Viv Albertine’s Diary: The lure of concrete and the love of daughters

The former Slits band member finds joy in what Camden council once failed to appreciate: the Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate.

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I am renting a one-bedroom flat on the brutalist Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate in north-west London while I’m between homes. My 18-year-old daughter, who studied A-level history of art, told me that the term brutalist originally came from the architect Le Corbusier – it’s the French expression for raw concrete, béton brut. I thought it described the stark style of building. The estate was designed in 1969 by the architect Neave Brown (1929-2018) and is built from white concrete. The buildings still look futuristic even though they were constructed in the 1970s. Many people think concrete buildings are ugly, modern eyesores, but the same technology was used in ancient Rome – the Pantheon and the Colosseum are made from concrete.

I’d have my whole house – inside and out and the furniture – made of concrete if I could. I find it exciting to be around. It does something to me. My flat is cantilevered over a six-track railway line; it took a few months for me to get used to the noise. I’d wake in the middle of the night, heart racing, thinking helicopters were landing in the bedroom, or lions and tigers were roaring in my ears. But every property feels very private, with its own outside space. I grew up in council flats but they were nowhere near as considered as Brown’s design.

Camden council didn’t appreciate what it had in the Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate once the commissioning architect, Sydney Cook, left but now the whole 16-acre site is Grade II listed and there are film crews and art students wandering around, shooting the buildings and the underground car park.

The giant yellow 3D zip

The next two weeks are going to be quite hectic as I’m just about to go on tour to promote my second book. On 9 April there will be a huge billboard of the cover on Broadway Market for a week, turquoise and dark green with a giant pale yellow 3D zip across the middle. I’ve persuaded my daughter to come and see it with me and take loads of pictures of us in front of it. Not cool. In spring and summer I’ll travel around the UK talking at festivals and fly to the US for ten days.

I’m lucky to have so much interest in my work as many new writers, especially women and people of colour, find it difficult to get noticed. I hope and expect that as the dominance of white male culture is broken down, this changes. We will have more interesting art when it does.

An audience in my bedroom

I hope to meet some interesting people such as Greil Marcus and Jeanette Winterson on my travels. Jeanette’s memoir, Why be Happy When You Could be Normal?, was my bible when I wrote my first book. The title was one of her mother’s expressions. Both the titles of my books are my mother’s expressions. They get inside your head (mothers and their expressions).

I don’t get nervous when I do talks: it comes from having played in bands. I imagine the audience are in my bedroom and we’re all sitting around on the bed and the floor chatting. As I get older I can’t be bothered to waste time on being nervous. I’m not worried about what people think of me any more.

Mothers and daughters

My daughter was home from university for Easter – she’s the person I love most in the world. She keeps me anchored. I’m not naturally grounded and am drawn to those who are. She’ll be there for my book launch at Cafe Oto in Dalston, east London, which is a lovely, intimate venue. I missed the launch of my first book: I received a call from my mother’s care home just as I arrived at the venue. I was told that she was dying and they had only 20 minutes left in the oxygen tank. I jumped in a cab and was there with her for what was her last night.

Dreams of Farrow & Ball

Since December, I’ve been seeing a therapist regularly. She’s an older woman and I look forward to seeing her every week and discussing the difficulties I’m facing at that particular time. I love her home and the way she speaks and looks. When I was younger I used to think I should have been born into a life just like hers; north London intelligentsia, slightly bohemian clothes, well-educated, subtle Farrow & Ball colours on walls (Shaded White). Everything about my poverty-stricken life was anathema to me. I don’t know how I became attracted to colours and clothes and music and beautiful furniture, or why I was so critical of my home environment. It must have been extremely annoying to my mother, the way I was always comparing our circumstances to other people’s, always striving for better.

Explosive expressions

Crying unexpectedly is a new experience for me this year. I think the grief from losing my mother four years ago is finally catching up with me. At the time, I was distracted from my sadness by being busy and looking after my daughter. I was also the executor of Mum’s estate (she didn’t have anything but it’s still a lot of work wrapping up someone’s life of 95 years). As a consequence, I didn’t have time to grieve, and found myself inexplicably angry with her for two years after her death.

Gradually I began to see her in a more forgiving light, especially after discovering her diaries from the 1960s, in which she wrote about her violent marriage to my father. I see her as a whole person now rather than the amorphous extension of myself that I perceived her to be when she was alive.

Nowadays, I yearn for a quiet, thoughtful life. I’ve had it with dashing around and trying to be somebody – the same way I’ve had it with tight shoes and romance. I’m ready to spend time with my mother and to listen to her stories about the war and eating dripping on toast for tea. But I got there too late; she’s gone. 

Viv Albertine was a member of the Slits. Her second memoir, “To Throw Away Unopened”, is published by Faber and Faber.

This article appears in the 04 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire