Wendy Cope, photographed by the New Statesman.
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Wendy Cope interview: "I can't die until I've sorted out the filing cabinets"

As Wendy Cope donates her archive of correspondence and diaries to the British Library, is the literary world at last taking her seriously?

"Let's go back to this thing about there being a story," Wendy Cope says as we sit on a bench by the canal in Ely. "There's a story of how a depressed primary school teacher became quite a well-known poet."

She is being characteristically understated. Cope is one of the best-known and among the bestselling British poets of recent decades. Her first collection, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, was full of "the kind of poems journalists enjoy". As a result, it became, by her own admission, almost too successful. "I've never been more famous than I was, suddenly, in 1986," she says. "I did find it very difficult to cope with all the demands that were being made on me."

She quickly decided that she didn't want to become "some sort of media personality, always on radio quiz shows", and retreated to her study. She observes, with a touch of pride, that she is one of the few poets who don't need to supplement their income by teaching creative writing courses.
Her major works have been irregular, though consistently well reviewed: Serious Concerns in 1992, If I Don't Know in 2001 and Family Values this year. This summer she sold her "archive" - 40,000 emails and 15 boxes of notebooks, diaries, letters and memorabilia - to the British Library. "When it went, I was thoroughly glad to see the back of it," she says. "I've been saying for years: 'I can't die until I've sorted out the
filing cabinets.' I wanted it to be in a safe place, and available if anyone's ever interested in doing serious studies of my work."

The week after our meeting, I visit the archive at its new home in King's Cross. Going "backstage" at the British Library is an oddly thrilling experience - all swipe cards and temperature-controlled rooms. Down a narrow row, there it sits, sandwiched between the effects of the surrealist poet David Gascoyne - whose boxes contain a toothbrush, a tie and a notebook - and the organist Reginald Moore. The cartons are neatly labelled: "Poems about me", "Nuisances", "Unpublished writing" and my favourite, "Things I said no to".

The collection won't be catalogued and ready for scholars for another year, but Rachel Foss, curator of modern manuscripts, has prepared a selection of items to show me. As Cope promised, they tell the story of how a depressed schoolteacher found her poetic voice.

But first, a brief detour. The path that led me to that riverbank in Ely opened one Christmas morning in the 1990s. My mother had bought me, a bookish teen, a set of poetry volumes. Among the masculine heavyweights of the 20th century - Hughes, Heaney, Eliot, Larkin and Auden - was a slim volume. On its cover was a fridge, empty apart from a pint of milk. It was Cope's Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis. Here, for the first time, were poems in a voice I could identify with; a writer who felt that white wine and buses were fit subjects for poetry. As time went on, I began to notice that the feather-light observations came wrapped in skilfully crafted verse. ("It's not that I'm against free verse, but even free verse has a certain shape, a certain rhythm, and there is technical stuff that you need to learn," she says now.) Here are the first lines of "Rondeau Redoublé":

There are so many kinds of awful men -
One can't avoid them all. She often said
She'd never make the same mistake again:
She always made a new mistake instead.

Each line of this is reused as the last line of the following stanzas, and the poem finishes with the first half of the first line ("There are so many kinds") as a truncated last line. A roundel like this is a finicky structure and rhyme scheme for any poet to choose. Those meticulously catalogued boxes should have given me the clue: the reader is in the presence of a perfectionist.

Apart from a series of poems in the persona of a male writer, Jake Strugnell, the other main attraction of Making Cocoa is a set of reworkings: Eliot, Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. The Waste Land ends up as five rather jaunty limericks, which conclude:

No water. Dry rocks and dry throats,
Then thunder, a shower of quotes
From the Sanskrit and Dante.
Da. Damyata. Shantih.
I hope you'll make sense of the notes.

“Oh yes," she says. "Even the snobby poets conceded the parodies were quite good."

Flashes of candour

Wendy Cope's story begins in 1945, when she was born in Erith, Kent. She was an unremarkable schoolgirl, but at the age of four and five-twelfths - her report from West Lodge prep school is specific on this point - she was already "very keen" on poetry. Her next school, Farringtons, awarded her only a B++ in English at 16, but it did agree that "Wendy's ability to penetrate to the heart of a question is of great value".

Two years later, her grades were good enough for her to go up to St Hilda's, Oxford, to study history, but she was unhappy there, suffering from the depression that later blighted her twenties. "I didn't do very well because I had all these problems," she says. "And then I became a primary school teacher, which was good in some ways, but I felt that I wasn't really using my brains in the way I wanted to . . . I was living on my own for the first time, without flatmates. The nice ones had got married and I'd got fed up with the rest. There was no one to talk to and that got me writing."

Then, three things happened. In 1971, her father died; soon after that, she went into psychoanalysis to deal with her depression; and she started writing poems. "I got in touch with all sorts of powerful feelings that I didn't know I had. I needed to do something with them, and writing poems turned out to be helpful. I think I had been very oppressed by my mother and it was something to do with just creating a space where I was free, inside my own head - and then extending this space on to a piece of paper."

Cope's mother is a strong presence in her latest collection, Family Values. It is, she says, a far better book than If I Don't Know, which came at "a dry period in my writing life". These flashes of candour keep appearing; earlier, she had said that she and her partner, Lachlan Mackinnon, had ended up in Ely because they couldn't afford to live in Cambridge: they'd ploughed their savings into a buy-to-let flat in 2009 and had to sell it at a loss. Until earlier this year, they lived in a "lovely big house" provided by Winchester College, where Mackinnon taught English for 30 years, but they lost that when ill-health forced him to take early retirement. "Selling the archive had everything to do with leaving that house. There were two things: one was the money, the other was the space. We had to move somewhere smaller."

Poetic tension

But indiscretion is not Cope's default mode: this is a woman who wrote, in a poem called "How to Deal with the Press": "When tempted to confide, resist/Never trust a journalist." As she argues: "I've said what I'm prepared to say in my poems, and then journalists think that you're going to tell them a whole lot more." Interviewing her is less a seductive pas de deux and more like a bullfight: every time I charge at the red cloth, she steps aside. Is there anything she'd like to forget? She bridles. "If there was, I certainly wouldn't tell you." A few minutes later, she brings it up again: "I wonder if anyone gets trapped into answering that question?"

Cope is a writer caught between the urge to hold back and the desire to unburden. She wants her archive studied, but only after she dies. She admits that the surface humour of the early collections covered up the depression she endured for years. The big change came with her mother's death in 2004, which freed her to write about their dysfunctional relationship and her consequently unhappy childhood. In Family Values, she recalls her mother reading to her and teaching her to swim: "For all that, I am grateful./As for the rest, I can begin/To imagine forgiving her". Her mother was one of the few not won over by Making Cocoa; she disliked its references to sex.

The archives bear out this tale of inhibition. Cope says that she publishes only 60 per cent of what she writes and in her notebooks covered in wrapping paper are poems far more bare and intimate than she has included in any collection - one of which she emails and gives me permission to quote here for the first time. It is dated 10 November 1978, five years before the publication of Making Cocoa, when she was still struggling to find her voice:

And is it better
Thus to burn
And blacken
Sheets of paper
Than to trace
these patterns
with my fingers
on your skin?

The idea of strangers rummaging through the records of her most private thoughts troubles her. She knows that allowing scholars to study her development as a writer will help her future reputation, yet she qualifies this, talking of "a desire to be known and be understood, but not necessarily while I'm alive". In the stacked boxes are three volumes of autobiography, abandoned in 2003, which Foss tells me cover many of the same incidents found in Family Values. There are also diaries - Cope describes them with relish as "a good read" and "Bridget Jones on speed" - which will stay sealed until after her death.

Andrew Motion, a former poet laureate who has known her since the 1980s, agrees that she is caught between confession and repression. "In the early poems, there is a kind of masking going on," he tells me. "She literally adopts the persona of Strugnell. You're not so sure in the more recent stuff what is her speaking in her own self and what isn't. I think there's been a gradual move towards the candidly autobiographical." He believes that greater happiness has allowed her to let more melancholy into her work. "I don't want to say these are suddenly overwhelmingly sad poems but the sadness is much more conspicuous than it used to be."

He hopes that Family Values finally establishes her as the rightful heir to Philip Larkin. "Comic poets do get short shrift, because they're made to seem light," he says. "And there is a skip in her step, but these are perfectly serious poems. She does take from [Larkin] and makes her own something about melancholia that's very true to our human experience."

Cope has her own take on this idea. "A friend of mine wrote a really good poem about being in a pub playing darts, and I said: 'What your poetry needs is a bit more beer and darts, and not quite so much nature.'"

As you would expect, the c-word - comedy - is one that exercises her greatly. From the start of her career, she came up against the casual snobbery of the poetry world, which assumed that any work that made you laugh was unlikely to make you think. Recently, she says, a panellist on BBC2's Review Show dismissed her work as "comfortable Home Counties stuff". "I don't set out to be humorous," is her slightly frustrated response to the inevitable question. "The interesting thing is that you don't often meet a poet who doesn't have a sense of humour, and some of them do keep it out of their poems because they're afraid of being seen as light versifiers. I know one poet - a good friend of mine, I won't mention his name - and reading his poems you would never know he's interested in sex or having a pint of beer. It's all so high-minded."

I ask if she was treated badly by the establishment when her first collection became such a success, and her journalists-are-out-to-trap-me antennae bristle. "I have to be careful what I say . . . The poetry world hasn't been very nice to me, so I'm not going to say warm, glowing things about the community of poets."

Isn't that a side effect of being popular? She agrees. "I bet historians hate Simon Schama. I bet they spit at the mention of his name. But certainly it is a problem with poetry that, as soon as anyone comes up with anything that people enjoy, poets all gang up and say: 'But this is not good.'"
That said, she is friendly with several poets - her partner is one, after all - and the archives contain notes from Craig Raine, Gavin Ewart, Dennis O'Driscoll and Blake Morrison. There is even a congratulatory letter from Kingsley Amis, whose ego must have been soundly stroked by the success of the collection bearing his name. A 1992 postcard from Ted Hughes praises her "deadpan fearless sort of way of whacking the nail on the head when everybody else is trying to hang pictures on it".

Artistic integrity

Yet the feeling of being an outsider still lingers, even if some of her old spikiness has softened. Motion attributes this to her happy relationship with Mackinnon, with whom she has lived since 1994. There is also her age - 66. "I think people don't get envious of older poets - you've got time to catch up with them," she says. "I hope I've won the respect of some people by going on, having artistic integrity."

And go on she does: unencumbered by her boxes of memories, she squeezes in writing between answering "millions" of emails and giving readings. Handing over the archive seems like a step towards canonisation, though Cope sees it differently - "like getting ready to die". So, how would she like to be remembered? "The nicest thing anyone can say about my poetry is that it is true . . . One of my favourite quotes is by Schubert. He said: 'I give to the world what I have in my heart, and that is the end of it.'"

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the muslim brotherhood

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Paul Nash: the modernity of ancient landscapes

Famous for his eerie First World War paintings, a new exhibition reminds us why Paul Nash was the greatest British artist of the first half of the 20th century.

In 1932 The Studio magazine printed a series of articles under the title: “What is Wrong with Modern Painting?” Internationalism, it claimed, was one ailment, with invidious Continental styles such as cubism and surrealism causing British art to lose its “native flavour”. “The Pernicious Influence of Words” was another, with “art jargon” and talk of “abstraction” helping to alienate and distance the public. What was to be done? Simple, the magazine pronounced: “A truce must be called to the post-war phase of ‘experiment’.”

For Paul Nash (1889-1946), the pre-eminent painter of the First World War, the Studio articles were a provocation. “In so many words we are being asked to ­abandon all research, all experiment; to close our eyes to the vital art of other lands – in short to be British,” he wrote. He also put it another way, in slightly less tetchy terms: “Whether it is possible to ‘Go Modern’ and to still ‘Be British’ is a question vexing quite a few people today.”

Nash’s paintings – and his photographs, woodcuts, writings and book illustrations for the likes of Robert Graves, T E Lawrence and Siegfried Sassoon – were proof that there was no intrinsic incompatibility between Britishness and European modernism. Indeed, what his work showed was that the avant-garde was a means of reinvigorating the British landscape tradition. There was everything personal about his art but nothing insular; Nash may have been, in the eyes of many, heir to the mystic pastoralism of William Blake and Samuel Palmer – and may have returned repeatedly to such heart-of-England subjects as Iron Age Dorset and Oxfordshire, the Sussex Downs, Romney Marsh, and the fields and orchards of Buckinghamshire – but he treated them with a sensibility that had a strongly European component.

How Nash managed to “Go Modern” and still “Be British” is the underlying theme of Tate Britain’s magnificent and comprehensive retrospective, which contains about 160
works. Nash the artist of two world wars is necessarily here, but the focus of the exhibition lies in his non-martial work. Nevertheless, it was the wars that defined him.

Nash had trained in London at the Slade School of Art as a member of an extraordinary generation that the professor of drawing Henry Tonks dubbed a “Crisis of Brilliance”. (On meeting Tonks, Nash recalled, “It was evident he considered that neither the Slade, nor I, was likely to derive much benefit.”) Among his peers were the greatest of the future war artists – Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, William Roberts, C R W Nevinson and Edward Wadsworth. Yet it was Nash – who lasted only a year at the Slade – who outpaced them.

His visceral, stylised and unflinching images of trench landscapes on the Western Front, culminating in the shattered trees and churned mud of the painting We Are Making a New World (1918), brought him to prominence (the brooding, red-brown sky that bathes above the scene with such a sinister light reappeared 26 years later in his near-abstract aerial painting Battle of Germany). Nash was no good at painting the human figure, so instead, as he later said, “I have tried to paint trees as though they were human ­beings.” His war pictures are full of splintered stumps.

In 1917, at Ypres, Nash fell into a trench, broke a rib and was invalided home. Days later his regiment was all but wiped out. He returned to France later in the year a changed man, a sense of guilt in his heart and all ­naivety gone. It was from the front that he sent a letter – a philippic, really – home to his wife, Margaret, that is more than a raging description of his feelings: it also serves as a commentary on his paintings.


No pen or drawing can convey this country . . . Evil and the incarnate fiend alone can be master of this war, and no glimmer of God’s hand is seen anywhere. Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man . . . the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease . . . I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.


He returned from the war with post-traumatic stress disorder and his asthmatic lungs irreparably damaged by gas: the effects were to kill him, aged 57, less than a year after the end of the Second World War.

In the interwar years, Nash’s art was marked by an interest in interpenetrations and borders: of land and sea, dream and reality, night and day, man-made and natural, interior and exterior, organic and architectural. As an official war artist during the Second World War, attached to the air ministry (which didn’t really want a modernist), he remained in England and added German warplanes to his list. He repeatedly painted the incongruity of quintessential British landscapes pocked by the wrecks of downed enemy planes: a Messerschmitt ­being winched out of its crash site in Windsor Great Park, half a bomber resting in a wood, a fractured fighter in a cornfield lit by a blazing setting sun.

The most celebrated of Nash’s military-bucolic paintings is Totes Meer (“Dead Sea”) (1941), showing Cowley Dump near Oxford, where the remains of crashed planes were
piled on one another. He depicts the tangled wings and fuselages as a grey-green metal tide, washing up ineffectually against an ­adamantine Britain. He wanted the picture to be reproduced on postcards to be dropped over Germany, though it never was. In this aeronautical graveyard he painted, he saw the fate of the “hundreds and hundreds of flying creatures which invaded these shores”. He felt that the battle being waged was one from the Norse sagas and that the aeroplanes were not machines but incarnations of evil: a watercolour from 1940, Wrecked German Plane in Flames, was subtitled Death of the Dragon.

Back in 1925 Nash had started the bleakest of the paintings he produced at Dymchurch, on the coast of the Romney Marshes. He had moved there in 1921 to aid recuperation after a series of collapses brought on by depression and shell shock. His seaside was a haunting, stark place: the waves held back by the angular sea wall (on which he would walk at midnight with Margaret) suggested the trenches and no-man’s land, and in Winter Sea he painted the water as a mass of metallic shards in a green the colour of putrefaction. It is an image of utter desolation.

With Totes Meer he reprised the composition, substituting the broken aircraft for the water. Here, though, there is just a hint of life; a white bird (an owl? a seagull?) flies over and away from the wreckage like a ­departing spirit. According to Kenneth Clark this Götterdämmerung was “the best war picture so far I think”. His statement no longer needs the “so far”.

Nash’s anthropomorphised warplanes are also extensions of his particular brand of surrealism. He was less interested in the radical politics or the focus on the unconscious that fascinated the French practitioners, and more in the evocative potential of objets trouvés shown in imagined environments. “How often then do we encounter strange objects in unlikely association and hear tantalising phrases which seem full of meaning,” he wondered. His paintings, he said, were “gropings” towards uncovering that meaning. However metaphysical his intimations, he grounded his explorations in the landscape: “I find I still need partially organic features to make my fixed conceptual image. I discern among natural phenomena a thousand forms which might, with advantage, be dissolved in the crucible of abstract transfiguration.”

In 1936 Nash was on the organising committee for the “International Surrealist Exhibition” in London: “I did not find surrealism, surrealism found me,” he wrote. The show introduced the work of Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Joan Miró and others to a startled British public. Some 23,000 visitors came to the exhibition: the luckiest ones saw Salvador Dalí delivering a lecture while dressed in a deep-sea diver’s suit and holding two wolfhounds on leads. The poet David Gascoyne had to rescue him, with a pair of pliers, when he began to suffocate.

Three years before the surrealism exhibition, Nash had co-founded the short-lived Unit One group with Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Edward Wadsworth, Edward Burra and the critic Herbert Read. Their aim was to promote modern art in general: “to stand for the expression of a truly contemporary spirit, for that thing which is recognised as peculiarly of to-day in painting, sculpture and architecture”. It was a brief that encompassed both abstraction
and surrealism. Nash believed unequivocally that modern art was in a precarious position and needed championing.

His Unit One works are among his least appealing, partly because of their rather dry formal aspect and their pallid palette. The Tate displays half a dozen of these pictures among a cluster of works by fellow group members: together, they appear as they were intended to, an uncompromising gathering that amounts to a manifesto of radical art. They make no effort to appeal to the viewer: little wonder the group held just one exhibition. Despite belonging in this forward-looking milieu, however, Nash refused to become a theoretical painter, confessing himself “far too interested in the character of landscape ever to abandon painting after Nature”. Whatever form future art might take, he believed, “it will be a subjective art” – and landscape, which underpinned all his art, offered him the subjectivity nothing else could. The countryside was animated by the presence of the genius loci, and his pictures are attempts to identify and capture that spirit of place – if not necessarily to understand it.

What he felt at Iron Age sites such as Wittenham Clumps, Maiden Castle or the White Horse of Uffington were the emanations of “old gods long forgotten”. A painting such as Landscape from a Dream (1936-38) invokes those old gods: a still life of chalk cliffs, a red sun, a mirror, floating spheres
and a hawk (Margaret Nash placed a statue of Horus, the Egyptian hawk god and guardian of the soul on its journey to the afterlife, on her husband’s grave). The objects are endlessly interpretable symbols of spirits, and the borders between real and unreal realms; together they offered, he said, the “suggestion of a super-reality”.

In the 1930s Nash produced a great many paintings showing random objects such as stones, chair legs and megaliths in half-imagined landscape settings. Such items, he believed, were elements of an equation that would be solved only when he put them together and revealed their true selves:


Sometimes one may find a pair [of stones] almost side by side. Inseparable complements, in true relation. Yet, lying there in the grass never finding each other until I found them that afternoon on the Sussex Downs . . . That problem was not then solved, but so soon as my stones came into my hands their equation was solved and they were united forever.


While his assemblages had much to do with the influence of his artist lover, Eileen Agar, Nash found that by putting objects together, “Nature became endowed for me with new life . . . The landscape, too, seemed now possessed of a different animation.” These pictures, showing a keen awareness of de Chirico’s work, also allowed him to combine the formal painterly elements of abstraction, surrealism and landscape.

Certain motifs – a twisted tree trunk pulled from the River Rother (“like a very fine Henry Moore”) which he exhibited on a plinth at the 1936 surrealism exhibition, or a felled tree, an architectural fragment that he likened to a “monster” – were for him living “personages” that stimulated the imagination and set in motion “a process of what I can only describe as inward dilation of the eyes” through which “I could increase my actual vision”.

Nowhere is the effect of this inward ­dilation more obvious than in the series he painted in 1943 and 1944, showing what Nash called “a landscape of the imagination” but which was, in fact, the view of the Wittenham Clumps from the house of his friend Hilda Harrisson on Boars Hill, near Oxford. The tree-topped hills are shown under an equinox moon that perfectly recalls Samuel Palmer.

Here, in the middle of the war, during the “Little Blitz”, with Nash’s chest infection becoming increasingly debilitating, the countryside is at a tipping point, too – day and night are of equal length. The trees are coming into leaf so these are March landscapes, and winter therefore is receding; these pictures symbolise hope. The war might still go either way, into the dark or the light, but these ancient hills have seen invaders come and go and battles fought, yet the rhythms of nature reassert themselves regardless of man. No invader, however malign, can subvert the seasons.

The pictures segue from chilly moonlit blues to rich ochres, russets and greens under a red sun – a transition from cold to warmth. The careful experiments of his Unit One pictures and the precise compositions of found objects are gone. These landscapes are composed of loose and unblended patches of paint, the clustered trees look like mushrooms, and the result is something both profound and euphoric. Nash did not explain the pictures, other than to note that: “There are places, just as there are people and objects . . . whose relationship of parts creates a mystery.” The Queen Mother bought Landscape of the Vernal Equinox when the paint can barely have dried. She recalled returning to it again and again, unsure of quite why it drew her. Her daughters were rather less perceptive critics. “Poor Mummy’s gone mad,” they said. “Just look what she’s brought back.”

Nash lived out his last months in a state of “reclusive melancholy”; increasingly enfeebled, he would joke, “Knees up Mother Brown, feet up Mr Nash.” His heart eventually gave up. Nash’s subsequent reputation has been built on his emotive pastorals, with the feeling that his formal experiments were somehow half-hearted or an aberration. What the Tate’s superb survey proves is that they represent the true Nash every bit as much as his pure landscapes do, and that an artist did not need to be a neo-Romantic to believe in his creed that “to find, you must be able to perceive”. The exhibition proves, too, that the Queen Mother wasn’t mad.

“Paul Nash” is at Tate Britain, London SW1, until 5 March 2017. tate.org.uk/britain

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage