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21 April 2018

Viv Albertine explores complex mother-daughter relationships in her powerful new memoir

To Throw Away Unopened tests her understanding of herself against the story of her parents’ marriage and deaths.

By Lavinia Greenlaw

The title of Viv Albertine’s acclaimed first memoir, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, is a phrase her mother intoned when exasperated by her wayward daughter. Designers, difficult gigs and terrible dates continue to punctuate her story but these teenage imperatives could be said to have broadened into stimulation, provocation and connection.

A musician and film-maker, Albertine is best known as a member of the Seventies punk band the Slits. To Throw Away Unopened tests her understanding of herself against the story of her parents’ marriage and deaths. The title comes again from her mother, Kathleen, who wrote it in Tippex on an old flight bag that contained legal documents and diaries. Was this an act of protection or evasion? Albertine is devoted to but clear-eyed about Kathleen, just as she believes in herself while acknowledging her own contradictions. She craves her
absent sister while being so competitive that they have a violent fight over their mother’s deathbed about who should sit next to her. The fierceness of Albertine’s love for her own daughter sits beside an awareness of all she has exposed her to, including that fight: “Fifteen years old and she’s always with me when I go through these things. These adult things. Never taken aside and looked after.”

The book’s framework is the night of her mother’s death. The evening is splintered into micro-scenes from which no thought, however shameful, is allowed to escape. Each of these precedes a short chapter in which she adds another piece to the puzzle of her childhood and by extension, herself. She writes so associatively that the book lurches from trivial to profound, absolute to dismissive, but the strength of her voice carries the reader through.

Clothes might be shorthand here for compulsive visual attentiveness. The book includes photos of furniture, buildings, vehicles, labels, documents and ornaments but no people. Albertine suggests that objects are more reliable. After her daughter was born, the only thing that interested her apart from the baby was colour. Some months later, she was diagnosed with cancer and endured five months of treatment. When it was over, she craved purple and went out to buy “a lilac vest, a violet cardigan, an aubergine skirt and a purple fleece”.

The book’s core, though, is the portrait of her parents. Albertine’s memories are compromised by the diaries both left behind, grim notes on their mutual misery and each other’s savage behaviour. They give some indication of how unsafe the young Viv must have been. No wonder she doesn’t hesitate to rewrite the rules. When she forgets to film her daughter’s first Christmas, she stages it again. Although her mother asked for funeral wreaths of twigs and leaves, spring flowers were “easier and looked beautiful. Got away with that one.” She quotes an Adrian Mitchell poem, but in her own version. It’s as if she can’t accept something she hasn’t fine-tuned (and so made safe) herself.

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Her father, Lucien, is described as violent, controlling and absent only for his diaries to reveal the contempt with which he was treated by the rest of the family. Like Kathleen, he is both victim and monster. Albertine tests their accounts against her own memories only to wonder which is now informing the other. She leaves a series of open questions and, perhaps exhausted by a lack of definitive answers, suggests her whole family were on the autism spectrum. I’m more convinced when she says there is something “raw” about them. They are fractured, uncompromising and unmediated. The same might be said of this book.

Albertine focuses on loss of control as her home, mother, daughter, career and body all slip beyond her grasp: she observes moments of humiliation perhaps to prove that it is an emotion to which she will not succumb. The rawness is there, too, in memories that have yet to be constituted. Going home after her mother dies, she gathers small details: frost on pavement, a yellow tennis ball, four parked cars, raindrops on her fingertips. Emotion suddenly flows in a paean to the smells and tastes associated with her mother – tar, kerosene, paraffin, aniseed, cloves, rhubarb, ginger and liquorice.

Kathleen used to ask her, “What on earth do you want a man for?” Albertine’s response is diffuse. She says she’s interested in what she can learn rather than in sex, but sex is what she prepares for. Her lovers are nicknamed Pig, Terminator and Fox, who is a particular low point: “We sat side by side on his mattress, no bed, while he smoked weed and played the bongos.” She has an on-off relationship with the builder, Eryk, who will not remove his underwear or let her see his feet. “Richard-from-the-past” insists she drive all over London ferrying him to and from a date he’s failed to organise. She believes in letting a person be who they are, takes responsibility for herself and never talks about trying to change anyone.

There are things we choose not to open because they will solve tensions that have come to define us. Perhaps this is why Kathleen could neither show her children the diaries nor throw them away. She taught Viv to be a fighter and told her that the fight never ends. “What was I fighting for though?” Viv wonders. “Even now I’m not sure. Something so old and so deep, it has no words, no shape, no logic.” This book is emphatically true to her nature, above all in how it finds its own form. 

Lavinia Greenlaw’s books include “The Importance of Music to Girls” (Faber & Faber)

To Throw Away Unopened
Viv Albertine
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £14.99

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This article appears in the 18 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge