So being that sort of person, I first read about the new memoir by Viv Albertine, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys, in a Guardian review, shortly after it was published by Faber & Faber in May of this year. After reading a few reviews I decided to see if my local library had a copy. I was pleased and annoyed that I would have to wait several weeks for my turn to read the book.
But why would I want to read such a memoir? When I was a young thing making the scene I loved The Slits, I found them to be a very interesting and brave band. So there was some nostalgia in my desire to read this. Also it is interesting to watch the turn of history. Much has changed since 1976, I thought it would be interesting to see this turn of history from the eyes of another.
The memoir is broken up, like an old fashioned record, into side 1 and side 2. Side 1 being her childhood, and youth including her time with The Slits. In this part she brings to life the grim recession of the late 70's to life. I did not live in England at the time, but rather in New England, which was going through similar economic and political crises. Albertine captures the excitement of punk, the turbulent feeling that we can make a difference, that we can change the world. More importantly she does not shy away from discussing the many contradictions, and cul-de-sacs of punk.
The book contains many amusing and interesting sketches of people I have seen, have heard, have heard of, but have never met. In these sketches we are able to see the true Romantic character of the punk ethos. Punk was the sting of the Romantic tail, struggling to bring to life the idea that enthusiasm can be more powerful than technical prowess. The final scattering of punk taught us a most important lesson, that in the end both talent and enthusiasm can be defeated by money.
Side 2 narrates Viv Albertine's life after The Slits broke up. This is a longer and more powerful section. With the breakup of the band, the author was plunged into poverty and despair. An example of how the music industry uses young people and then throws them onto the scrap heap. From here she tries to rebuild herself. As if to mock her youthful success, life generated a series of challenges. The sort of challenges we all face at one time or another. The second section of this book becomes a tale of miscarriages, ectopic pregnancies, IVF, cancer, broken marriages. A series of waiting rooms and examinations, where dignity and control are stripped away.
There is a terrible beauty in a much of this. For example, the description of the death of her father was moving and made me well up thinking of the pathetic hopelessness of life. The terrible waste.
Viv Albertine maintained the punk DIY attitude over the decades, rejecting the idea of a ghost writer. This creates a fascinating, almost voyeuristic, look into another persons broken mirror. Many of the reviews I have read describe this memoir as honest, “utter honesty” from the SMH, while the Guardian prefers “searing honesty.” Raising questions of honesty opens up a myriad of philosophical questions as to the nature of truth, questions I do not feel I am capable of answering. I will say that her account feels very sincere and honest, but as I was not there I have no way of verifying her account.
Unlike some of the subject matter, her writing style is not very taxing. The book is written in a very smooth, simple style. Laurence Sterne, author of that strange work of genius, described writing as, “but a different name for conversation.” In this autobiography Viv Albertine seems to take this idea to heart. This book feels almost like chatting with an old friend over a bottle of red.
What did I learn from this book? Behind every great woman is a man trying to hold her back. This modern proverb was amply exposed in this book. Sexual violence, barely hidden contempt, emotional blackmail, domestic violence. Here we can see her honesty, this book did not shy away from showing the truth of women's lives. This constant struggle that women face has changed, but not lessoned since (let us say) 1976; more subtle, maybe, but still all-encompassing.
In the end this book seems to me to be about losing one's self, standing naked before the mirror, and then finding one's self again. Definitely worth a read. This dot point history of contemporary life, this tale of a journey through life is deceptively easy to read; yet on this simple stage Albertine allows a variety of thoughts and arguments to bubble up to the the surface.