Thursday, February 16, 2012

Angela Carter, Transpontine author

Angela Carter (1944-1992) died twenty years ago today, one of the great Transpontine writers. She spent her childhood in Balham, had an early job on the Croydon Advertiser, and lived her last years in Clapham.

The South London question is a recurring theme in her writings, none more so than in her 1991 novel Wise Children set in a fictional Bards Road in Brixton (presumably based on Shakespeare Road). The opening paragraphs go straight to the heart of the matter:

'Q. Why is London like Budapest?
A. Because it is two cities divided by a river.

Good morning! Let me introduce myself. My name is Dora Chance. Welcome to the wrong side of the tracks. Put it another way. If you’re from the States, think of Manhattan. Then think of Brookly. See what I mean? Or, for a Parisian, it might be a question of rive gauche, rive droite. With London, it’s the North and South divide. Me and Nora, that’s my sister, we’ve always lived on the left-hand side, the side the tourist rarely sees, the bastard side of Old Father Thames.

Once upon a time, you could make a crude distinction, thus: the rich lived amidst pleasant verdure in the North speedily whisked to exclusive shopping by abundant public transport while the poor eked out miserable existences in the South in circumstances of urban deprivation condemned to wait for hours at windswept bus-stops while sounds of marital violence, breaking glass and drunken song echoed around and it was cold and dark and smelled of fish and chips. But you can’t trust things to stay the same. There’s been a diaspora of the affluent, they jumped into their diesel Saabs and dispersed throughout the city’.

And of course she knew how to use the word Transpontine! In a review of Iain Sinclair's Downriver (London Review of Books, 1991) she compared Sinclair's East London to her more familiar territory:

'But I never went to Whitechapel until I was thirty, when I needed to go to the Freedom Bookshop (it was closed). The moment I came up out of the tube at Aldgate East, everything was different from what I was accustomed to. Sharp, hard-nosed, far more urban. I felt quite thecountry bumpkin, slow-moving, slow-witted, come in from the pastoral world of Clapham Common, Brockwell Park, Tooting Bec. People spoke differently, an accent with clatter and spikes to it. They focused their sharp, bright eyes directly on you: none of that colonialised, transpontine, slithering regard. The streets were different - wide, handsome boulevards, juxtaposed against bleak, mean, treacherous lanes and alleys. Cobblestones. It was an older London, by far, than mine. I smelled danger. I bristled like one of Iain Sinclair's inimitable dogs. Born in Wandsworth, raised in Lambeth - Lambeth, “the Bride, the Lamb's Wife”, according toWilliam Blake - nevertheless, I was scared shitless the first time I went to the East End'.

In a 1977 essay published in New Society, D'you mean South?, Carter reflected at length on growing up in South London (you can read the whole thing in Expletives Deleted: Selected Writings, published in 1993), including the girls' fashion styles:

'The girls, I remember, always had wild aspirations to style. Around their fifteenth summer, they spread out all their petals -- like flowers with only one season in which to cram all their blossoming. I recall a giggling flock of girls, some white, some black, at the tube station entrance in 1959. They must have assembled there in order to go "up west" (i.e., to the West End). They were as weird and wonderful as humanoid flora from outer space, their hair backcombed into towering beehives, skirts so tight you could see the clefts between their buttocks, and shoes with pointed tips that stuck out so far in front they had to stand sideways onthe escalators. There was a shoemaker in Brixton who custom-built these shoes to the girls' requirements.

It was a style they had invented all by themselves. They were shackled by those skirts,crippled by those shoes, as if the clothes they had selected symbolised the cramped expectations of their lives in the cruel confinements of sex and class. Their dandyism triumphed over the limitations of their circumstances, and made them objects of bizarre and self-created beauty, a triumph of mind over matter. My mother would never have let me go out looking like that. Hadn't I gone to a direct grant school?

After an absence, I now live in south London again. And the girls, I see, still do have a style all of their own. Last autumn, it was ankle-length, knife-edged pleated tartan skirts, with ankle socks and plastic sandals. This summer it seems to be a decorous punk - tapered jeans,rouge, and a lot of chains everywhere - as if to indicate that, however much things might seem to have changed, everything remains fundamentally the same'.

She also reflected in the same essay on the gentrification of Clapham, presumably in its early stages in 1977:

'When the bourgeoisie got priced out of, first, Hampstead and Highgate - how long ago it seems! - and then from Camden Town and Islington, and the alternatives got priced (who'd have thought it?) out of Ladbroke Grove, there was nowhere else for all, repeat all, the poor sods to go, was there? That's typical south London usage. Every statement is converted to a rhetorical question'.


JonathanM said...

And of course, The Magic Toyshop is set in Crystal Palace.

Wolfgang Moneypenny said...

Wonderful stuff. Someone once told me that their window got bricked the exact moment they found out Angela died. Spooky. Eat that, Sinclair, you muppet.

A problem with these damn dead commentators is you wonder what they would make of things nowadays. With this London Plan era of essentially state-sponsored mass produced gentrification this splendid documentation is humiliated into near-antiquarianism.

That brick over there is looking tempting.

Brian said...

Tomorrow night at 10 on radio 3 (and presumably on iplayer after that) The Word: "New writing and poetry from Radio 3's cabaret of the word, presented by Ian McMillan... This week Marina Warner and Christopher Frayling mark the twentieth anniversary of Angela Carter's death with a celebration of her writing."

Wolfgang Moneypenny said...

Just a thought, but ain't the South Bank the right hand side of the river, or has my Streatham Sea Scouts experience failed me?

K. A. Laity said...

Love her.