Viv Albertine Has Used Her Rage to Write Herself into Punk History
The Slits’ guitarist has released a second memoir, 'To Throw Away Unopened', and talks to us about how it tackles class, anger and family.
Lead image courtesy of PR
Anger is Viv Albertine’s motivation. “It got me through my life. I couldn’t have achieved anything without it. I didn’t have the path smoothed for me. Anger was all mum had to give me; anger at the unfairness of it all.”
You wouldn’t know it to look at Viv, an unimposing stranger sat against the wall in north London’s empty Roundhouse Café. Those shuffling past in tour groups may not even twig that she was the guitarist in The Slits, the groundbreaking experimental British punk rock band of the late 70s and early 80s. Beyond that, cultural texts don’t often present us with middle-aged or older women with real bite, internalised or otherwise; whose anger can’t be easily dismissed by others as petty, frazzled or domesticated. But she’s written an entire memoir about her 63 years of anger and all its shades. To Throw Away Unopened is a book that reveals rage so starkly in everyday forms – a man on a bus refusing to let her sit, a man telling her to “keep it down”, men not bothering to ‘train’ themselves to find women their own age attractive – that it’s unsurprising some are unsettled or confused by it, particularly at a time when she acknowledges, satisfied, that “women are getting angry again”.
According to Viv, one guy who’d interviewed her the day before on this very book cycle thought she was an “unlikeable, sad, lonely person”. The journalist saw her anger and rebellion as a “rebuke” to him personally, she says, and later I see a Spectator interview with her that seems to feature that exact exchange. She tells me the journalist said, outright, that honesty must be more important to her than happiness. Besides missing much of the playfulness in the writing or observations of To Throw Away Unopened, it sounds as if he had also misunderstood the background noise that can make a woman angry. As though he’d been unable to see the nuances in the presentation of our anger, how anger can become a mode of survival, a necessary means of avoiding simply going mad.
“I don’t see the point in doing anything in life if you’re not honest,” she says, after taking a sip of tap water from a glass to clear her throat. “I had no intentions of writing another book because the honesty is so stressful and painful.” But the compulsion to use writing as therapy overcame any apprehension. The memoir began as fiction about a middle-aged woman who is so full of anger she goes around murdering people. Except “the more I wrote, the more the fiction fell away and I realised I was that person.”
And so To Throw Away Unopened is set during a difficult period in her recent past. It takes in a time when she was looking after her teenage daughter in London, barely speaking to her soon-to-be-estranged younger sister, Pascale, whom she has a life-changing row with at her mother’s deathbed. Meanwhile she maintains a creative career and lacklustre romantic life, knowing that Kathleen, her elderly mother she cares for, is dying. In contemplating her relationship with Kathleen, Viv tracks her anger – the beating heart of the book – back to her mum, who she realises “gifted” it more than she’d thought. Under her matriarchal working class roof everyone lived in the energy of “a siege mentality”.
“My mum was pumping us full of this militant attitude,” she says of her working-class childhood. “Every day it was: ‘never rely on a man’, ‘make your own money’, ‘make your own way in the world’. We never respected authority and [at that time] it was very unusual for a woman to question whether politicians were lying or people on the news were telling the truth. Now it’s completely normal. I became this stick-out-like-a-sore-thumb type girl because of the way my mum brought me up. She was determined that I wasn’t going to have the life she had, which was just kids and abusive husbands.” The result was a daughter who didn’t rebel against her parents, but rather rebelled because her parents told her to. “I was brought up to be uncompromisingly bloody-minded by my mother. She equipped me without knowing it, to be someone who is creative rather than an entertainer. Not many girls are brought up like that, to never rely on a man. To not be a housewife, not be a mother.”
When she made work of that upbringing with The Slits – and the band’s legacy wasn’t duly positioned in the canon – she rebelled accordingly. One my personal favourite Viv acts of anger has to be when she sat in front of a relatively straight-laced, older crowd at the British Library, as part of the ‘50 years of punk’ celebrations in 2016. Before a “hello” she spoke about the presentation board she’d seen on the way in, which had listed “iconic” punk bands, none with female members. “I can’t believe, it’s a fight that honestly never, ever ends,” she’d said to the crowd, visibly distressed. Unknown to them, she’d scrawled ‘The Slits’, ‘X-Ray Spex’ and ‘Siouxsie and the Banshees’ on the board with a Sharpie.
Her first memoir, 2014’s brilliantly titled Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys, kick-started that fight to write women into punk history, beyond the songs she threw into the world as part of The Slits. The first half of the book recalls the frontline of punk, tarnished and stinking, and stands apart from others in the genre for its emotive eye. The second represents Viv’s attitude in that it veers unpredictably off-course to tell the story of a ‘normal’ woman’s life: IVF, cervical cancer, depression, motherhood. The result is a multifaceted portrait of womanhood and artistry, a thoughtful study of a self for whom both identities have been as vital as the other.
To Throw Away Unopened continues to piece together that personal history. The book is addressed to Kathleen and Lucien, a couple who turn out to be her volatile and feuding parents, now dead. And in it, instead of relying solely on her memory, she uses the archival detail of her mother and father’s separate histories to do so. A year into writing, Viv found both of their diaries, which began to weave themselves into the work – a narrative twist you’d never believe if it wasn’t non-fiction. Serious revelations arise. Through sifting through their entries she remembers, for example, being given heavy barbiturates at the age of 11 for “screaming fits” and discovers that her father had been sexually abusive towards his wife.
Viv’s choice to include these entries – and her general characterisation of her estranged sister – poses some intriguing questions about the ethics and morals of memoir writing. For Viv, the fact both parents pointedly left the diaries behind was permission enough to use them. “I feel my parents left the diaries to be their side of the story. Neither seemed like a load of lies in that I remembered everything, but they were from such different viewpoints.” Despite the horrendous details she discovers about her father, he might not have been the monster she was brought up to believe. Every child of separation sides to some degree with one parent; this melding of diary and commentary feels like those series of moments you have as an adult when you see how everyone played their hand in the toppling of a family, the grey between the black and white.
Viv is alone in much of the book, post-divorce and with her parents gone. But she’s emotionally on her own too. At points she embraces solitude, then at others she’s lonely. She details one mediocre relationship with unsatisfying sex that has to end when she holds in a fart in bed all night after eating fish and chips on a romantic trip away. She’s done, entirely, with relationships now.
“There’s no sadness about giving up, it’s an absolute relief,” she says frankly. “I’ve been dating since I was 12. I’ve been with loads of guys, I’ve not come to this decision without any experience. I’ve been wrapped up in trying to attract guys, have sex with guys, get inside guys’ heads and make relationships work for 50 years. It’s the amount of effort that goes into it. What you get back is absolutely not worth the effort, and not worth the risk even. And I couldn’t have written my books, or done the work I’ve done, or made the last album I made if I was caught up in attempting to make a bloody relationship work.”
We must look like we’re plotting revenge in the still-empty café. All of Viv’s focus has remained intensely on me for almost two hours, her body leaned in conspiratorially towards mine. I tell her that decision to ditch romantic relationships feels particularly poignant having read her first memoir in which her creative ex-husband couldn’t support her return to music. What must be sacrificed and what systems in place to be a non-male artist? “Most female artists – to do what you have to do and to be as honest as you have to be, to be as selfish as you have to be, as tunnel visioned as you have to be to make art, not entertainment – you can’t compromise, really. You have to be bloody-minded.”
The tension between male and female creativity has always been a thread in Viv’s work. “Don't create / Don't rebel”, The Slits’ sang in “Typical Girls”, a pointed comment about the women who languish as a result of standing by their men as the latter flourish. She talks about Mick Jones, The Clash guitarist (“My band weren’t taken seriously because I went out with Mick”) and Gareth Sager from The Pop Group, who she had relationships with. “They had it easier and their bands were always more respected and well-known. But in retrospect our band was better and it was much more boundary-bashing than theirs were.” She says this so flatly it makes me laugh, although I agree entirely.
Of course, it’s harder to untangle broader societal relationships, between siblings, or between parent and child. One of the book’s strengths comes from the way Viv navigates these relationships on the page, and only keeps people in her life where truly necessary. If you’d have fought with a sister – like Viv fought with hers – hundreds of years ago, you might have locked her in a tower or banished her. Simple solutions. “There wasn’t this sort worshipping of family ties that we have now,” she says. “And then the complete loneliness you feel if you don’t actually fit into that. There’s a lot of questioning in the book: do you have to stay in touch with family even if they’re mentally destroying you? For someone who hasn’t got any family anymore you really notice how much society is pressuring you to fit into that.”
I wonder whether she is tempted to get in touch with her sister now, after their explosive fall-out. The other day she found herself counting the time it’d been since they spoke. Four years. “It’s a relief. We’ve gone around in that circle so many times. We might be friendly at first and then it will start to get abusive and painful. There’s just no point in going back. You have to face facts. If there was a man in your life behaving how my sister behaved, every friend would say: ‘cut them out of your life, you cannot have that person fucking with your head’.”
Much of that acceptance came from the knowledge that Viv and her sister were pitted against each other. Their parents’ diaries showed that one daughter (Viv) was seen as being on dad’s side, the other (Pascale) on mum’s’. One loyal or clever, the other disloyal and lacking in intelligence. “In your formative years, to be brought up like that, I don’t know if you can ever make the relationship stable again. We’d been so conditioned from each other in a way.” She adds later: “Maybe I don’t properly trust anyone.”
In the final chapter, Viv plans to burn the diaries so her much-loved daughter never has to inherit them. I ask her whether she agrees that anger and empathy can co-exist, can be two halves of a whole energy. “Absolutely. Women are constantly taught to think about what other people are thinking. From those Jackie magazine quizzes: ‘What’s he thinking?’, to being a grown adult. I’m the angriest and most empathetic person you’ll ever meet.” That, I think, is what so many men don’t understand about angry women.
To Throw Away Unopened is out now via Faber & Faber
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