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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Angela Carter , a street in Clapham, and a homesick Japanese novelist

It's almost 30 years since I moved to this street. It was January 1985 - a very cold January. My father had just died, I was recovering from the funeral and all that fallout, and at exactly the same time I realised I was living in the same street as one of my favourite writers.

Clapham was a dirt cheap place to lodge
 when Soseki came here in the 1900s.
Two of the many often bewildered
 Japanese literary pilgrims photograph
 his Blue Plaque.
I remember going to buy a Sunday paper. I got back to my new  front door and realised, with a strangely un-panicked realisation, that I had forgotten my keys. There was snow blowing all around, settling lightly now. I was simply thrilled to have a new flat in what seemed to me at the time, a rather lovely street, wide and lined with beautiful, gaunt trees. And I no longer had a father.

Luckily the house was in scaffolding. I scaled the three or four ladders, I climbed over the parapet onto the roof, and  slithered down a drainpipe onto my own roof terrace and in through the bathroom window (I am too fat to do that now).

I made some coffee and started reading this plump bundle of newsprint. In the colour supplement, Ian McEwan was writing about visiting Angela Carter. As I read it I realised he was describing my own street. How the  terraced houses crowded together as if for mutual protection as they approached the social border of Wandsworth Road. How hers was one of those last houses before the badlands of the Battersea marshes and their sprawling estates.

How her famous visitors sauntered down the road, looking at house numbers, wondering, where on earth does she live?

I encountered her a few times in the newsagents, but I was a fan, awestruck, struck dumb, mumbling nonsense. "Hi. Keep well, it's freezing out there ...", etc.  Never daring to say how much I loved her writing.

After that I was always watching. I was so proud to have such a wonderful near neighbour. I found out all I could about her, and soon realised she was (like me) an aboriginal south Londoner.  She had even worked as a junior reporter for the Croydon Advertiser (I tried to get work experience there, they sent me away).

This amazing woman with her commanding presence, that face,  that beaming smile, the extraordinary cloud of grey hair, and then - not , as I remember, so long after, her child, the baby in the pushchair, the shy man who I imagined was her husband....

Soon after this, I discovered that another well-known writer had lived even closer. The Japanese novelist, Natsume Sōseki, had been sent to London as a young man, and had found miserable lodgings - about six doors up from where Angela Carter lived. Opposite  the house where he endured a foul
English winter is a small museum devoted to his works.  In the summer,  Soseki fans (usually middle-aged Japanese couples, or younger, often solitary, students) would arrive in The Chase to visit the museum, and to photograph the blue plaque. Often, I would see them looking puzzled,  and think, should I volunteer some information? Offer them tea? Then think, well, they will soon find what they seek - and the last thing they want is inadequate help from some bumbling, clumsy Englishman.

The Blue Plaque was added about five years ago, a crumb of comfort to those Soseki followers whose plans to erect a statue of the writer on Clapham Common had been thrown out after a particularly mean-minded and xenophobic campaign by the so-called "Friends of Clapham Common".

Angela Carter lived in Japan in her 20s, and I assume she was well aware of this connection. But was it a coincidence that she moved  into this street? As much as Soseki loathed London, and especially loathed Clapham, so Angela Carter seemed to feel at home here.

I wonder how she'd feel now, about this street, dominated as it is by super-rich city types with their Range Rovers and Aston Martins, their royal connections, their street parties for the queen's jubilee and the wedding of william and kate. I wish she was still around to ask, because now, having shed that vile false modesty and shyness of the hobbledehoy, I would ask her too.

1 comment:

  1. Stumbled on your post a few days ago and then today found I was parked by Angela Carter Close in Brixton. Fan of your blog.

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