A Postcard from Angela Carter, By Susannah Clapp

 

Angela Carter liked to make an entrance. Susannah Clapp, now a drama critic, first saw her when she herself was working in a makeshift office in 1979-80, helping to launch the London Review of Books. She hoped to coax Carter into contributing. Carter strode in, wrapped in a big coat, her face free of make-up: "the first woman I knew," Clapp says, "who went grey without looking like a granny."

Carter had decided to re-create herself, visually, as a droll, epigrammatic witch. Till then, she had looked like a heroine from a Godard movie. As Clapp notes, in this charming personal memoir published to mark the 20th anniversary of Carter's all-too-early death, at 51, Angela was enamoured of film. The passion was nurtured by cinema visits with her journalist father.

No one who met her forgot her. When I first saw Angela, in the late 1960s, her look recalled Jean Seberg in A Bout de Souffle or Louise Brookes in Lulu. More striking, that day, were some missing front teeth. It's said that a lover threw a typewriter at her. But nothing cramped her style. She told Clapp that if she'd had a daughter, she would have called her Lulu.

I was working then on the weekly magazine, New Society. For years, we gave Carter what Blake Morrison called "the platform she needed". In 1967 she wrote for us her classic "Notes Towards a Definition of Sixties Culture". We ran it with an ultra-hippie cover, by Michael English. Clapp quotes from the essay's extraordinary opening (though without attribution): "Velvet is back, skin anti-skin, mimic nakedness. Like leather and suede, only more subtly, velvet simulates the skin it conceals".

Carter was, among other things, a dandy. One of her heroes was the ultra-camp novelist, Ronald Firbank, about whom she wrote a radio play. During the 1970s, she had an undeservedly thin time. Her jewel-like early novels were under-appreciated - though, being no enemy of men, she was pleased they got her invited as guest of honour at SF conventions, almost entirely male. She was probably, in those years, known to more people through her eye-popping essays and reviews in New Society's pages - about 120 pieces over 20 years - than through her novels. We gave her no bounds to what she wanted to write.

Clapp became close to Carter - who wrote a dozen or so reviews for the LRB - and is her literary executor. She builds this very short but very evocative book around postcards Carter sent her. The book reprints them; its own format is not much taller or wider than a postcard. It is a delight, which might have been put together by Firbank, who always jotted ideas for his novels on small blue cards, usually on the train.

Angela Carter never let the chance for a good joke slide by. Clapp reports that, when she was dying from cancer, she talked to a friend on the phone - she was a great telephoner - but said she must break off for a moment; there was a man at the door. Pause. "'It's all right,' she said. 'I'll let him in. He hasn't got a scythe.'".

This heartfelt tribute to a cherished friendship will, I'm sure, cause many readers to turn again to Carter's fictions. I hope it will also persuade her publishers, Virago, to bring back into print her ferocious collection of essays, Nothing Sacred: a coruscating example of Angela firing from the hip. Dandies take no prisoners.

Paul Barker was editor of 'New Society'. His latest book, 'Hebden Bridge: a sense of belonging', is published in May.

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