The title of Viv Albertine‘s brilliant memoir Clothes clothes clothes music music music boys boys boys derives from her mum’s despairing litany of her daughter’s tastes as a teenager. In her new book To throw away unopened her mum takes centre stage. Structured around a shocking flashpoint, it’s at once harrowing and inspiring. *
Always brutally honest in her account, as daughter, sister, and mother in a matriarchal setup Viv Albertine both comes to terms with anger and makes a compelling case for it.
One of the reasons why feminism took such a strong hold in my mind, and in the minds of many girls of my generation, is that we were brought up by repressed and dissatisfied women who had grown into adulthood during the war, learned new skills, tasted independence, and then had to dissolve back into their dark-brown homes and watch from behind their ironing boards as the swinging sixties unfolded.
On the saccharine brainwashing of pop songs:
Society had the same dreary old expectations of us girls as always: to be attractive, smile, acquiesce to men, search for romantic love and become supportive wives. […] Such an effective way to keep girls and women down and render us ineffective.
I managed to fight off the dogmas of patriarchy, organized religion, capitalism, class deference and respect for authority easily enough. How come I fell at the last fence and impaled myself on the railings of romance?
Where’s the advert on TV telling you to call a freefone number if you’ve been mis-sold, not a pension, but a belief system? My religion turned out to be bogus. I’m still unpicking those decades of conditioning that were stitched, or rather sung, into my brain.
A review can hardly encapsulate her psychological nuance in dissecting the demons of dysfunctional family life. The contrary scenario of a comfortable middle-class family leading contented idyllic lives over the generations is not only less compelling, but it must be rare—even illusory.
Along the way the book also contains valuable social history. She’s good on the disjunctures of urban life, and the unlikely pleasures of its architecture. In her youth, living near the Hornsey Gas Holder No. 1, she appreciates its elegance while comparing it to a Lowry painting in winter.
Like Annie Proulx and Ciaran Carson, she effectively evokes the texture of daily life with long lists of mundane objects, with vignettes on topics like the history of the Craven A cigarettes that her mum smoked. As for the Queen Mother, “No wonder she looks good for her age, she’s never had to carry four pounds of potatoes home.”
Modifying our image of punk history, on a US tour with the Slits in the 70s she looks forward to homely letters from her mum. Even recently, embarking on a weekend away with yet another feckless partner, her detailed inventory of preparations and packing, while hardly exceptional (“just to feel comfortable”), is still sobering—”If men lived in a society that expected them to put that amount of work into a date, they wouldn’t bother dating.”
Reading this traumatic family history, it’s intriguing to return to Clothes clothes clothes music music music boys boys boys. Everyone (including men) should read these books!
* While this blog, rashly or mercifully, does venture way beyond Daoist ritual, an encomium from me may not seem the most likely addition to the many rave reviews of the book (e.g. here)—but it’s all ethnography, unpacking the messy complexities of people’s real lives…
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