An eye-wa­ter­ingly hon­est dec­la­ra­tion of love, and war

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS REVIEWS - SINÉAD GLEE­SON


In her mem­oir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Mu­sic, Mu­sic, Mu­sic. Boys, Boys, Boys the for­mer Sl­its gui­tarist Viv Albertine took the fa­mil­iar tem­plate of the mu­sic bi­og­ra­phy and de­con­structed it, shap­ing it into a new ob­ject. The book dis­pensed with groupie cliches and gos­sipy re­veals in favour of some­thing more im­pact­ful and mov­ing. In re­count­ing the early days of punk in Lon­don, Albertine cre­ated a work of so­cial ge­og­ra­phy and cul­tural class con­scious­ness. Ex­am­in­ing the eco­nomic and ar­chi­tec­tural grim­ness of late-1970s and early-1980s Lon­don, it stared into the eye of priv­i­lege and sex­ism.

But the book was about so much more than so­ci­ety or mu­sic, and the raw ac­counts of her body – cancer, IVF, child­birth – hinted that Albertine was not a one-sub­ject writer. Her fe­roc­ity and in­sight were car­ried along by her ease with words. If Albertine’s ire then was fo­cused on pub­lic or sys­temic tar­gets, To Throw Away Un­opened presents a more pri­vate kind of de­spair, the rage that em­anates from fam­ily con­flict; the un­ease its prox­im­i­ties can set in mo­tion.

Par­ents may in­stil a sense of Larkinian fuckedup­ness in their off­spring, and it is their dual, com­pli­cated lives that cast a trou­bled shadow here. Lu­cien, Albertine’s brutish Cor­si­can fa­ther, left when she and her sis­ter, Pas­cale, were young. His de­par­ture, although much wel­comed, puts ad­di­tional fi­nan­cial and emo­tional pres­sure on those left be­hind. At the book’s cen­tre is the im­pact of in­ter­gen­er­a­tional hurt; of how ac­tions seem­ingly re­moved from our lives in­ter­sect. “Truth is splin­tered,” Albertine de­clares, in a pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion of the book’s struc­ture.

Amid present-day fu­ri­ous vi­gnettes of bad men, bad dat­ing and bad bod­ies, Albertine inches back to the past: to poverty, vi­o­lence and the tox­i­c­ity of her par­ents’ re­la­tion­ship. The main nar­ra­tive is reg­u­larly in­ter­rupted by a lin­ear ac­count of the night her mother, Kath, dies, one that is far from the tran­quil, united bed­side ensem­ble of pop­u­lar cul­ture: she and Pas­cale get into a phys­i­cal fight as her mother’s breath starts to slow. The night erupts, for mul­ti­ple rea­sons, many of them lo­cated in the past.


The book’s ti­tle is based on two posthu­mous dis­cov­er­ies: both par­ents left be­hind diaries. Her mother’s (touch­ingly kept in an old Aer Lin­gus bag) has “To Throw Away – Un­opened” writ­ten on it, the “un” un­der­lined. Albertine swings be­tween both ac­counts of their di­vorce, at­tempt­ing to re­frame her own view of her par­ents. It is stark and un­com­fort­able: who wants to know if their par­ents are un­re­li­able nar­ra­tors? One of the most har­row­ing re­veals is of an­other child, and of Kath’s pow­er­less­ness, de­spite the fem­i­nism she al­ways dis­played to her daugh­ters. Albertine bread­crumbs quotes through­out the book, from Emily Dick­in­son to Warsan Shire, fold­ing their words over her own ex­pe­ri­ences. Re­call­ing Glo­ria Steinem’s line about how daugh­ters live out the un­lived lives of their moth­ers, she re­alises how much Kath achieved as a woman of her gen­er­a­tion. How class, mar­riage and male dom­i­nance re­stricted the lives of so many women.

No feel­ing is ever just one thing. Albertine grap­ples with the in­her­ent con­tra­dic­tions of love and loy­alty. Her eye-wa­ter­ing hon­esty, about ev­ery­thing from sex and shit­ting to the peo­ple who make and un­make us, is the en­gine of this book. It’s a dec­la­ra­tion of both love and war. The con­tin­u­ance of life, the pat­terns we avoid and repli­cate, how each ex­pe­ri­ence stays in our mol­e­cules. Albertine’s own daugh­ter has shown her how to be, when the life she lived for decades was hin­dered by who she wasn’t.

Many women feel more in­vis­i­ble when they’re older, and Albertine writes sear­ingly about lone­li­ness: “It’s one of the con­se­quences of the path I chose: to be cre­ative in a so­ci­ety that didn’t sup­port fe­male artists.” But she has also learned in­vin­ci­bil­ity, never los­ing sight of the edge she had in her youth­ful punk days with The Sl­its. In the not-too-dis­tant past she at­tends a talk by the Rus­sian ac­tivists Pussy Riot on prison and protest. On the bus home she con­fronts a rude man, de­ter­mined that she will not be oblit­er­ated. “I have no one and noth­ing to lean on. And I think that’s ex­cit­ing.”

Ex­pe­ri­ence causes Albertine to wryly note: “Never be­lieve what’s writ­ten on a grave­stone: ‘lov­ing wife, mother and daugh­ter’.” In ex­ca­vat­ing the lives of her par­ents this mu­si­cian has re-eval­u­ated not just her­self but also the tri­an­gu­lated re­la­tion­ships be­tween peo­ple con­nected by blood. Past trau­mas drop deep an­chors, abut­ting the present-day re­al­ity of a life, but Albertine has made com­pelling art out of what lies be­neath, and is head­ing for a new hori­zon.

Viv Albertine: ‘Never be­lieve what’s writ­ten on a grave­stone’

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