Punk in middle age — a startling memoir by Slits guitarist Viv Albertine
The tension that runs throughout Viv Albertine’s second memoir, To Throw Away Unopened, explodes in one, horrifying climax — a bloody skirmish at her mother’s deathbed. It is almost unbearable reading. But it also highlights her skill as a chronicler of the experience of modern adulthood.
For years, Albertine was best known as the guitarist in The Slits, the all-female British punk band of the late 1970s and early 80s, whose truculent stage presence and disorientating, spare sound matched any of their male counterparts for creativity and stage presence.
After The Slits folded, she transformed herself into a film-maker, scriptwriter, occasional actor and applied artist. But in 2014 at nearly 60, Albertine embarked on a third act, with a bawdy memoir of working-class youth and adult misery: Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys.
Here at last was an account of punk from a female perspective. It won multiple awards and sparked a genre, with a rush of memoirs from Albertine’s fellow female musicians: Chrissie Hynde, Grace Jones, Carrie Brownstein. All those accounts were a welcome redress to the received masculine history of popular music. None of them matched Albertine’s for unsparing self-reflection and sophisticated storytelling.
With her second book, Albertine breaks more new ground, applying her punk principles to that most un-rock and roll experience: middle age.
To Throw Away Unopened mostly leaves music (though not the clothes and the boys) behind, picking up Albertine’s story after the publication of her first book (the doomed launch party is an early scene). This time, the formidable Kathleen takes centre stage.
Albertine involves herself in stand-offs that lead to triumph, humiliation and an awful denouement
Kathleen is 95 and dying. Albertine’s father is already dead. Once a vivacious couple, their married lives were blighted by failure, poverty and dreary expectations of femininity, masculinity and propriety. Now their adult daughter has found her creative nexus and critical acclaim, but in dealing with the practicalities of her parents’ deaths, she is forced to confront family horrors.
That means reading her parents’ diaries, which surface among the household debris. The diaries — desperate accounts of everyday misery and abuse — were written during the late 1960s in the final months of the marriage and as legal evidence in their impending divorce. The book’s title is taken from the directive Kathleen daubed on the holdall that contained her diary. Albertine, ever the punk, disobeys her mother’s instruction. As she reminds us, “truth is splintered” — memory can be manipulated, and adults in the depths of despair wreak havoc on children.
Anger, and how to manage it decades after egregious events, is the central problem here, and Albertine picks over it meticulously. Kathleen is a confrontational woman and encourages the young Viv and her sister to lay their anger bare at every opportunity: “Mum had pumped me so full of anger I couldn’t throw it off,” she writes.
But by the 1980s, Viv has entered the television industry, populated by the Oxbridge-educated upper middle classes, and she concludes Kathleen has got it all wrong: “It was considered much cleverer to smile to people’s faces whilst you stab them in the back. The pain lasts longer for them and you walk away feeling smug and looking refined because you haven’t lost your temper.”
Albertine gives Kathleen the “unnecessary aggression conversation”, in which she explains to her mother why fury is better contained. On holiday by the sea they debate the merits of suppression versus expression, huddled in deckchairs behind canvas windbreaks.
Inevitably, the old family fury will not stay buried. Kathleen continues in her confrontational style. Albertine involves herself in altercations, skirmishes, scuffles and stand-offs that lead to triumph, humiliation and an awful denouement. She does not hesitate to tip drinks over stage hecklers and her hapless boyfriend. She tears people’s clothing. She argues freely with louts on buses. “Sometimes, you mess with the wrong middle-aged woman,” she deadpans. Then there is the catastrophic scene at her mother’s deathbed.
By the end of the memoir, Albertine emerges from grief into something like clarity, though her tendency for brutal self-reflection remains intact. All the rigour and rage of her punk heritage make this utterly compelling writing. No sentimental tropes, no bittersweet reconciliations — but perhaps some kind of future.
To Throw Away Unopened, by Viv Albertine, Faber, RRP£14.99, 292 pages
Helen Barrett is the FT’s work and careers editor