POLEMICS WITH A GIGGLE

The posthumous literary career of Angela Carter continues with a collection of her journalism.

From time to time, you'll hear someone asking how come more postgraduate theses are being written about Angela Carter than about any other writer from Britain or perhaps the world. What's her secret? Is she really that good? There are the nine novels, including Wise Children, the last she published before her death from cancer, at 51, in 1992. There are several collections of stories, reimaginings of folklore and fairytale. There is her brilliantly perverse polemic, The Sadeian Woman, which makes out a feminist case for the Marquis de Sade. There are the radio plays, film scripts and other dramatic pieces collected last year in The Curious Room (now available in paperback, Chatto pounds 9.99). But for all that, something has been missing.

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers