I’ve seen someone recoil from Wendy Cope’s Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis as if it were Harry Potter’s The Monster Book of Monsters. The poem responsible was Tich Miller, a tragic exploration of being picked last for PE and wearing pebble-lensed glasses. Cope has an undeserved reputation as a writer of light verse and her recent collection, Family Values, is a case in point. Mortality’s cold hand haunts this collection and, for my money, Cope has more in common with Philip Larkin than Pam Ayres.
In At Stafford Services, the passing of time is gently signalled in the transition from the red plastic tomatoes that formerly dispensed ketchup to sachets. Even the Wimpy, a place ‘to smoke, / Drink coffee and feel sophisticated. It was all so modern, so American, so young,’ is now a visual shorthand for the decaying, faded high street of the backwater town. Ageing and generational alienation are not presented unsympathetically by Cope, however, as, fifty years later, the darkness outside turns the windows of Stafford Services’s Wimpy ‘into mirrors, / Lending the place an air of glamour. I like it here. / I could be in an Edward Hopper painting.’ Greydown, by contrast, is a bleak treatment of the family crockery: ‘There are three plates left […] / All the rest have disappeared, / Like the people who used them.’ Cope’s humour was always dark but, in this collection, sometimes the mask slips altogether and the stark contrast which results is arresting.
These poems, with their simple domestic images and theme of bereavement remind me of Tony Harrison’s finest sonnets from his From The School of Eloquence cycle. In O Come, All Ye Faithful, Cope uses the contrast between the past and the present to highlight the child’s inability to value the here and now. The irony is that this present can only be valued by an adult when it has become the past. When singing O Come, All Ye Faithful, Cope’s father asserted that, as Heaven was not a city, it should not be ‘Sing all ye citizens / Of Heaven above’, it should be denizens. As a child ‘It wasn’t too embarrassing’ but ‘In recent years / I have paid tribute to his memory / By singing, rather quietly, / ‘Denizens of Heaven above’. Cope’s painful reappraisal of the ridiculous, of memory, of desire, is as funny and accessible as ever. However, much of Family Values has the force of a sledgehammer swung at the stomach.