Opening a biography with a passage about masturbation, as erstwhile Slits-guitarist-turned-Hastings-housewife-turned-fiftysomething-Renaissance woman Viv Albertine’s memoir does, is a very loaded thing to do, and it did initially irritate this reader – not for reasons of prudishness, but because it was a cheap tactic and a slightly puerile way of setting the tone for a book which is way too engrossing, too intelligent and too highly nuanced to require such a transparent ploy. Indeed, Albertine’s book is compulsive reading. I just could not, as the saying goes, put it down; I carried it everywhere and tried to read it at any given opportunity, sitting in various loos, standing in queues, waiting under trees for the rain to stop, and on countless modes of transport.
Much more than an account of her time in seminal all-girl punk band The Slits, she recounts her subsequent life as a filmmaker, aerobics instructor, mother and trapped surburbanite with the same gusto, and in more detail, than she does her early twenties when she was hanging out with the fledgling Clash, attempting, unsuccessfully, to give Johnny Rotten a blow job, and inexorably forging an empowering path for women in rock. The filmmaker quality is palpable in the book’s structure. Each chapter is a short scene: they cut and paste together both content and atmosphere, laying bare the central character’s struggles and concerns shown through her actions and chance encounters. Cleverly, it is retrospective yet present at the same time.
Filmmaking is just one of the many creative and professional activities Albertine has tried – ‘tried’ seems the operative word, as the book is full of yearning and beautifully articulates one woman’s struggle to find an honest means of expression. She is certainly no dilettante. Feminism underpins her life. Punk, for Albertine, was a set of values not just a pop cultural phenomenon, and creativity was an engine, a means by which to say something. It is an honest account of a woman navigating the vagaries of a creative life and the perception and impact of aging.
There is of course much for the music hungry to chow down on, too, with insight into some of the key punk players, their day-to-day lives and the power games that motivated ambition. At the back of the book, there is a very useful list of clothes, music and boys (Albertine seems to have remained besotted by the former, even during periods when the latter two had failed her) to encourage and remind us how one used to expand and track music and style from lists on the back of vinyl sleeves, or out of the Top Ten’s in magazines and fanzines.
This book is an easy read, but that’s not to say it isn’t well written; more the fact that it’s so seamlessly laid out that it’s more like a familiar internal voice, or maybe a kind of voiceover, reporting on a life that reflects a generation which is now coming to the age of reflection: punks with pensions.
It has to be said, the book made me feel slightly shabby and wasteful that I’d squandered my younger female spirit and that I had to still guard myself against the slow moving river of mediocrity. But, that said, it’s also an inspirational book: assertive, passionate and should inspire the next generation to pick up a guitar and have a go…