Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis

Inspiration comes from all sorts of sources. There was I, watching the final of University Challenge last night, when poet Wendy Cope walked out to hand over the trophy.

‘Ah,’ I thought. ‘I’m sure I’ve got one of her books on the shelf. It’s about time I read it.’

A few hours later, I rooted out the appropriately ‘slender volume’, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (her first published collection, from 1986), propped myself up in bed and started to read.

How absolutely delightful. Laugh-out-loud funny in places, Cope’s verse is clever and quirky.

She beautifully captures the intensity of relationships: the heightened emotions that could be love – or hate; the all-consuming lust and, for women particularly, the adaption to what the man wants. Into that mix, she adds a deliciously funny take on looking for ‘Mr Perfect’ (Rondeau RedoublĂ©) and female versions of dumping someone because it isn’t the ‘real thing’.

Some of the poems are penned by her fictional creation of struggling ‘male’ poet Jake Strugnell from Tulse Hill, while elsewhere, Cope delightfully parodies other writers, including TS Elliot – Wasteland Limericks is particularly entertaining.

It’s an incredibly varied collection, shot through with pathos. Tich Miller strikes a tragic note that carries with it the anger of someone who remembers from childhood the cruelty of children.

Cope is a deceptive poet. She has the sort of skill with rhythm and rhyme that brings to mind John Betjeman, but unlike him, the England of her verse is not an anti-industrial, chocolate box confection, looking back through rose-tinted spectacles to an English Arcady that never really existed – or only for a privileged few.

Rather, there are hints of darkness here and of complexity and passion behind the joviality. It’s good stuff indeed – easy to read, but with a sharp and complex aftertaste.

And so I’ll provide an example. The following poem opens the collection (and amused me enough that I had to go and read it out loud to The Other Half then and there, and subsequently to my editor this morning). This is how it is presented in the book, with the explanation as an intro, before Cope’s riposte.

Engineers’ Corner

“Why isn’t there an Engineers’ Corner in Westminster Abbey? In Britain we’ve always made more fuss of a ballad than a blueprint ... How many schoolchildren dream of becoming great engineers?” Advertisement placed in The Times by the Engineering Council.

We make more fuss of ballads than of blueprints –
That's why so many poets ends up rich,
While engineers scrape by in cheerless garrets.
Who needs a bridge or dam? Who needs a ditch?

Whereas the person who can write a sonnet
Has got it made. It’s always been the way,
For everybody knows that we need poems
And everybody reads them every day.

Yes, life is hard if you choose engineering –
You’re sure to need another job as well;
You'll have to plan your projects in the evenings
Instead of going out. It must be hell.

While well-heeled poets ride around in Daimlers,
You'll burn the midnight oil to earn a crust,
With no hope of a statue in the Abbey,
With no hope, even, of a modest bust.

No wonder small boys dream of writing couplets
And spurn the bike, the lorry and the train.

There’s far too much encouragement for poets –
That’s why the country’s going down the drain.

Wendy Cope


  1. Oh my God that is great! I have just come across with her version of "Not marble, nor the gilded monuments" (s.55, Shakespeare). Well written and with a great portion of healthy humour. And the poem you've posted here is just great. I guess I need a book or two by Ms Cope)

    Thanks for the post!