A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Punk rock passed me by. I was young and stupid and snooty, and I thought it was poor stuff, produced by nasty boys. I had much better things to listen to. So I missed out on the Slits entirely, as they were not nasty boys – I had no idea they even existed. At my very advanced age I’ve had to go back and find out about them, having discovered Viv Albertine. Fortunately, thanks to Youtube, there they still are. I’m not sure if knowing about The Slits and their music at the time would have reconciled me, but at least I’d have found out that punk rock was not all about nasty boys, but about utterly fearless girls as well. Listening to them now, they are just great – there is a touch of the Flying Lizards about them, which is alright by me (and they are name-checked as an influence in the book). What inspired me to read the book and rediscover them was stumbling last year upon Viv Albertine’s latest music, and discovering her to be iconoclastic and fearless just as I now know The Slits were.
In this gobsmackingly good memoir, Viv Albertine describes how a timid North London schoolgirl found herself in at the beginning of the punk phenomenon in the 70s and later at its heart, until all of a sudden it wasn’t there for her any more, pitching her into a new and completely different world, until all of a sudden that wasn’t there any more either, but music is, after all. I love reading memoirs of young women and trying to read my own growing-up onto theirs. Unlike Janice Galloway’s All Made Up, this one never fits and never would. I was much too wary, much too afraid, much too sure of where I thought I was going to drift and experiment and take risks like Viv Albertine did. It’s a cathartic read, making me thank my stars that I didn’t (knowing myself as well as I do).
The title comes from something Viv’s remarkably loving and tolerant Mum said to her as a mild but bewildered reproach (‘that’s all you ever think about’). The first half describes a lost world: where in a paradoxical Eden of innocence London teenagers could roam and experiment and form clusters and break apart, and discover for themselves clothes music and boys. It all seems a bit feral – a world of going to Art School (Hornsey the legendary, then Hammersmith) with one O level, living in squats, clawing together the money to buy a few key pieces from Vivienne Westwood at Sex, putting together a look, forging a sound. The author’s time is an eternal present, and Viv Albertine is brilliant at describing time just she saw it to be, without hindsight or foresight, when the staggering fame of mates like Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious (even of a fleeting David Bowie passing through) was unimaginable, where experience was easily or dearly bought. (‘That should be written on my gravestone. She was scared. But she went anyway.’ p150) Sid Vicious is a frightened lad who writes to Viv from Ashford Remand Centre. Mick Jones of the Clash is an on-off boyfriend.
Viv wants to buy a guitar and play it. Her father says she is not chic enough to be a pop star, but he is long gone from her life. She has no musical education and so she finds her own style and, after a false start with The Flowers of Romance, gravitates towards Ari, Tessa and Palmolive who are all facing the same way – girls making music because they’re not going to be told they can’t. The Slits have a comparatively durable and influential career of five or six years of albums and touring, passing the John Peel session rite of passage. Nothing in this bald summary conveys the wildness, freedom, danger and hedonism of this life, which is described in the book with candour and vivid immediacy, and absolutely no sensationalism. Then it’s all over, primeval punk is no more, and the group just ceases to be, leaving her disoriented and bereft.
With characteristic energy and decision she works with success in the burgeoning fitness and aerobics world, then goes back into education, studying film with Laura Mulvey and making it her career. Then just as suddenly she is a wife and mother (after heart wrenching trauma), living a provincial life with an Audi and an achingly cool house in Hastings. Then she isn’t a wife any more, though still a loving mother (if in any doubt about the effect of those years, try this, if you’re brave enough), and makes a return to music and film, re-learning to play the guitar and making a solo album, moving back to London. Oh, and starring in Joanna Hogg’s latest feature film Exhibition.
I read this memoir at a stretch, unable to let it go, cringing at the mind-altering substances, risky behaviour, dangerous men and terrifying health scares, while marvelling at its fearless verve and wit and the sheer literary talent that enabled her to shape her story. I knew (spoiler) that she hadn’t died, because here she is writing her autobiography, but found it hard to see how – I needed to know how she’d managed to stay alive. Viv Albertine is a polymath. She is someone who can express herself through art as easily as breathing: she can sing, play, act, wear clothes, make ceramics, create music, write songs, and now to cap it all, she can also write so very, very well about her life. Let others who were there tell their versions she says. This is mine.
Viv Albertine: Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys. Pbk. ed. London: Faber and Faber, 2015. 432pp