Reviewed by Annabel
When punk happened, although I was the right age – in my later teens – I’d already diverted off into prog rock, (I know!). So, I never consciously listened to the Slits, but I was aware of a girl punk group who hung out with the Sex Pistols. Now, decades later, such is the nostalgic draw of 1970s music to me, I would read nearly any book about that era. The good news is that former Slits guitarist Viv Albertine’s two volumes of memoir are very good indeed.
Albertine’s acclaimed first volume of memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, told of her adventures in the world of rock’n’roll; what led her there and some of what she did afterwards. In that first volume she proved to be an adept memoirist, telling her story with urgency and brutal honesty – it’s not a comfortable read in places – yet it is also full of period details which set the scene brilliantly for being an uncompromising female artist in the music business back then.
Her new memoir is told through the lens of her family, particularly the women, and employs a dual timeline. Each chapter is prefaced with a vignette set in the near present, starting the day after her mother died, before moving back to before her death. Albertine had been at the launch of her first book in a Kensington Club when she got the call that her mother had just twenty minutes to live. Her younger sister, Pascale, over from Canada, had got there first, and was taking over Viv’s place as principal carer. Sibling rivalry was never so intense, but I won’t say more here.
After the opening vignettes we return to Albertine’s story of growing up in hard but safer times after her Corsican father left when she was twelve. Her outspoken mother was both supportive and unconcerned with her wild daughters.
One of the only times Mum was disappointed with me during my teenage years was when I messed up my education. I was nineteen and studying fashion and textiles at Chelsea School of Art when my grandmother Frieda died and left my sister and me £200 each. I bought an electric guitar with the money and left my degree course to form a band – the Flowers of Romance, with Sid Vicious.
It was Viv’s second drop-out from Art School. She’s quite forward about blaming her mum’s parenting for ignoring her reckless streak.
After her parents’ deaths, Albertine discovers an airline bag of her mother’s letters to their solicitor, marked ‘To Throw Away Unopened’. Of course, she opens them – who wouldn’t? They don’t show her mother in as sympathetic a light and coupled with her father’s diaries, a different view of her parents’ marriage emerged from them, and she realises why her mother took various actions too. She also discovers a half-brother her mother had abandoned before meeting her father; another toxic relationship where her mother was concerned.
Albertine is also upfront in telling us about the failure of her own marriage: her various lovers including an enigmatic builder, her battle with cancer and the lasting effects of the diarrhoea she has suffered since chemo, (there is one hilarious episode where a nurse explains to her how to poo effectively – and yes, it helps!). There is also her daughter Vida, of whom she is very proud, and Viv is determined to be a better mother, despite the inevitability of turning into her mother as most of us, to some extent, do, and the little mistakes we all make. For instance, her mother had dissed her news of a new post-husband boyfriend:
“Be careful. He’ll end up hurting you’ First thing she said, straight out of her mouth. Sucked the pleasure right out of me. […]
I think Mum cried to cover up her mistake. She could see she’d upset me. I must admit I’ve sniffled a few times myself after I’ve said something clumsy and hurtful to my daughter. It’s not straight-out manipulation when mothers do this; you’re genuinely sorry for your mistake and annoyed with yourself.
This is no holds barred writing. Honest, brutal, very angry at the world and unsparing of herself too, but it is also full of self-deprecating wit – she’s often very funny indeed. Contrasting with this are moments of despair, pain and some shocking revelations. I cried as much as I laughed reading this book. If you can cope with the emotional roller-coaster she takes you on, you’ll find this volume of memoir truly unputdownable, memorable and agree that as a survivor of all her experiences, Viv Albertine is a remarkable woman.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Viv Albertine, To Throw Away Unopened (Faber & Faber, 2018). 978-0571326211, 292pp., hardback.
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