulogies to Rosie and comments such as these. UA Fanthorpe is far too well bred to enter into detailed discussions about her sex life and too kind to disabuse those who have made an honest mistake. Her poems, in fact, say it all: poems such as "Atlas", from her collection Safe as Houses, which talks of "a kind of love called maintenance" which "keeps/ My suspect edifice upright in air,/ as Atlas did the sky." Or "The Poet's Companion", which lists the multifarious and onerous duties taken on by poet's wives, inspired, apparently, by Marie Heaney singing to a coach-load of poets in Rotterdam. She is, ironically enough, probably the only woman poet I can think of who almost literally has a wife.

At recent public readings, UA Fanthorpe has been described as "a mistress of light verse", which is, she thinks, "a very disagreeable thing to be". Much of her poetry is indeed very funny, but with the utterly serious undertones that characterise the best light verse. Her new collection, Queueing for the Sun (Peterloo, £7.95), reflects the full range of her work, with many poems inspired by history, some wryly humorous dramatic monologues and a number of extremely moving elegies. Above all, she is an English poet, who does feel part of a very English tradition. "It's great to think that we have poets like Chaucer going right back - so humane, so generous in his mind, so terribly inventive in the way he used poetry... When I think of Chaucer and Shakespeare and my pet love, Browning, there they are. You know you've got to keep it up."

UA Fanthorpe may at times sound a little like a character from Enid Blyton, but she is right to see herself in the English poetic tradition. She is an extremely talented poet who ought to be a great deal better known. "The thing about Shakespeare," she announces, as I take my last bite of lemon drizzle cake, "is that he is funny and sad at the same time... That is something I think we have inherited."

Biography

UA Fanthorpe was born in Kent in 1929. After boarding school in Surrey, she read English at St Anne's College, Oxford before training as a teacher. She taught at Cheltenham Ladies' College for 16 years and was Head of English for eight before deciding to do something radically different. It was while working as a receptionist at a neurological hospital in 1974 that she started writing poetry. After various residencies (Lancaster, 1983-5, Northern Arts Fellow, 1987) she left the hospital in 1989 to pursue her poetry full time.

She has published 10 collections of poetry, including Side Effects (1978), Standing To (1982), Neck-Verse (1992), Consequences (2000) and Queueing for the Sun (2003), all published by Peterloo. Her Collected Poems are due from Peterloo next spring. UA Fanthorpe was appointed a CBE in 2001 and awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry earlier this year. She lives in Wotton-under-Edge, in an Elizabethan cottage, with her partner, Rosie Bailey.

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