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

Photo: Getty
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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder