As a two-pronged advanced preparation tactic I had decided to read Wise Children by Angela Carter before seeing that plein-air production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Hotel Endsleigh back on the wettest longest day (and which has now been re-scheduled for this evening... chair, poncho and thermos packed) but I was also reading in readiness for the Remembering Angela event with Michele Roberts at Port Eliot Festival this year.
'Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people...'
A quote that has stayed in my mind ever since I read it, and so says Angela Carter's wonderful first person narrator, the inimitable seventy-five year old Dora, one half of the double act of music hall, stage and film, the Chance Sisters. It's a quick guess that Dora might be the most unreliable of narrators as she starts to recount a life spent treading the boards with her identical twin sister Nora.
The first few chapters are a huge melee of births on both sides of the tracks ..
'...think of Manhattan. Then think of Brooklyn. See what I mean?... 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.',
Marriages, affairs and general confusion predominate, coupled with a plethora of twins legitimate and otherwise, as the...shall we say energetic head of the nation's premier dynastic stage family, Melchior Hazard, 'a player to his marrow,' makes his presence known.
The Chance Sisters, with their 'scrawny, alley-cat grace' are raised by Grandma Chance, herself 'a bit of a funniosity' who travels with a half-bottle of gin in her handbag ...'just in case.'
'In case of what? In case the pubs run dry ducky she said.'
Wise Children is woven through with Shakespearean plots and Ali Smith, in her introduction to my new Vintage edition of the book, quotes Angela Carter in a radio interview with Paul Bailey .
'I was attempting to encompass something from every Shakespeare... I mean I couldn't actually at all..I mean you know Titus Andronicus was very difficult...But I got a lot in!'
Plenty here to miss in that case and I feel sure Wise Children will need many readings for me to find them all. This is a wonderfully bawdy and ebullient burlesque of a novel which I loved, and I realised quite how clever when it suddenly dawned that I was reading a parody of Hamlet a la Hazard/Chance family... or witnessing a complete lash up of A Midsummer Night's Dream, as the narrative nips back and forth from present to past to future, often weaving in outcomes long before we know of the event itself, which all kept me on my reading toes.
I have been doing some background reading on Angela Carter too. Lorna Sage's excellent biography in the Writer's and Their Work series has given me a real grounding in the books I haven't read, as well as plenty to consider and float into the discussion with Michele...
'If she'd stayed around her canonization would almost certainly have been postponed. Now that her voice has been silenced, we're left with the orphaned words on the page, which line up and behave.'
Whilst mention of a short story The Quilt Maker sent me hot-footing to the collected short stories Burning Your Boats,
'..in patchwork, an infinitely flexible yet harmonious overall design is kept in the head and worked out in whatever material happens to turn up in the ragbag: party frocks, sackcloth, peices of wedding dress, of shorud, of bandage, dress shirts etc. Things that have been worn out or torn, remnants, bits and pieces left over from making blouses....
Well that was written in 1981 by which time the fledgling new-fabric-for-patchwork industry was just cranking into life...
'The more I think about it the more I like this metaphor. You can really make this image work for its living; it synthesises perfectly both the miscellany of experience and the use we make of it. Born and bred as I was in the Protestant north working-class tradition, I am also pleased with the metaphor's overtones of thrift and hard work.
Ahem...I suspect Angela Carter might be horrified at the multi-million industry this 'neglected household art' has become... 'the brilliant abstraction that any ordinary housewife' can create is now an art form in itself and to use new fabrics can easily push quilt costs into the hundreds of pounds.
This and much more, as well as the writing, were some of the avenues of discussion Michele Roberts and I pursued at Port Eliot, and my thanks to Michele and the audience for a fascinating session.
Had she lived Angela Carter would now be seventy-two, Margaret Atwood thinks she would have 'gone on to become one of our foremost cultural, social and political commentators' and doubtless one with something ascerbic to say about my fabric stash.
But what might Angela Carter have had to say about Fifty Shades of Grey... As Ali Smith suggests in her foreword to Essays on the Art of Angela Carter, she was a writer who knew 'what nourishment meant culturally' but one who also knew 'things didn't have to take the shape they've traditionally been given.'
And who of today's writers might she have championed...
Twitter... Facebook...would she or wouldn't she...
What would bother her in 2012...
Would she be pleased that half the tent sitting listening to this event were knitting... we thought so. Port Eliot, with its air of carnival and circus, mask and masquerade and an atmosphere that insists you let go and leave the world the behind for a few days. Where everyone is equal, no outfit too bizarre and there are plenty of places to kit out if you have arrived looking a bit too everyday...
...and as Michele pointed out so astutely, thousands of people mingle and laugh together and yet no one is subject to any personal judgement or criticism.
Yes, we decided this was definitely Angela's sort of place.