Fanthorpe, U(rsula) A(skham)
FANTHORPE, U(rsula) A(skham)
Nationality: British. Born: Lee Green, London, 29 July 1929. Education: St. Anne's College, Oxford, 1949–53, B.A. 1953, M.A. 1958; University of London Institute of Education, 1953–54, Dip.Ed. 1954; University College, Swansea, diploma in school counseling 1971. Career: Assistant English teacher, 1954–62, and Head of English, 1962–70, Cheltenham Ladies' College, Gloucestershire; clerk in various businesses in Bristol, 1972–74; hospital clerk and receptionist, Bristol, 1974–83. Arts Council creative writing fellow, St. Martin's College, Lancaster, 1983–85. Awards: Society of Authors traveling scholarship, 1984; Hawthornden fellowships, 1987, 1997; Arts Council Writers award, 1994; Cholmondeley award, 1995. D.Litt.: University of the West of English Bristol, 1995. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1987. Address: Culverhay House, Wotton under Edge, Gloucestershire GL 12 7LS, England.
Side Effects. Liskeard, Cornwall, Harry Chambers/Peterloo Poets, 1978.
Four Dogs. Liskeard, Cornwall, Treovis Press, 1980.
Standing To. Liskeard, Cornwall, Harry Chambers/Peterloo Poets, 1982.
Voices Off. Liskeard, Cornwall, Harry Chambers/Peterloo Poets, 1984.
Selected Poems. Calstock, Cornwall, Peterloo Poets, 1986.
A Watching Brief. Calstock, Cornwall, Peterloo Poets, 1987.
Neck Verse. Calstock, Cornwall, Peterloo Poets, 1992.
Safe As Houses. Calstock, Cornwall, Peterloo Poets, 1995.
Consequences. Calstock, Cornwall, Peterloo Poets, 2000.
Recordings: Double Act, with R.V. Bailey, Penguin, 1997.*
Critical Studies: Taking Stock: A First Study of U.A. Fanthorpe by Eddie Wainwright, Calstock, Cornwall, Peterloo Poets, 1994; "Hearing the Other: Voices in U.A. Fanthorpe's Poetry" by Paul Delaney, in Christianity and Literature (Carrollton, Georgia), 46(3–4), spring-summer 1997.* * *
U.A. Fanthorpe had an Oxford education and went on to teach at a prestigious school. She gave this up to become, after various temporary jobs, a clerical worker at a hospital. Such a biography may sound like that of an English eccentric. There is nothing, however, eccentric about Fanthorpe's verse. She gives more than a passing nod to Betjeman and is aware of the comedic aspects of Auden, but such affinities are a matter of rivalry rather than imitation. Her most obvious literary relationship seems to be with a phase of poetry, colloquial and acidulous, that began in Britain soon after World War II. By that time Fanthorpe was already a young adult, but she had many years to go before she published a book of her own. Further, behind many of the more palpable analogues are the poets preserved for Fanthorpe's generation in the attractively bound Oxford Editions of Standard Authors.
In several respects, however, Fanthorpe's verse is not related to the classics. This is a result of her subject matter, which, socially speaking, is rather down-market. Wordsworth had some odd encounters, and so did Coleridge, but they never met Julie the encephalitic or Alison with the damaged brain. Tennyson wrote of sickbeds, but not in the vein of Fanthorpe: "The smashed voice roars inside the ruined throat / Behind the mangled face …" Yet the standard authors are not entirely forgotten. That poem, ironically entitled "Linguist," modulates into a style Tennyson would have recognized: "A silent clock that speaks / The solemn language of the sun …" All of this goes to show how genuinely inclusive is the English tradition in which Fanthorpe works.
Fanthorpe's world, though fraught with wit, is not a cosy one. Functionaries in her poems deal with sickness and death at close quarters. The hospital secretary requires a sense of order in typing out her fatal lists, and the clerk needs a strong back to tote her files. Moreover, all of this takes place in a busily social atmosphere. Almost the best of these poems is "Lament for the Patients." Here a startling use is made of interpolated statement:
To me came the news of their dying:
From the police (Was this individual
A patient of yours?); from ambulance
Control (Our team report this patient
You sent us to fetch is deceased already);
From tight-lipped telephoning widowers
(My wife died in her sleep last night);
From carboned discharge letters (I note
That you have preserved the brain. We would certainly
Be very interested in this specimen);
From curt press cuttings (Man found dead.
Foul play not suspected). I annotated their notes
With their final symptom: Died.
Therefore I remember them.
An ironic effect is gained through the way in which natural language is displaced by official language, causing some odd ambiguities. The word "individual," necessarily used by the police, fortuitously drains the patient of individuality. The "deceased" is no longer a person but has, precipitately, become a corpse. Further, all of this is contrasted with the central persona, the speaker of the poem, who has to cope with these incoming calls and who does so succinctly and with a degree of alliterative skill: "I annotated their notes …" That, in its turn, may remind the reader of the breakthrough in the early 1950s when James Kirkup inaugurated a new mode in poetry with "A Correct Compassion" and when D.J. Enright sent back his wry dispatches from Egypt and Japan.
Much of what Fanthorpe writes about may seem as drab and basic as the topics chosen by Kirkup and Enright. Characteristically, however, each subject is irradiated by an enlivening gleam. What Fanthorpe says of the winter adventurers in her poem "Hang-Gliders in January" is also true of her own verse: "Like all miracles, it has a rational / Explanation …" Here, as elsewhere in her work, it is the naturalistic detail that seems to carry the vital charge: "We saw the aground flyers, their casques and belts / And defenceless legs …" This gives an ironic turn to the immediately preceding statement: "It was all quite simple, really." The poem tempts the reader beyond its literal meaning. Fanthorpe's skill makes her appear, among the hopeless flops of some latter-day versifiers, "like a bird at home in the sky."
Fanthorpe's later verse does not so much develop the earlier technique as merely add to it. There is no diminution of skill, but there is a tendency to retreat from the immediate and particular world to topics that are literary and historical. This sometimes results in poems that are both moving and ambitious, as in the poem "Tyndale in Darkness." At the same time the immediacy of the first two books seems to have dispersed itself into allusion and reminiscence.
In an interview with Eddie Wainwright, who in Taking Stock has written a fine preliminary study of her poetry, Fanthorpe says, "What's important to me is people …" Perhaps it is the people in her hospital wards who gave rise to her best pieces rather than Edward the Confessor, Titania, John Clare, or W.B. Yeats, figures of a type that increasingly tend to throng her verse. If this is to say that Side Effects and Standing To are her best collections, it is also to say that poems such as "Jobdescription," "Linguist," "After Visiting Hours," and "Lament for the Patients" are masterpieces of irony, observation, and, most of all, compassion.