Paperbacks

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
Angela Carter's Shaking a Leg: collected journalism and writings (Vintage Pounds 8.99) and Tom Paulin's Writing to the Moment: selected critical essays (Faber Pounds 9.99) are magnificent exemplars of a radical, pluralistic, critical tradition in British writing.

Carter's praise of Michael Moorcock - "English in the great tradition of music hall and penny dreadful, seaside pierrot show and pantomime, of radical dissent and continuous questioning, the other side of imperialism" - could well stand as a description of her own imaginative universe. Paulin cuts down the pretentious and powerful, exalts the vernacular, and rescues the forgotten and humble (John Clare, Hardy the poet) from the condescension of metropolitan literary fashion. Both books are treasure troves, demonstrations of the power of the essay form with its disciplines of immediacy, focus and personal commitment.

Carter the journalist is generous, carnivalesque and compendious, and free of the usual faults of feature journalism - self-indulgence and attitudinising. I'd love to know what she would have made of The Mourning of Diana.

Much of Writing to the Moment is spent exploring the fine line that connects poetry and politics. A piece on "Shakespeare the Catholic" ends up considering Ted Hughes's relationship with Thatcherism. "The Making of a Loyalist" - a critique of Conor Cruise O'Brien - homes in on O'Brien's slippery use of language. Paulin proves that literary criticism is not doomed to wander forever through mists of theory.

Hugh David's On Queer Street: a social history of British homosexuality 1895-1995 (HarperCollins Pounds 8.99) is a short book on a big subject. Although the narrative is a little breathless at times, the use of first-hand oral testimony brings to life lost details of gay life such as "comrades" pairing off in the Services, or a gentlemen's birthday party in Thirties suburbia.

David puts a good case for seeing the Wilde trials as a watershed, but avoids the pitfall of setting Wilde up as a tragic icon. Since Wilde the pendulum of public opinion has twitched back and forth, and Queer Street registers these shifts acutely. It is as a valuable record of lost worlds of euphemism and adaptation that the book will last.

Whereas our forebears in the 18th and 19th centuries looked to the classical age for purity and form, we in the late 20th century find in it an amazingly untroubled innocence. Reading Jamas Davidson's Courtesans and Fishcakes: the consuming passions of classical Athens (Fontana Pounds 9.99), I kept being reminded, inappropriately, of Kingsley Amis's Jim Dixon doing his "Sex Life in Ancient Rome" face at the bathroom mirror, or Satyricon, Fellini's wild take on Petronius. Inappropriate, because there is more to this fascinating book than the pleasure of a classics don talking dirty.

Davidson argues that "the Greek approach to pleasure was vigorously rationalistic and humane" and that their love of fish can tell us much about their politics.

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