POLEMICS WITH A GIGGLE
The posthumous literary career of Angela Carter continues with a collection of her journalism.
Sunday 06 July 1997
Now we have it, in the shape of Shaking a Leg, a 600-page selection of her journalism which - despite some typesetting gremlins and proofreading goblins - explains what makes her a great and indispensable talent.
She came to journalism reluctantly. Her father was a Fleet Street man, a Scot working nights on the news desk, and though she adored him, and tried a brief stint on a local paper at 18, she didn't want to follow in the trade. But then, in her thirties, Paul Barker, to his eternal credit, gave her the platform she needed at New Society. The need wasn't for money so much as the chance to test ideas. It didn't matter whether the assignment was a book review, a travel piece, a memoir or an academic essay. Whatever Angela Carter wrote, she poured herself into, body and soul.
Body, especially. "Notes from a Maternity Ward" must be one of the least pious pieces ever written about childbirth, wonderfully dismissive of ideas such as early bonding or of labour as an experience akin to meditation ("colour film would have made souvenir snaps of the finale of my own accouchement look like stills from a Hammer horror film"). Sex, too, was an abiding - indeed the abiding - concern. She measured other writers by how they wrote about it: any hint of prudery or prurience, of fainthearted euphemism or old-style male exploitation, and she'd be on to it. D H Lawrence, though "the greatest English novelist of the century", she sees as a queasy stocking-fetishist. It isn't only men she goes for: affecting to pay tribute to the accomplishments of the porn star Linda Lovelace ("Not every girl can insert a foot inside her vagina"), she denounces her as kitschily safe and antiseptic. For Carter, there could be no greater sin of the flesh.
With this intense physical alertness went a tough mind. A "second-generation grammar school kid", she was brainy without being cerebral. Rationalism she saw as an expression of self-confident masculinity, and she wasn't one for sweetly reasoned argument. Rather than slow construction work with blocks of logic, she preferred the task of demolition, "the demythologising business". This isn't to say she was destructive, but she found much of post-war Britain stuffy and hypocritical, a house darkened by brittle lies, and she wanted to let a little light in. If that meant chucking stones, well and good. She had other projectiles, too - nuggets of truth, pearls of wisdom, even (sometimes) grapes of wrath.
Politicians, especially, made her angry: their lies, their self-importance, their tolerance of nuclear weapons. But rancour wasn't her style. When she put people on trial, for their social attitudes or their art, she didn't solemnly denounce, but laughed them out of court. One essay here is called "Alison's Giggle", a tribute to the heroine of Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale" for the innocent glee with which she pleases herself and gets the better of her husband, suitor and lover, "which is more than a girl like her will be able to do again, in fiction, for almost more than half a millennium". Carter's own giggles aren't so much girly as gently mocking. Her power as a feminist writer is that she's funny and derisive, not earnest at all.
One of her most charming tics is a genteel, heaven-help-us exasperation - expressions like "dammit", for instance, or "rum, that" or "oh dear no" tacked onto the end of a sentence, which are funny because of the stronger words you know must have occurred to her (she was "notoriously foul-mouthed"). Yet charm is something she feels uncomfortable with, a family curse, the bit of herself that cloyingly seeks approval, especially from men. Carter, however, can't help but exude charm. It's there in her voice, like the sound of money in Daisy Buchanan's in The Great Gatsby. As a teenager she had wanted to be an actress, to captivate and perform. The instinct remained, no matter how she tried to drive it out with something steelier.
If this is one of the great tensions in Carter, the other is the war between northern pragmatism and airy southern caprice. Born in Eastbourne - according to "the family talent for magical realism", her mother's pregnancy was confirmed the day WW2 broke out - she spent her first five years in south Yorkshire, where she was brought up mainly by her granny, a "squat, fierce and black-clad [woman] like the granny in the Giles cartoons in the Sunday Express". It was a social-realist infancy, among miners with hacking coughs. At the end of the war, when the bombs had stopped, Angela and her mother rejoined her dandyish father in south London, and assumed a bohemian lifestyle without rules, punishments or bedtimes. But by then the damage was done. The withering voice of her grandmother resounded in the growing novelist's ear ("Tha bloody fool"), alerting her to all displays of pseudery and affectation, not least her own.
That no-nonsense primal world had also been a matriarchy, however, and gave her "a sense of my sex's ascendancy in the scheme of things". This proved inconvenient at home (where her mother set a frailer example) and also when Angela "was looking for boyfriends in the south in the late Fifties". Her adolescent rebelliousness was hampered by having no one to rebel with, her eagerness for sexual experience by a lack of men predatory enough to find her attractive rather than merely threatening. At 18, she became anorexic, and went down from 15 stone to six. Recovering, she married the first man who'd sleep (and go to Godard movies) with her, a man her father thought a "nitwit". The marriage didn't last. The feminism did.
Through involvement in the women's movement, and through reading, Carter became aware of herself as "a new kind of being", luckier than her forebears in being sexually and economically independent. Part of declaring independence was to travel: she lived in Japan for two years, and observed the "prim lack of inhibition" there. Other pieces here record her thoughts on Turkey, Oslo, Arizona, New England, Venice. But even British landscapes can look exotic to her: who else but Carter could see a Bradford sky as having "the colour and texture of ripe apricots"?
Like Bruce Chatwin, she felt torn between being a nomad, free as a bird, and a homebody, surrounded by pleasing objects. Lifestyle fascinated her - the Habitat catalogue, the gentrification of south London. But she never made the mistake of seeing it as a replacement for real life. It was the same with eating. As her granny might have put it, Carter liked her food. But she didn't like food fashion or fetishism. There's a brilliant attack here on the New Vegetarianism, which she hates for its holier- than-thou sentimentalising of "grain" and "seed". There's the same note of plain Barnsley common sense as she slices into the vogue for home-baked bread, or reassesses Elizabeth David.
With food, so, I think, with men. Carter has plenty to say about us behaving (or writing, or thinking) badly. We're sexually predictable, we dominate conversation, we're weak and hypocritical ("It is a favourite saying among women of my type that if men could have babies, then abortion would be as readily available as light ale"). But only a misogynist could imagine that Carter had it in for men. Her tone is teasing and affectionate, half in love with the Devil's party, and not only in "Sugar Daddy", her memoir of her father.
Few novelists have written better about clothes than she does. This isn't because of the influence of Roland Barthes's semiotics, but because she has been there, worn that, knows her material, can explain why women (including herself) adopt a certain look at a certain time. When she writes about the "bee-sting underlip" in the archetypal Sixties face, or notes how women sometimes choose to be crippled in high heels or shackled by tight skirts, her subject is the Zeitgeist, not the catwalk. She admired vulgarity - which was life getting past the Taste Police. Porn, pubs, fun fairs, wrestling, horror comics, True Romance, Judith Krantz, the Star and Sport, the box ("the essential oddness of television as a medium, the sense of uninvolved participation"): she devoured them with the same voracity as she did surrealism, Frida Kahlo or Peter Greenaway.
The many literary essays here suggest she felt in good company with her alphabetical near-neighbours on the shelves: on one side Borges, Burgess, Burroughs, Calvino and Peter Carey (whose Oscar and Lucinda fills her "with wild, savage envy, and no novelist could say fairer than that"), on the other, Chatwin, Coetzee and Colette. She praises Iain Sinclair and Michael Moorcock for their mythologising of London. She honours J G Ballard for showing that the more imaginative and fantastical fiction is, the better it teaches us the truth about ourselves. If she'd been alive to see it, she'd certainly have stuck up for Cronenberg's Crash, and would have pointed out that even in an allegedly "permissive" society somebody is always appointed to do the permitting.
She once described herself as a "female blackbeetle" - an insect and iconoclast scuttling among the lovely ruins left by Dead White European Males. The blackness was in her humour, too: "the only sane existential position to hold", she thought, was "that at the end of every rainbow, lies not a pot of gold but a crock of shit". Her cruelly early death suggests she was right about that, as about so much else. But at least for the rest of us there's the gold she left behind in this book, a treasury of her life and art and thought.
8 'Shaking A Leg: Collected Journalism and Writings' by Angela Carter, edited by Jenny Uglow, introduction by Joan Smith, Chatto pounds 25
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