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Book Of A Lifetime: Shaking a Leg, By Angela Carter


It is her fairy stories that are credited with changing people's lives. It is her novels for which her prose gets most praise. Angela Carter refashioned the docility of fairy-tale heroines - Sleeping Beauty, she observed, did not have much "get up and go" ­ and invented creatures who were wild and wilful. She gave fictional prose a good going-over with her rich swerves between fantasy and realism. Yet it is her journalism, collected in the 1997 volume 'Shaking a Leg', to which I find myself returning again and again, struck freshly by its forthrightness, its imagination, its unpredictability - and by the sheer range of subjects on which she was fluent.

She wrote with dashing erudition and explosive force on psychoanalysis, on Christina Stead and on the importance of the potato. She told us that DH Lawrence was "a stocking man, not a leg man", that her grandmother had something of St Pancras station about her, and that 'Cagney and Lacey' was "propaganda, not for the police but for women as free, equal citizens". She made you feel she was always speaking her own truth.

Some of my enthusiasm has its roots in personal history. When I was helping to set up the 'London Review of Books' in the autumn of 1979, I was keen that Angela, who had been a mainstay of Paul Barker's 'New Society', should write for the paper. She arrived in the musty little office next to the packing department of Dillons bookshop: huddled in a big overcoat, her white hair flying, her manner both hesitant and imperious. You appreciate the people who are willing to write for a new enterprise, when the pay is not terrific and the readership uncertain. Angela dived in straight away.

She celebrated the "capricious libido" and the "magnificently ungrateful" attitude of Louise Brooks. She launched some high-velocity broadsides at a book about mothers and madness, for "constructing an edifice of radiant surmise around that extraordinary clash of culture and nature, childbirth". She was unusual in exulting as often as she excoriated, and in being as personal and immediate as she was knowledgeable. As an 18-year-old reporter on the 'Croydon Advertiser', she had worked out the value of the personal pronoun, scorned by writers wanting to sound authoritative: if you used it often enough the subs couldn't be bothered to take it out, and you were likely to end up with your own byline.

Looking at these pieces now, I hear the long telephone conversations that were needed to winkle the copy out of her: "the only time I ever iron the sheets or make meringues is when there is an absolutely urgent deadline in the offing". I see the pre-computer typescripts, with their mildly eccentric spelling, and words in which a typewriter key jammed or jumped. Yet these memories hardly make for a mist of nostalgia. Her prose is too ferocious and too exact. Behind the pieces, you hear the cackle and wheeze of her laugh.

Susannah Clapp's 'A Card from Angela Carter' is published by Bloomsbury