My transformative icon: UA Fanthorpe

Unofficial poet laureate UA Fanthorpe is an unlikely icon, having left her prestigious career for a job as a receptionist. But she understood that recording the everyday - the often ignored - can help people to connect, to see the importance of everyone's story. She changed both society and my life. 

Ali Brumfitt
6 January 2014

UA Fanthorpe (left) with her partner Rosie Bailey. Credit: National Portrait Gallery.

Icons should not be set apart from the rest of us. Yet most of the time society gives them a 'specialness' that suggests influential lives need to be rare and exemplary.

From Diana to Mandela, media outlets show a story which focuses on other-worldliness: these icons are a distant, impersonal brand. Their complex lives are sanitised and simplified into 'inspirational narratives'. The suggestion is that the power to change society lives with the rare few, not the everyday many. But I prefer my icons to come with a sense of the ordinary.

Ursula Askhem Fanthorpe, or 'UA', which she adopted on publication and by which she preferred to be known, was the first woman in 315 years to be nominated, in 1994, as Oxford Professor of Poetry and was a strong contender for poet laureate in 1999. She was furnished with numerous awards and honorary degrees and influenced a generation of women poets. Current laureate Carol Ann Duffy described her as: “ An unofficial, deeply loved laureate for so many people for so many years.”

These credentials amply position her to have been a feminist literary icon of her time, at least in the UK. But this would have created a focus on herself. She would have seen such accolades as a dangerous distraction, moving her away from her poetry and the voices she wished to represent. Her partner of 44 years, Rosie Bailey, recalled: “When she was asked once how she would like to be remembered, she replied 'I don't particularly care about being remembered. It's the poetry that's important. Remember that.'" 

UA left her job as Head of English at Cheltenham Ladies College, where she had taught for 16 years because, as she said on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs in 2004, she was beginning to have “delusions of grandeur” and was losing sight of “what mattered.” Instead, in 1974 she took up a role as a receptionist at a neurological hospital in Bristol, where she began writing about the patients she encountered.

In an interview appearing in the critical review of her work, Taking Stock, by Eddie Wainwright, she said: “I'm particularly involved with people who have no voice: the dead, the dispossessed, or the inarticulate in various ways. I'm not carrying on a campaign on their behalf but this is the theme I recognise as having call on me: people at the edge of things”.

UA did not presume to be speaking for others. Her talent was in casting a light on other people's stories and allowing the voices to articulate themselves. She told Kayte Reading in a 2007 interview: “I wanted to be a witness for people who were not able to speak about their distress themselves.” 

Her portrayal of characters encourages us to ask - which are we most like? Who would we rather be? Her writing exposes the inhumanity of structures and conventions that make some people the focus of attention, others forgotten. In, 'Job Description: Medical Records' she states:

“...we do not encourage speculation in clerks. We prefer you
To think of patients not as people, but

The voice of the doctor is authoritarian and dehumanising, she recognises the tragedy of this for the patients. In 'Lament for the Patients' she begins:

“These were far from lovely in their lives,
And when they died, they were instantly forgotten.”

She does not forget. She goes on to name patients, highlight aspects of their character. They have identities not afforded to the faceless doctor.

UA walked away from a successful, prestigious career because she felt it was not making her who she wanted to be in the world. She moved to something less powerful, simpler. We are told through our education and social structures that a successful career brings status. Speaking mostly of Western cultures, we prioritise hierarchies, competition. It is not the 'done thing' to walk away.

Her actions gave me the confidence to examine my own choices. I had a good career in PR, a large salary and was married to my long term boyfriend. The more successful people told me I was, the harder it was to explain why I wanted to leave. At any point in my life where I have felt able to step away from the social forces insisting I stay 'safe' and respected, UA is one of the people I recall. When I left my husband for a relationship with a woman, I thought of her relationship with Rosie Bailey. When I left my career to reclaim my time and live more simply, I thought of her also.

Her work and life were a straightforward reaction against the idea that some people are more important than others - not through argument, but simply by refusing to be a part of the systems that separate us and by using her writing to hold a mirror to everyday life, so that readers could see how unjust those systems are- in our towns, schools, hospitals, the everyday places we inhabit- the places we can choose to be different.

As a live performer, it's difficult to take oneself out of the picture, but like UA I want the audience to remember poem over poet. Like her, I use small points of reference to connect with people. Live performance provides the luxury of constant adaptation, I can change the name of a town to another, for example, to make it familiar. UA used everyday things like pop-up toasters and cheese and onion rolls, but the effect is the same - it gives a broad range of readers a reference point. People can relate to it, and I hope that will encourage them to consider themselves in the world - how they fit into the picture I paint. 

But can she be heralded as an icon? Can you be an icon if no one remembers what you look like, or knows much about you? In a world where we cherish celebrity and seek idols to follow, Fanthorpe is an unlikely icon. There is no mythology surrounding her, no drama.

But it is that very 'unlikeliness' that makes her an ideal icon for me. The voices in her work are a record of others. She has made no claim on history. Unlike Elvis, Marilyn Monroe - even Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King - it is not her face or impressive deeds that will be remembered, but the stories of those she wrote about, the often ignored, the cleaners, gardeners, patients.

She understood that demonstrating the humanity of the forgotten and the power of the everyday can help people to connect, to see the importance of everyones' story. She was an effective change-maker, making strides for women's poetry with her success, but also breaking down the barriers between people by highlighting the voices of the ordinary and teaching us how to observe in a way which shifts the focus away from ourselves. However, it is not any change she made in the world that is her greatest influence. It is not about great achievements that set her apart. It is about communicating in a way that shows the foolishness of setting people apart. Everyone is part of the story and if everyone is important in this way, everyone has a role.

Perhaps she is something of an 'anti-icon'. And maybe that is something we need more of?

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