U.A. Fanthorpe by Rosalind Jana
Illustration by Sam Russell Walker
Rosalind Jana is an author, journalist and poet. She has written for places including British Vogue, Buzzfeed, Dazed, BBC Radio 4, Refinery29, Broadly and Suitcase, and is currently Violet magazine's junior editor. Her debut non-fiction book 'Notes on Being Teenage' came out with Hachette (Wayland) in 2016. Her poetry collection 'Branch and Vein' is available through the New River Press.
“There is a kind of love called maintenance/ which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it.”
So go the opening lines of ‘Atlas’ by U.A. Fanthorpe. It’s a lovely poem. The kind that regularly gets read at weddings – a methodical, beautifully observed acknowledgment of the “sensible side of love,” the daily ways in which a partner, like that Titan of Greek myth tasked with balancing the world on his shoulders, “upholds/ the permanently rickety elaborate/ structures of living.”
I first came across it on a family holiday when I was at university. I’d tasked myself with discovering more female poets from the 20th Century, papering over various gaps in my knowledge by way of whatever I could find on my parents’ bookshelves: Elizabeth Jennings, Anne Stevenson, Frances Horowitz, Irina Ratushinskaya. And U.A. Fanthorpe. A particular favourite of my mum’s. I’d borrowed her Selected Poems to pack in my suitcase, the cover complete with a black and white portrait of the smiling writer looking eminently sensible in a striped shirt, knitted waistcoat, and glasses.
By the time the holiday was over the book would be well-thumbed, numerous pages turned down as I’d sat by a lake in Sweden, transported into a landscape of horticultural shows yielding “onions” like Persephone’s “paleskinned lamps” and London’s underground rivers threatening to “return spectrally after heavy rain”. Her work was by turns eerie, pragmatic and gently funny, steeped in history and myth. I immediately found myself entranced.
A few years later and this same collection remains on my shelves, the borrowing from my mum turning into a rather more permanent theft. It’s now been joined by another book titled From Me to You. This one is a slim volume, with a splotched pink and green cover, and even better thumbed pages. ‘Atlas’ appears here too, a quiet nod to stability settled among numerous other poems about cats, history, family, language, and “sudden shining naked looks of love.”
This collection is co-authored by U.A. Fanthorpe and R.V. Bailey. Two sets of initials. Two women who eventually made a life together, regularly expressing their adoration of each other in scribbled asides and lavish similes. A duo who eventually published this poetic correspondence, deciding, in the same vein as Sylvia Townsend Warner and her partner Valentine Ackland, to leave each poem unattributed – allowing the collection to stand as a whole, two voices blurring in a constant shared dialogue. As they write together modestly in the forward, “they are not important resonant pieces of writing: they simply happened when one of us felt like writing to the other, quite often when one of us was away from home.”
For this very reason I find them both important and resonant. I’ve rarely come across a collection quite so sweet or moving in its approach to the daily rhythms of love; the ways in which the need to sing of old habits and “colossal crops/ Of shining tomorrows” becomes pressing.
Ursula Askham Fanthorpe, who preferred to go by U.A., was born in Kent in 1929. After attending St Anne’s College, Oxford she trained as a teacher, eventually becoming head of English at Cheltenham Ladies’ College. It was there that she met Rosemarie – better known as Rosie - Bailey. As fellow teachers they spent seven years as colleagues before realizing their mutual attraction – something described in the poem ‘Mineral Love’, where one writes to the other, “I, who had been looking/ For you all my long life, met/ you when I was twenty-eight,/ And didn’t notice.” When they eventually left the school they bought their first house together in Merthyr Tydfil.
After leaving teaching, Fanthorpe became a receptionist at a psychiatric hospital. It was only here that she began writing poetry, her first collection Side Effects published in 1978. She was in her fifties. Slowly and steadily her reputation grew – prizes and residencies and further collections following. In the late 1990s she was considered a popular potential choice for Poet Laureate (the role eventually going to Andrew Motion). In 2001 she was awarded a CBE.
I love all of her poetry. It’s smart and thoughtful and sometimes startling. But it’s From Me To You that I return to most. A collection that means I am really writing as much about Bailey here as I am about Fanthorpe – enthralled, still, by their relationship, by the ways in which they wove together the personal, the professional, and the practical. I love how some of the poems give clues to who is writing, but plenty don’t – and that the guesswork is part of the fun, but ultimately doesn’t matter. I love how fitting a portrait it is of a couple who lived together, regularly performed together (even recording a cassette titled ‘Double Act’), wrote to each other and supported one another in myriad ways.
I love the insomniac’s observation of a partner who can “slip into sleep as fast/ And neat as a dipper,” the still-awake party finally concluding “exhausted by guilt, I nuzzle/ Your shoulder. Out lobs/ A casual heavy arm. You anchor me/ In your own easy sound.” I love the evocations of safety and belonging: “with you, my skin fits me as snugly/ As the shining coat of an evergreen leaf”. I love the knowingness of one “who has grown expert on your absences,” as well as the thrumming satisfaction of “thinking/ The rest of our lives, the rest of our lives/ Doing perfectly ordinary things together”. I love the simplicity of the acknowledgment that “to think of you is to see myself in the mirror/ And find I’m nicer/ Than I thought.”
I love that they are poems I want to read out loud to my girlfriend – gleeful in every detail, every exclamation, every gorgeous display of intimacy shared between these two women who built something so terribly lovely for themselves at a point where to do so was still immensely difficult. I love, and ache at, the end of the poem ‘Elegy for a Cat’, the speaker reflecting, “dear first-footer,/ First to live with us, first to confirm/ Us as livers-together… You who saw love/ where innocent others/ Saw only convenience.”
U.A. Fanthorpe and R.V. Bailey became civil partners in 2006: a year after the Civil Partnership Act came into effect, and three years before Fanthorpe died. On the eve of the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2014, Bailey wrote a moving piece about the longstanding invisibility of lesbians – and of how the two of them had lived as “fugitives” for years when “no one but us knew that we were together.” In the 1980s they turned to Quakerism, finding acceptance of their love there where they hadn’t elsewhere. “It was quite bewildering,” she says. “It was wonderful.”
At the end of ‘Atlas’, Fanthorpe writes of the joys of a partner who “keeps/ My suspect edifice upright in the air”. I am so strangely, wildly glad that she had that – mutually experiencing what Bailey would later describe as “the true measure of an intimate relationship” with “its degree of selfless love, a love that isn’t proprietorial or exploitative, but tender, responsible, committed, equal.” I’m glad that this collection exists, bouncing back and forth with its declarations and observations and the brimming, fizzing accumulation of two lives lived in tandem. I’m glad that it has meant different things to me each time I read it – hope, reassurance, reflection, anchoring - that whenever I return to those pages there’s something fresh to glean again.
Sam Russell Walker is an Illustrator based in Glasgow. He graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 2015 and his work is inspired by film, pop culture, the human form, plants and fashion. His process is also heavily influenced by the act of mark making and creating textures through this process.