Wednesday 26 June 2019

A candid tale of life, loves and invulnerability

Memoir: To Throw Away Unopened, Viv Albertine, Faber & Faber, hardback, 304 pages, €16.50

To love and to lose: Viv Albertine's descriptions of her dates are truly bewildering
To love and to lose: Viv Albertine's descriptions of her dates are truly bewildering
To Throw Away

Tony Clayton-Lea

Former punk rocker Viv Albertine follows up her first memoir with this funny, sad and honest take on being a daughter, mother, sister and girlfriend.

Four years ago, Viv Albertine's writing debut - Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys - caught most people off guard. Those who were expecting the usual, coy kiss-and-tell recollections of the former member of pioneering all-female UK punk band The Slits were faced with something else altogether. There was a level of incisive, dogged honesty in the book that didn't paint Albertine in a positive light.

There was also a view of punk rock's male-dominated hierarchy observed from the vantage point of a woman then in her mid-50s. With a few decades of experience to contextualise her opinions, Albertine's account of being a young woman trying to edge her way into a boys' club may have been enlightening, but it was also written with a sharp undercurrent of unease at how difficult it was for The Slits, and women, to be taken seriously. Alongside the music, throughout Clothes Music Boys are touches of home life, scenes of marriage and divorce. The book finishes on a note of optimism, with Albertine valiantly declaring that she still believes in love. If her debut was a marker for autobiography as self-laceration and selfless discovery rather than self-glorification, then To Throw Away Unopened ups the ante. The book title may reference secret testimonies, but there is nothing hidden from view here.

The narrative follows on from where the first book ends. With a songwriting career that seems to be at an end - music is no longer as much an escape for her as it once was, she admits - it begins with a house move from Camden Town to Hackney. In the company of her 93-year-old mother (who, writes Albertine in her clipped, unapologetic manner, "knew she was on the way out"), Hackney provides respite from a previous part of life, notably divorce and an insularity not good for raising a young daughter and caring after an infirm, elderly woman.

A natural writer, Albertine's description of the house (it is like, she decides, "the sort of person you'd be grateful to end up with after trying to date interesting, attractive people for years") tallies with the community she now finds herself in. She takes comfort in the fact that Hackney has no Tube station, so she gets the bus into central London. The bus journeys provide her with no end of things to write about, of course, but they also trigger memories. On overhearing a grim experience of two drug addicts, Albertine chooses not to judge but to explain: "I could have been a junkie, if I'd said yes a few more times, if I hadn't stuck with the loneliness and the not-fitting-in, if I'd given in to peer pressure, been a tiny bit weaker. If I hadn't been such a strong mother."

The nub of the book is less about the anxious past, however, and more about Albertine's present roles of daughter, mother, sister, girlfriend. Sequenced between being told on the launch night of her debut book that her mother had hours to live are lengthy reminiscences about growing up in the shadow of domestic breakdown and how she herself has responded to various relationships as a woman then in her 50s. Such a framing device works brilliantly. The shorter bold-type entries detail a family gathering around the deathbed of a steely matriarchal figure, and how decades of bottled-up tension and resentment can quickly turn into certifiable derangement. The longer entries are more exploratory, and are written with such direct veracity there are times when you have to put the book down to think about the words you've just read. This is none more so apparent when Albertine talks about dating.

The last time she was single, she writes, she was sizing up men in their 30s. Now in her 60s, she maintains that "lovely as some of them were, I didn't want to keep wincing inwardly whenever I referred to something that called attention to my age." Conclusions are tendered: "I'd like to be with someone kind who can hold a conversation and is in my age group. If that's too much to ask, I'll do without." Finding romance, or love, at her age is also problematic. The closing optimistic tone of her previous book has altered. "Worse than being stuck with someone ill or being alone forever is the thought that I'll grow to love a person very much and won't have them for very long. Finding another person to love is finding another person to lose."

If this seems a touch too fatalistic for some, fear not - Albertine really doesn't care what you think. While the descriptions of the mating habits of the men she dates are truly bewildering ("these guys would prefer you went out and hanged yourself on the nearest lamp post than admit to having erectile dysfunction"), she doesn't take it easy on herself, either ("the scent of sadness clinging to us like a whiff of dirty water from a vase of dead flowers").

Such a candid mood filters throughout. It's often funny ("Why is every man I go out with so bonkers?"), often sad ("a lot of the men I've dated have been incapable of even basic kindness"), yet more often than not her experiences are invested in a display of feminine invulnerability: "It's me who fixes the roof, unblocks the drain and changes the plug. I'm Spartacus."

Reading To Throw Away Unopened, you wouldn't doubt it for a second.

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