Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Angela Carter in the South West

It’s great to see so many events celebrating the legacy of Angela Carter, twenty years after her untimely death on 16th February 1992, and many of them are taking place in the South West. She lived in the region in her younger days, moving to Bristol in the sixties with her first husband and studying English at the University. She left him and the country to live in Japan, using the money attached to the Somerset Maugham prize she was awarded for her novel Several Perceptions, an experience which had a strong effect on her subsequent writing. When she returned to England, she spent the turbulent years of the mid-70s (1973-76) living in Bath, before moving to Sheffield on an Arts Council Fellowship and then coming back down to settle in South London, her true spiritual home where she had grown up as a girl. She writes about Bath in an essay included in the collection Nothing Sacred, and originally published in New Society in 1976 (so perhaps its her farewell to the city). She celebrates it as a glorious sham, a place of ‘theatrical splendour’, with ‘the ethereal two-dimensionality of a town of dream’. Its lack of any appreciable purpose, with no industrial base or significant trade, is seen as a virtue, a quality which attracts the eccentric, the vagrant and the mad. She writes that ‘the uselessness of the city contributes both to its charm and its poignancy, which is part of its charm’. The unreal aspect of the city gives it a fantastical air, with William Beckford’s fanciful tower up on the horizon acting as a beacon for the unashamedly exhibitionist display of extravagant artifice (‘only rich madmen like Beckford went in for conspicuous consumption and vulgar display’, Carter writes). She describes it as being ‘a city so English that it feels like being abroad’. Returning from Japan, with its unique and insular island culture, she found that her own country was capable of offering an experience of estrangement within the familiar. She talks of Bath as embodying an artistic sensibility of peculiar Englishness, a melancholic, crumbling, autumnal sensibility which rejoices in genteel decay and contained wildness, the semi-pastoral of the untamed garden. She finds it in the neo-romanticism of the inter and immediately post-war years, the movement which was subsequently subsumed and, for most art historians, supplanted by the dominance of modernism from the 50s through to the 70s. It is ‘in the pictures of John Piper and Michael Ayrton and the Nashes. Mervyn Peake showed its demonic aspect’. None of these were exactly fashionable names to bandy about at the time, and indicate the extent to which Carter danced to her own tune, not oblivious to but simply uninterested in following the dominant artistic trends. Her work might well have found a sympathetic home in Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine in the late 60s and early 70s. She did publish a couple of stories in the early 80s in its spiritual successor (in its earlier issues, at least), the science fiction magazine Interzone: Overture and Incidental Music to a Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe. Bath was clearly a city which suited her well, and left its mark on the style and substance of her fiction, its rich, self-delighting language, wildly imaginative theatricality, and its unearthing of the fantastic within the familiar (and vice-versa).

Both Bath and Bristol have already hosted major events. The Bath Literature Festival in March had a series of events, thematically divided to discuss her life, short stories and films. The ‘life’ discussion involved Susannah Clapp, who has just published the very personal collection of postcards she received at regular intervals from Carter (A Card from Angela Carter); Carmen Callil, the founder of the Virago Press which published so many of Carter’s novels and collections (including the first publication of her marvellous essays in book form, in Nothing Sacred and Expletives Deleted); her literary agent Deborah Rogers; and Dr Sarah Gamble, the author of Angela Carter, A Literary Life (we’re still awaiting the first full Carter biography, which is currently being written by Edmund Gordon and promised for 2015). The short stories were discussed by the writers Helen Simpson and Michele Roberts, and the novels by Ali Smith and the University lecturer Gill Frith who teaches Carter’s work on her courses (Carter is, for better or worse, a particular mainstay of University study). There was also a screening of the 1992 Omnibus film Angela Carter’s Curious Room, made just before her death and introduced by its director Kim Evans. If you happen to live in London or one of the other locales where it is available, you can see this in the bfi’s Mediatheque collection. Bristol, the city in which Carter first started to seriously write and publish fiction, marked its formative position in her development with a number of events contained within the sprawling Festival of Ideas earlier in May. There was an afternoon of screenings of her work on TV, which included the rarely seen 1987 adaptation of The Magic Toyshop (to be honest, not a particularly distinguished one), the Omnibus film, and her controversial 1991 programme for the Without Walls season, The Holy Family Album, in which she took a look at representations of Christ in art over the centuries in an irreverent way which was almost bound (and was perhaps designed) to stir up the more humourless and easily offended sections of the Church. A Screening of The Company of Wolves was introduced by Stephen Woolley, who produced it for his Palace Pictures company (and you can read what I wrote about this marvellous film, a long-time favourite of mine, on a previous occasion). Bath resident Sir Christopher Frayling gave a lecture on Carter, particularly focussing on her work in the 70s, and drawing on his own acquaintance with her during her time in the city, and was afterwards joined for a discussion by Bidisha, Susannah Clapp (as Carter’s literary editor, something of a spokesperson for her this year) and Charlotte Crofts, a senior lecturer in film studies at the University of the West of England who has written on The Company of Wolves and other aspects of Carter’s work, in particular those which touch on her Japanese experiences.

There’s more to come, however. Bidisha will once more be chairing a discussion on Carter in Bristol on Saturday 14th July at the Arnolfini Gallery. The focus this time will be her hugely influential collection of revisionist fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber, and she’ll be joined by Dr Marie Mulvey-Roberts from the University of the West of England and the writers Kirsty Logan and Cassandra Parkin. Back in Bath, as part of the Music Festival, there will be a concert of music, words and poetry going by the enticing title The Dark Magic of Angela Carter. The evening will be narrated by Marina Warner, another friend who has explored similar subjects to Carter in her novels, and in wide-ranging cultural studies such as From The Beast to the Blonde, No Go the Bogeyman and Managing Monsters (looking at fairy tales, ogres and demons, and particular examples of the monstrous and the exotically strange respectively). She memorably writes of her friend, in From The Beast to the Blonde, that she was ‘the most recent and most original of the goose-footed queens, of the riddling, scabrous dames, to put hard questions’. The evening has several intertwining strands, one of which will be readings from Nights at the Circus, The Company of Wolves and some short stories by Harriet Walter. There will also be the musical selections which Carter chose for a putative Desert Island Discs, which her final illness prevented her from recording. Kiku Day’s shakuhachi will reflect Carter’s Japanese travels, whilst Martynas Levickis’ eastern European accordion will evoke the spirit of the carnivalesque in her writing, its anarchic gypsy soul. It may also summon up the kind of swirling, vertiginous circus sounds which would have accompanied the trapeze flights of the winged aerialiste Fevvers in Nights at the Circus. The multi-instrumentalist Bishi, who swaps accordion for sitar, or whatever else is to hand, from song to song, will represent the hybridised energy of London which Carter thrived on. Her LP Nights at the Circus, inspired by Carter’s novel, shows how the colourful imaginative vigour and sense of fearless invention continue to appeal to a younger readership to this day. Finally, some of the poetry which Carter wrote in her early years, and which has recently been unearthed by her biographer Edmund Gordon, has been set in a song cycle by the pianist and organiser of the event (and indeed of the whole festival) Joanna MacGregor. It sounds like a varied and celebratory evening is in store for all. Down in Devon, Susannah Clapp is on hand once more to give a talk on her friend at the Ways With Words Literary Festival in Dartington, in the handsome old barn. This was where Cecil Collins once held an exhibition of his paintings, angels and fools in visionary landscapes, and beatific portraits of his wife Elisabeth holding grails and ankhs and perching atop the crowns of trees. A few years ago, we saw Sebastian Peake give a talk about his father Mervyn there (and Peake himself spent a brief period of time at Dartington). Both were fellow spirits of Carter’s, part of the lineage of a British (not English, because she claimed and was very proud of her Scottish ancestry on her father’s side) romanticism which went against the grain of the twentieth century. But their persistence in the face of any resultant neglect or misapprehension led to eventual recognition as singular and individual talents. I’ve booked my ticket already, along with one for the biographer Fiona MacCarthy’s talk on the vexed friendship between Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. Carter would no doubt have had something to say about Burne-Jones’ pallid, listless mythological figures, his languorous, hollowed-eyed knights and femmes fatales, and his drawn, melancholic angels. She preferred her heroines to have a bit more meat on their bones, more of a vivid sense of life and an active volition. Big girls with get up and go rather than swooning aesthetic waifs.

If you can’t get along to any of these, then there’s an interview with Carter available to listen to over at the BBC archives page. It dates from 1991, and is taken from a radio 3 programme called Third Ear, which looked at the arts with a definite capital A. The presenter, Paul Bailey, has the typical tones of the third channel, cool, erudite and with impeccable elocution. He immediately declares Wise Children, then just published, to be her ‘best novel’. You can almost sense his relief; thank God she’s writing about something I can grasp – lots of Shakespeare and no Grimm werewolves, winged Cockneys, transsexual goddesses, fabulist assassins, 60s dropout loons or post-apocalyptic barbarians. Early on, he asks her if ‘class still permeates literature’, and she responds with an incredulous ‘yes’, as if amazed that he even needed to ask the question. She declares at one point that her books are still permeated with the ‘naïve of leftism of youth – which I’ve retained into middle age’, stating it with a certain defiant pride. They discuss comedy, politics, the literature of cleaning ladies (not of cleaning ladies as characters, but of characters with cleaning ladies), Shakespeare as a popular writer and ‘man of theatre’, her love of popular and anonymous storytelling as well as the ‘proper’ stuff, fatness and thinness in literary characters and so on. Her voice sound a little worn by the cancer, but her mental energy and spirit are undimmed. There is still the odd West Country vowel which comes out in her ‘er’ and ‘or’ word endings, too. By the time the interview is drawing to a close, she’s worn down the presenter’s professional aloofness, and he’s laughing along and sharing his enthusiasm for Max Miller, and the whole thing has become more like a lively and informal conversation. Many of the participants in the events above add to their credentials the fact that they were Angela’s friend. I suspect she had many, and that the talk always flowed, wide-ranging, passionate, amused and amusing, sometimes contentious but never dull. From the sound of this interview, they were lucky to know her. She sounds like absolutely marvellous company. I’ve just embarked on a sequential reading of all her novels, beginning with Shadow Dance (aka Honeybuzzard), her first, published in 1966. I may report back as I progress.

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