I’ve just read the autobiography of Viv Albertine, one-time guitarist with The Slits. The Slits were, possibly (there were also, for example The Raincoats), the first all-women band in the UK; they managed their own affairs, wrote their own, um, ‘songs’, controlled their own image (for which at least one of them, Ari Up, a teenager, was physically attacked). I can’t say I liked anything about their music but I liked their noisy, scruffy, anarchic attitude. For that I am truly grateful.
Ms Albertine’s autobiography is revealing about the times, the punk approach to well, everything, the characters – who’da thunk, for example, that poor Sid Vicious had such lovely handwriting and a good turn of phrase (albeit in a letter written from a remand centre…)? The times come back to the reader – the misery of the Seventies, the general acceptance, almost unthinkable now, of everything being quite rubbish – of cold, grimy, damp flats – and squats, of a time when people, believe it or not, didn’t actually wash all that much (Albertine is quite funny on this subject), when people more or less lived on cups of tea ( coffee came in granules or in a bottle), baked beans and burgers were an exotic food consumed at the beloved Wimpy. It was easier then, for example, to go to art school for a bit, change one’s mind, try a bit of this, of that, ‘find yourself’, or not, as the case might be. It’s a truism now to say that punks, really, were exceptionally conservative in that they didn’t rock many boats, either politically or in terms of the hated music industry – the real rock renegades were those who came after (and who, to coin a phrase, capitalised on punk), who understood money and made a lot of it. This book takes you back to a time, not so very long ago, that now seems almost unknowable.
The book is strangely unpolitical – there’s not much in it about the women’s movement or the small squashed Left movements of the day. The Left failed, incidentally, to make much use of the punk and New Wave movements, although it tried quite hard to co-opt a movement that was essentially anarcho-capitalist to Leftist ends. On the women’s movement, Albertine says a few things about just how rotten it was to be female, creative and energetic in that time and in that place but there’s little political thought – I doubt that the Slits particularly cared about any wider movement: they were young, annoyed and interested in the music, the drugs, boys, clothes and the performance more than in changing the world.
But there’s an interesting and moving chapter. Albertine gets pregnant. She has an abortion. She writes three or so pages about how little the abortion meant to her. Then she adds an endnote. Here it is in full:
I didn’t regret the abortion or twenty years. But eventually I did and I still regret it now. I wish I’d kept the baby, whatever the cost. It’s hard to live with. But I still defend a woman’s right to choose. to have control over her body and her life. That cannot and must not ever be taken away from us.
I was a teenager when Albertine was playing her, ahem, music. I am grateful to such brave, messy, complicated, confusing women. They were inspiring then and are inspiring now. Thank you.