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 The cartons are neatly labelled: "Poems about me", "Nuisances", "Unpublished writing" and my favourite, "Things I said no to".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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Track changes: a history of the railways

Simon Bradley's new book takes us from the train carriage to station signposts, walking the line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence.

In his classic travel book The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux wrote that “the trains in any country contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture”. Of nowhere is this truer than the first railway nation. So much of Britain is what Simon Bradley calls “railway-haunted territory” – its landscape either directly transformed by the bridges, tunnels, cuttings and marshalling yards or indirectly touched by the social revolution wrought by the train. The train compartment is a micro-society that has brought the classes together to gawp at and dissect each other. “I can watch a dirty middle-aged tradesman in a railway-carriage for hours,” wrote Rupert Brooke in 1910, “and love every dirty greasy sulky wrinkle in his weak chin and every button on his spotted unclean waistcoat.” From the romance of steam to the curled corners of the British Rail sandwich, the railways have stirred the national imagination. So a single-volume social history of the scale and ambition of Bradley’s feels overdue.

The book is arranged spatially rather than chronologically. It begins in the railway carriage, the “mobile enclosure in which millions of people enjoyed or endured billions of hours”, and then takes us along the permanent way and its hinterland, ending on the platforms and concourses of the great railway stations. The non-linearity makes for some slightly awkward transitions (“so now we must move out of the compartment for a time . . .”), but it does allow Bradley to show how, on the railways, the present is always colliding with the past. Victorian carriages, divided into single compartments, survived on electrified commuter lines into the 1960s; W H Auden’s Night Mail was still “crossing the border” into the 1980s; the slam-door carriages and wide-window vistas of the InterCity 125 add a 1970s retro-chic to the present fleet.

Bradley was a schoolboy trainspotter, and he retains something of the spotter’s meticulousness and completism (or perhaps he has acquired this as a joint editor of the Pevsner Architectural Guides). For arcane knowledge, alight here: we learn about the varieties of upholstered leather used to cover seats, the different types of lavatory (early prototypes exposed the user to a
hurricane-force draught from below), the many iterations of platform tickets and the minutiae of buffet-car menus. “A straw in the wind,” he writes drily of the slow decline of the Pullman trains, “was the abandonment of croutons with the soup course.”

While Bradley does not always succeed in separating the telling details from the mere details, his book is still generously stuffed with the former. He tells us how the steam that hisses so evocatively from the halted train in Edward Thomas’s poem “Adlestrop” was produced; how the diddly-dum, fourfold beat of a moving train comes from the way 20th-century track was welded together, unlike today’s continuously welded rails, which have done away with this lovely music for ever; and how the graffitied railway carriage of the 1970s owed less to a broken society than it did to the new technologies of aerosol paint and the marker pen.

Bradley’s book picks up full steam whenever he evokes the sensual experience of travelling by train in the days before it became like being on an airliner: “the sour smell of wet cigarette ash” on a rainy winter’s day, “the tobacco-tainted condensation on single-glazed carriage windows” and the “mysterious creaks, squeaks and groans” of the sleeper train, with its promise of magical translation, separated by unconsciousness, to another place.

It is harder to gauge Bradley’s politics: he does not have the crusading interest in political economy of that other great railway writer, Christian Wolmar. Skating over privatisation in a few pages, he passes up the chance to explore the railways as a case study in the tussle between free-market economics and subsidised, fixed-capital industry. Yet even as a boy he “sensed the integrity and purpose of the railway”, and he seems kindly disposed to the last days of British Rail and resistant to the mythology of national decline with which they became indelibly linked. He retains a particular affection for the high-speed trains of the ­pre-Thatcherite era, their aesthetic appeal and technical excellence forged out of an ideal marriage of state intervention and commercial nous.

Like most of us, Bradley is not enamoured of the Virgin Pendolino, with its parsimonious window-to-wall ratio and its failure to accommodate the inexorable rise of the rigid-wheeled suitcase. And he wryly notes the monetising of the everyday which leaves even the space on station signs up for sale. Clapham Junction is now “Home of James Pendleton Estate Agents, a passion for excellence” and Cambridge “Home of Anglia Ruskin University” – although I’ve always assumed that this is not “unintentionally comic”, as he says, but a rather clever joke.

But Bradley is too even-tempered to give way to bloviating about the good old days. He walks a nice line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence. He is sanguine, for instance, about the conversion of stations from messy and multifunctional social spaces, with clattering trolleys, porters and waiting rooms, into a generic retail opportunity. As he points out, the railways were always a commercial proposition and never set out to be romantic or atmospheric – and besides, “cappuccino and croissants smell better than diesel fumes”.

The Railways: Nation, Network and People by Simon Bradley is published by Profile Books (645pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war