Making the cut: Viv Albertine, Ari Up and Tessa Pollitt of the Slits in 1981
Show Hide image

Punk survivor: Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine

With their backcombed hair, dreads, tutus, ripped tights and Doc Martens, the Slits were the most anarchic and badly behaved band on the “White Riot” tour. 

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys
Viv Albertine
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £14.99

In 1976, aged 21, Viv Albertine inherited 200 quid from her grandmother and bought an electric guitar. Though she was already a member of punk’s inner circle – the girlfriend of Mick Jones, the best friend of Sid Vicious – this was an audacious act. As she writes in this gripping memoir, “Who’d done it before me? There was no one I could identify with. No girls played electric guitar. Especially not ordinary girls like me.”

With that guitar she joined Ari Up, Tessa Pollitt and Palmolive in the Slits. Eschewing the generic garage band sound of their punk contemporaries, they incorporated reggae and soul – Viv says she wanted her guitar to sound like the chops on Dionne Warwick records – and invented post-punk before anyone else had even tired of punk. With their backcombed hair, dreads, tutus, ripped tights and Doc Martens, the Slits were the most anarchic and badly behaved band on the “White Riot” tour with the Clash, Buzzcocks and Subway Sect – and it was they who were thrown out of hotels for making a racket and pissing in people’s shoes in the corridors.

Viv conveys the sheer rebellious glee of being in a band when you don’t really know what you’re doing, the childish pleasure of the onstage fuck-you attitude they embodied. Not knowing that the chant “One, two, three, four!” is supposed to set the speed of the song, she simply assumes it’s “a warning to the band that you’re starting and it’s to be shouted as fast as possible, the quicker, the more exciting”. The passages describing the Slits gigs are the most joyous in the book but sadly the band split up after two albums, with what sounds like the normal amount of acrimony, and from that point on, joy is in much shorter supply.

The title Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys – taken from her mother’s line that this was all the teenage Viv cared about – might suggest a cheerful romp through fashion, pop and romance, yet the book is anything but. The discreet way to describe a memoir like this is to say that it’s very “frank” and, in answer to the question of what to put in and what to leave out, Viv Albertine has decided to leave almost nothing out, certainly nothing gory. I’ve honestly never read a bloodier autobiography. Unsparing in its detail, it charts every ebb and flow of a woman’s life from puberty onwards. Periods and the stains they leave. Miscarriages and the scars they leave. “Here it is haunting me again,” she writes towards the end. “My old enemy, Blood. Bugging me again. Bloody bloody Blood.”

Like most autobiographies (most lives?), the first half is more fun and Viv seems to crawl on all fours through side two of the book, like a wounded animal. But it is hard to look away. The careers that follow music – aerobics teacher, film-maker – don’t quite live up to that first one; men disappoint or simply fail to materialise; and her body turns against her, haemorrhaging its way through abortion, lost pregnancies, IVF treatments and cancer.

But Viv’s a survivor: this much is apparent from the very start, where despite all her seeming wildness and abandon, she reveals a core of sensibleness. As a teenager she sets off for Amsterdam with a friend, even though she’s not sure which country it’s in, hanging out with junkies and returning with crabs. When the friend stays on to indulge in a bit of light drug-smuggling, Viv comes back to England, “to do my exams”. Later, in a car with Ari Up, being driven by two strange men to a “party” in Peckham, Viv gets spooked and bails out, while the fearless Ari stays and is raped.

This instinct for self-preservation only goes so far, though, and along with the blood, tears course through the book, as time after time Viv is reduced to helpless weeping by some new calamity. Driven along by her eye for detail, willingness to reveal all and, let’s be honest, fondness for melodrama, there is much that’s vividly thrilling here. But it is also a desperate, yearning howl of a book, written by an unlikely romantic who longs above all for love. The very last words – and it’s hard to tell whether they’re directed at us or at herself – are, “I still believe in love.”

In 1979, when I was only 16, I too went out and bought an electric guitar and Viv had in part made this possible. In my band the Marine Girls, we thought of the Slits as our scary big sisters but they were inspirational nonetheless. In those few years at the end of the 1970s, Viv, along with Patti and Ari and Siouxsie and Poly and Chrissie, made more progress for women in music than has been made in all the years since. Eight years older than me and light years cooler, she was part of a generation that inspired and that opened doors for those of us who were lucky enough to follow immediately behind them.

Viv is a proud feminist punk survivor. I owe her and I salute her, but at the end of this book what I most wanted to do was make her a cup of tea and hug her.

Tracey Thorn is a singer and writer. Her book “Bedsit Disco Queen” is published by Virago (£16.99)

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

Getty
Show Hide image

The Pier Falls is a skilful short story collection – and the glummest book I've read in years

There's no doubting Mark Haddon's talent, but if his stories are sympathetic, there's not much pity in them.

The unremitting bleakness of Mark Haddon’s first book of short stories seems to have stumped even his publishers, who have decided, in the blurb, to make the rather shell-shocked protestation that “his imagination is even darker than we had thought”. Certainly, anyone who came to Haddon’s work through The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and its Olivier Award-winning stage adaptation will get a shock from this merciless collection, which opens with a story about the death of 64 people in a seaside accident and moves on briskly to other tales featuring starvation, dismemberment, evisceration, euthanasia, suicide, amputation, shooting, poisoning and incineration.

Sunk in its amplifying gloom, I found myself thinking of a passage in Haddon’s last (also fairly grim) novel, The Red House, in which an eight-year-old passes the time on a disastrous family holiday by planning his own work of literature. “It would be called A Hundred Horrible Ways to Die,” he muses, “and it would include torture and killing but not cancer.”

There is a good deal of sympathy in these economical pieces, but not much pity. The title story, first published in this paper, sets the tone. It is told in the present tense, and describes the collapse of a pier at a fictitious British seaside resort in 1970, balancing the unfolding horror of its events with a coolly detached, observational prose that creates a mood of eerie calm. “If you look through the black haystack of planks and beams,” Haddon writes, “you can see three figures thrashing in the dark water, a fourth floating face down and a fifth folded over a weed-covered beam. The rest are trapped underwater somewhere. Up on the pier a man hurls five lifebelts one after the other into the sea.” Later stories describe lives at various extremities of pain or grief, and with similar austerity. “Bunny” is about a 30-stone man feeding himself to death, “Breathe” about a woman tending her demented mother, “The Weir” about a divorcé who saves a mentally ill young woman from drowning. All of them share a distantly compassionate, vaguely medical tone, as though the author is relating news you may not wish to hear: it’s perhaps no surprise that doctors pop up with such frequency in Haddon’s work.

Several stories pay indirect homage to mythic or literary forerunners. “The Island” offers a refracted paraphrase of the story of Ariadne on Naxos, picking up shortly after Theseus’s ship sails off into the distance. In Haddon’s version, where none of the characters is named, the Minotaur is a deformed teenager, the king a brutal murderer and Ariadne a helpless teenager incapable of surviving in the wild. In the myth, she is discovered on Naxos by Dionysus, who marries her: here, the god of wine and ecstasy is a towering monster, covered in excrement, who rapes the helpless girl and then lets his Bacchantes rip her to pieces. It is told unflinchingly, though I could never quite work out whether Haddon’s flustered prose (“He is the only man she’s ever loved, and he has dumped her like ballast . . . She is off the heart’s map and her compass is spinning”) was in imitation of a lovestruck girl’s thoughts, or a rare crack in his usually undemonstrative and practical style.

“Wodwo”, one of the longer stories, provides another twist on an existing tale, in this case the 14th-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Here, too, Haddon remains silent about the inspiration, though an epigraph from Gawain lurks in forbidding Middle English at the beginning of the book. It opens on Christmas Eve at the Northamptonshire home of a retired neurosurgeon, where a session of posh family bickering is interrupted by the apparition of a gigantic stranger who demands to be blasted in the chest with a sawn-off shotgun. The subsequent humbling of its central character, who is no longer “gode Gawan” but Gavin, a blusteringly awful TV presenter, is a tale of slow decline, homelessness and eventual redemption that loses none of its weird and ghostly sheen from being dragged into a later age.

Other stories play quietly with the reader’s assumptions about their elected genres. “The Boys Who Left Home to Learn Fear” uses a setting out of H P Lovecraft or Edgar Rice Burroughs to tell its own, strangely truncated tale of loss and abandonment, as explorers in the jungle find cryptic warnings scrawled by a bottomless cave near the corpses of their predecessors. In “The Woodpecker and the Wolf”, a colonist on a remote planet contends with a string of grisly hazards – botched appendectomies, suicide by her colleagues, the abandonment of relief efforts, an unexpected pregnancy – before being rescued. As she returns with her child to a spookily idyllic Earth, however, the suspicion grows that things are not quite as comforting as we would like to believe: “There is,” Haddon writes, “something wrong with all this but she cannot put her finger on what it might be.”

That sentence might apply equally well to every story in this impressive but forbiddingly lightless collection. There’s no doubt about Haddon’s skill, but I haven’t read a glummer book in years. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster