Wendy's House

Sarah Peters talks to Internationally renowned poet Wendy Cope about her writing, music and living in the heart of our county town

Wendy Cope is one of our most appealing and accessible poets. She has managed to combine an honesty about various serious situations in life – love, sadness, relationships – with a gentle, ironic wit which makes even the hardest hearts smile.  Her notable successes Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (1986), Serious Concerns (1992) and If I Don’t Know (2001), which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Poetry Award, have appealed to those not normally found browsing the poetry section of the bookshop. This has made her into something of a rare phenomenon: a best-selling poet.Her anthologies include: The Orchard Book of Funny Poems (1993), The Faber Book of Bedtime Stories (1999) and Heaven on Earth: 101 Happy Poems (2001). She is also author of Twiddling Your Thumbs (1988) and The River Girl (1991) two books for children. She is a poet with a great sense of humour and people genuinely enjoy her work. 

Close to homeWendy has one of the most desirable addresses in the county. She lives in the shadow of Winchester Cathedral’s spire in the famous Cathedral Close. She is, however, quick to explain that it is thanks to her partner of 15 years, Lachlan Mackinnon, that she enjoys such a beautiful home: “Lachlan is a Don at Winchester College and with that job comes a pretty house in the Close. We are so lucky. It’s the nicest house I have ever had; it will arguably be the nicest one I will ever have. The best thing is I don’t even have to do the job,” she laughs. “Each time I stroll down the Close, through the Cathedral grounds and into town I am grateful.”

Escape to the countryWendy read history at St Hilda's College, Oxford. Her working life began as a teacher in primary schools in London and she became a freelance writer in 1986. Most notably she was television critic for The Spectator magazine until 1990.  Moving away from London transformed the quality of her life. She doesn’t miss it at all, “We get invited to lots of literary parties in London and much of my work is still based there. But, I can honestly say that I am really glad I don’t live there.“I like being able to stroll out in the evening and go to a concert, the cinema or a service without worrying about getting home late at night. My social life is all within walking distance. I am not keen to go out in the evenings, but if it’s walkable I don’t mind so much.” Apart from being near to the centre of the city, the location is ideal for Wendy because she is particularly fond of the water meadows. 

The high notes“Winchester is a small city so it’s easy to get around. Having country walks so near is what makes it so special. When I go shopping, I often just sit down on a bench in the Close and watch the world go by for a few minutes. It’s lovely. I must say that the parties of French school children marching round the place don’t make it any more special, but I hear that Canterbury is even more touristy, so it could be worse.”  Living so near the Cathedral means that Wendy has plenty of access to beautiful music. “A service at Winchester Cathedral is astounding. The first time I was completely overwhelmed by it. I don’t know that I’d ever been to a service in a cathedral before and I was stunned by how beautiful it was. It was a combination of the music, the building, the sounds, the voices and the words.” Music has always been an important part of her life. She loves classical music in particular. Last year she had the pleasure to work with the famous Endillion String Quartet on a series of concerts featuring their music and her own poems. “They commissioned me to write some poems to celebrate their 30th anniversary. The poems are all on the theme of ‘The Audience’.  I certainly enjoyed putting the works together and performing with them was such an honour. They are terrific musicians. I have the deepest respect for their dedication and gift.”

InspirationShe is undoubtedly one of the most popular and talented poets of her generation. I hesitate to ask if she thinks there a still place for poetry, today?  “Yes, there is,” she affirms, but in a gentle voice. “Poetry can help us to get in touch with our feelings or come to terms with an uncomfortable reality. Poems can be funny, can help people and can celebrate the world.” Wendy began writing poems in her late 20s. She was a primary school teacher and was working with the children on creative writing. She had also just moved into a new flat on her own, so had no one to talk to of an evening. It was in these circumstances that she began crafting poems. How does an idea become a poem?“I usually start with a few words. I may be feeling particularly emotional about something or something may be on my mind. I'll then start looking for a way to express my feelings. Some drafts are left in the notebook never to be heard of again. Although, I tend not to bin drafts because you never know. I have returned to notes years later and a poem has come out of it.“I don’t set out to be funny, necessarily. But, I suppose my sense of humour creeps into the poems. A poem can be funny and deal with a serious issue at the same time. Often through the humour some real messages can be conveyed. Two feelings can exist in the same poem.”In 2009, Wendy was one of the front-runners to replace Andrew Motion as Poet Laureate but she responded by suggesting the post be abolished. “There may be a role for a Poetry Advocate, but I believe that the best way for a poet to serve the art is to remain free to get on with writing the poems that he or she wants to write.“Non-laureates are free to write about events of national significance, but they do not have to compose to order and adhere to certain guidelines... something no poet is able to do well.”Her anthology Two Cures for Love is due out later this year in paperback. Whether there are new poems on the way? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Read the poemsTwo Cures for Love: Selected Poems, 1979-2006 will be published in paperback on  April 1. Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis is published in hardback (first published in 2001) in May.

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