Thursday, May 07, 2009


The death was announced few days ago of Ursula Fanthorpe, the sharp, witty poet admired by critics and the public. She was a good friend of our SWWJ and met us several times when she judged our poetry competitions. Many felt that in 1999 she should have become the first woman poet laureate, but she was beaten to the position by Andrew Motion who later chaired a panel of judges which recommended her for the Queen's gold medal for poetry. Now, of course, we have Carol Ann Duffy.

She was duly awarded the medal in 2003,only the fifth woman in 70 years to win it. She also became a CBE for services to literature in 2001, and in 1994 the first woman in 315 years to be nominated as professor of poetry at Oxford University. Her 1995 collection Safe as Houses is included on the A-level syllabus.

"She was an extraordinary character," Richard Hendin, who had worked
with her at Peterloo, said. "You might find yourself in some provincial
English market town, and happen upon a member of the WI with a little
stall selling marmalade, and that woman would look precisely like UA –
but what she was selling was not marmalade. What you got from her was
amazing poetry that quietly de-centred you and made you think."

Fanthorpe published nothing until 1978, when she was almost 50. She was
head of English at Cheltenham Ladies College when she decided on a
radical change of career. Her time as a receptionist in a Bristol
neurological hospital inspired her first collection, Side Effects. Her
shrewd work immediately found both critical and popular acclaim, and she
went on to publish eight more collections, all with Peterloo Poets, as
well as audio-books and a volume of poems published by Penguin.

She was amused by the campaign to make her poet laureate – she was the Guardian's top choice last time round – but resigned about never winning it, saying: "I never really thought I would. Andrew [Motion] has worked so hard – and I haven't got that much energy left in me."