Back in February, Hilaire recalls, I attended an event at the London Review Bookshop featuring Deborah Levy and Kirsty Gunn in conversation about the short story. Among the notes I made, there’s a very excited one, surrounded by asterisks: Angela Carter in her study in Clapham. Kirsty Gunn, I think it was, made a passing reference to a photo of Angela Carter in her study in Clapham, typewriter on the desk, and a wastepaper basket overflowing with screwed up drafts.
I knew, of course, who Angela Carter was, and many years ago I’d seen and loved the film The Company of Wolves, adapted by Carter and Neil Jordan from one of her short stories. But I hadn’t actually read any of her work. Suddenly, the realisation that she’d lived, and written many of her books, in my neck of the woods ignited my interest. A bit of online research revealed the street she’d lived on as The Chase, and I made a short pilgrimage to go and stand outside her house and wonder what she would have made of the changes to the local area in the twenty plus years since she died.
I borrowed a couple of books from the library, and quickly devoured The Bloody Chamber, which I was bowled over by. It felt like my eyes were on stalks as I read, drinking in Carter’s sumptuous prose and rococo imagination. On then to The Magic Toyshop, an early novel, which is a dark and claustrophobic tale of a young girl’s coming of age. Much of it is set in south London, pre-decimalisation, and Carter conjured up, in my mind at least, scenes with the colour and texture of Edward Ardizzone drawings.
A couple of articles I came across mentioned that Carter had, early on in her career, written poetry, including a poem Unicorn published in 1966. Googling ‘Angela Carter Unicorn’ brought up a link to a rare book seller who has a copy of this small single poem pamphlet available for £1,350.00 – free shipping worldwide! I had a more sensible thought then and searched The Poetry Library‘s catalogue. Bingo! They have a copy of Unicorn and another 1966 pamphlet, Five Quiet Shouters: an anthology of assertive verse, with Carter one of the five featured poets. Understandably, both these items are held in the library’s rare books section and are not available to borrow. I emailed a request, and last Wednesday I visited The Poetry Library to view them.
I was allowed one item at a time, and had to sit where I could be seen by the librarians on the front desk. It was a real privilege to be able to handle and read both pamphlets, and Unicorn in particular was a delight. It was published by Tlaloc press in Leeds in an edition of 150 copies. Its seven printed pages are stapled between thin pale green card covers. And the contents are set out more like a micro drama then a traditional poem, the main characters being a unicorn and a young girl who is ‘all white and naked’ but also ‘raw and huge and her breasts are like carrier bags’. It is witty and knowing, grotesque and bawdy, in so very few words. Many of Carter’s tropes and themes are already there, distilled.
One of the surprises in Five Quiet Shouters, which includes five poems by Angela Carter, was to discover two of her poems concern a white cat: My Cat in her first Spring and Life Affirming Poem about Small Pregnant White Cat. Though, when I remember the gleeful tomcat narrator in her Puss-in-Boots story from The Bloody Chamber perhaps I shouldn’t have found this so surprising. Another two poems deal cuttingly with love and marriage, while the last Poem for Robinson Crusoe is more in the vein of Unicorn – Crusoe teaches ‘the lacquered flocks of parrots… to remind him of his identity (Robin Crusoe!)/and hoarsely to mock his self-pity (‘Poor Robin Crusoe!’)/and thus he alienated his self-pity after the manner of Brecht.’ On the evidence of these poems, Carter was fond of long lines and brackets, and already had access to some very rich and sensuous imagery.
All of this I hope, somehow, will feed into a new London Undercurrents poem. There’s still a lot more to read. I picked up a copy of Wise Children in a local charity shop this week, and also bought Susannah Clapp’s short memoir A Card from Angela Carter. And a trip to the old Granada cinema Tooting , now a bingo hall, is a must. Carter went to this cinema regularly with her father after the family settled in south London following the Second World War. Whether or not I manage to write a poem worthy of such a towering subject, I’m incredibly glad to have discovered that Angela Carter used to be a near neighbour.