An extraordinarily rich and wonderful poet
She did not see herself as a serious contender. In fact, she made her preference clear in a poem, Petition of the Cats Concerning Mr Peter Porter. Still, she was happy that the post went to Andrew Motion: “Andrew’s worked so hard,” she declared, “and I haven’t got that much energy left in me.”
She was in her late sixties at the time, and few people had heard of her, let alone read her work. At first she seemed like a joke candidate at the centre of a campaign dreamed up by The Guardian in the spirit of irony. The paper adopted her, and relied on her to judge competitions for the best mobile telephone text message.
And yet her work would have made her an appropriate choice. It is unashamedly English in its celebration of the Cotswolds countryside, quiet churches, folk music and women’s institutes. She was genuinely fond of the monarch, too. After receiving the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2003, she remarked: “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.”
She was one of the judges of the Golden Jubilee poetry competition, and in a poem called The Windsors: An Everyday Story of Royal Folk harmlessly evokes their unreal world by conflating it with that of the Archers.
But the predominant theme of her poetry is the cycle of life and death, with particular emphasis on dying. In fact, it was a job she took working as a hospital receptionist in Bristol that led her to write. She typed up and updated patients’ records, and her lines often summoned up their memory: “These I remember: / Sonia, David, Penny, who chose death. / Lynn and Gillian, who died undiagnosed. Peter whose death was enigmatic…”
This is to quote her at her most direct. Although she was often a straightforward poet, her work is distinguished by an elegance of syntax and a subtlety of thought that revealed her provenance: the hospital clerk was an Oxford graduate who had become what she called “a middle-aged dropout” only after eight years as head of English at Cheltenham Ladies’ College.
UA Fanthorpe was much more inclined towards humour than sentiment, and was a mistress of the anachronism: she makes St George say, “I have diplomas in Dragon / Management and Virgin Reclamation”, and Christ introduce his parables with such lines as “What did the high priest say / To the belly dancer?” Her use of a weary female voice to deflate the aspirations of orotund male poets anticipated the quips of Wendy Cope and Carol Ann Duffy. Even when writing about terminal illness, she could approach the subject in the spirit of Woody Allen: “Library fines and income tax returns / Have lost their sting.”
Ursula Askham Fanthorpe, who preferred to be addressed by her initials, was born at Lee Green, south-east London, on July 22 1929. She called her parents “middle-class but honest”; her father was a barrister. During the war, when London and Kent were prey to German bombs, she was sent away to boarding school in Surrey. She concealed from her parents how little she liked this, but flourished at Oxford, where she attended St Anne’s College. After a year at London University’s Institute of Education, she spent 16 years teaching at Cheltenham Ladies’ College.
Of her promotion to head of English she said: “I began to see that power had an effect on me that I didn’t like.” She resigned, enrolled with the job agency Manpower, and put her modest typing skills on the labour market. She worked as a receptionist, first at Butlers Chemicals and then at Hoover, before taking a job at Burden neurological hospital in Bristol.
She quickly developed ways of coping with the pressures to which patients and her superiors subjected her. As she explained: “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!” Although she could see how doctors had to forget each case and move on, it was her role to record them all – which led her to remember them in her poems.
Many of the pieces in her first collection, Side Effects (1978), are of this character. She was nearly 50 when it appeared. The 1980 Arvon Poetry Competition capped its success. Her poem Rising Damp, about underground rivers, was one of 35,000 submitted to the judges (Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Charles Causley and Philip Larkin). As with the laureateship, Andrew Motion was the winner.
Residencies and collections followed. In 1989, with four volumes to her name, she retired from her hospital work and devoted herself exclusively to poetry. For years she lived in an Elizabethan cottage at Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire, with Rosemarie Bailey, an academic and fellow poet. The two had met at Cheltenham in 1965.
In 1972 they bought a printing press together, with which they would produce verse Christmas greetings, circulating them among their friends; they were collected in Christmas Poems (2002).
In 1995 UA Fanthorpe became the first woman to be nominated for the poetry chair at Oxford. She was delighted by this vote of confidence in her work, but recognised that James Fenton would win the contest. In 2001 she was appointed CBE.
In her later works she ripened into a tenderer poet, while still avoiding mush. She made an unlikely author of love poetry, but in her 2000 collection Consequences wrote: “In all the seasons of the year I love her. / And this seems as good a day as any to say so.” The poem happens to be addressed to a grid reference on an Ordnance Survey map; but together with this moving simplicity was a feeling that the questions facing the country she loved were becoming urgent: “King Dick or King Harry? Theme park or business centre? / Choose, England.”
In 2006 Ursula Fanthorpe published Homing In: Selected Local Poems, and in 2008 Love Poems.
Rosemarie Bailey survives her.