Viv Albertine – ‘To Throw Away Unopened’ reviewed

❉ There’s real beauty in the raw honesty of Viv Albertine’s second volume of memoirs, writes Liz Buckley.

“If the first book was the story of Viv’s life to date, it’s fair to say this is essentially the story of her mother’s death. Too painful to talk about her actual passing except in short bursts, Viv tries to fathom the effect that her mother has had on her through anecdotes, flashes of intense feelings, flashbacks and illuminations, all darting around their timeline and peppering the text as we go.”

 After his death, whilst clearing out her father Lucien’s apartment in France, Viv Albertine found a handmade trunk wedged at the back of his wardrobe containing a personal diary. They had been largely estranged since Viv’s early teens, Lucien having cleared out a home once before when the female members of the family were all briefly away from the house. From Viv’s descriptions of growing up around him in her first astonishing memoir Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys, his then-treatment of his wife and two young daughters had certainly been nothing for them to miss. Reacquainted in later life (I think she’d agree) almost by way of an experiment for Viv, her father it seemed, had turned into quite the hoarder, keeping for instance, every Madeleine wrapper he’d ever devoured the contents of, flattened out and stacked as a neat, analogue diet diary.

I believe these are the two key facts – father and daughter being estranged and him being a hoarder – for you to consider when thinking, if faced with this personal history-enlightening time-capsule, what would you do?

Thankfully for us, Viv not only opens the damn chest, she writes a book about it.

Or actually… she doesn’t. Whilst many a Hollywood film might think to use this kind set up for the entire plot, Lucien remains a very rounded bit-part in Viv Book Two. Allowed his own voice in the narrative through directly quoted passages from his diary, alongside comes Viv’s addending voice; commenting on, embellishing and dismissing as she rightly sees fit. After her mother’s death, Viv subsequently finds a similar, stashed away, dirt-encrusted Air Lingus flight bag with her mother Kathleen’s diary from the same period (her parents had been encouraged to write daily accounts of their deteriorating relationship to expedite a divorce), her mother’s version clearly marked “To Throw Away Unopened”. As if, Kathleen – which I think is fair as she was apparently pretty unsparing with the shredder. So Viv disappears down the unique and intimidating rabbit-hole of finding out how her parents saw one another, their reports of her and her sister and as well as how they wanted to appear to other people too. It’s an overwhelming blessing and curse in one.

Viv Albertine Performing at Hebden Bridge Trades Club on Friday the 3rd of September 2011 (Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License)

Viv’s resulting memoir as she sifts through the personal rubble is an incredible document and testament actually to the female relationships in her family – “losing a man felt like a release, losing any woman felt like a hole”. There are the fights, the feuds, the drink chucking, the punch throwing, the thumb biting (don’t ask), the fierce misunderstandings and above all, the fiery love for one another, all laid bare with cultural, personal and historical context; and this comes with an in-built appreciation that we never really know the whole truth of any emotional situation, only our own personal comprehension of it. Viv had always been close to mother and had largely felt that she already knew her side, her voice, her feelings – far too much so at times – so the addition of the trunk and the flight bag to her already-written and cemented history certainly shakes her. Insights told as fact in Viv’s own first book take on new context, the reader having to reappraise alongside. In fact, when she recounts a restaging and refilming her daughter’s first Christmas but on Boxing Day that year as they forgot to do it on the actual day, it’s clear that truth can be what you want it to be. And a document of it is not necessarily the truth. Lucien.

If the first book was the story of Viv’s life to date, it’s fair to say this is essentially the story of her mother’s death. Too painful to talk about her actual passing except in short bursts, Viv tries to fathom the effect that her mother has had on her through anecdotes, flashes of intense feelings, flashbacks and illuminations, all darting around their timeline and peppering the text as we go. She both chastises and celebrates, as all daughters do. Kathleen taught Viv to have adventures, to makes mistakes, to hate the patriarchy with a ferocity Viv is still grappling with and most importantly, to then share everything Viv does about it with her mother – and so we see Kathleen as both an anger-instilling Miss Havisham figure, a women at home with helping her daughter cure a bout of crabs, and a staunch attender of Slits gigs alongside her colleagues from Crouch End library. Mothers are complicated. And so it continues with Viv’s daughter Vida – the now-grandmother gives Vida a £1 reward for every time she tries, every time she puts herself forward. No fuss for winning (or losing), just rewards for putting herself out there, and she’s doing this during the ages where a young girl can feel the most self-conscious. And we come full circle – Viv now goes to gigs to see her daughter play bass and asks her to tell her all her adventures. The only judgement Viv ever felt from her mum for her punk fashion choices (which, lest we forget, included perma-bare feet pounding the London streets and accessories such as a tampon hung over one ear worn like jewellery) was Kathleen saying, “I wish I had a camera”. She recalls her mother crying only twice as a result of her actions, once for dropping out of college (a chance her mother would have grabbed at for herself if only she’d had the opportunity and money) and the other, during a lean vegetarian phase, having to eat another plate of lentils.

Viv Albertine performing at Celebrating Sisterhood!, The Verge at The Cheshire Ring, on Saturday the 24th of March 2012 (Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License)

Alongside the remembrances of her mum’s life and death, the book is littered with quotations and Georgia O’Keefe’s is particularly poignant for both women – “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do”.

“Searing honesty” are the words I’ve seen most commonly associated with Viv’s writing across both memoirs and there is savage self-exposure but also savage self-discovery. She tackles everything from the myth that you get less angry as you get older, has a Swiftian fixation on bodily functions/obsession with hair removal, documents her frequent bouts of anxiety and ill health-based diarrhoea (quote from Clothes – “anyone who fancies me, please skip this bit”), her disinterest in masturbation, her feelings on class, inadequacy, her abortion and miscarriage, her eleven punishing rounds of IVF, her divorce, cervical cancer, bad, bad dating, erectile dysfunction (not unrelated) and more. But the beauty of Viv’s final stance in everything isn’t so much the piercing of pretty bubbles as the maturity of this rawness – that is her real beauty. Her honesty is even backdated – she tells us what she thought at the time, even if shaming, and she tells us if things have since changed.

The book in essence is about choosing the best type of company. And for all the bad dates and bad choices, her mother and daughter and best friend Trace shine like beacons. As he mother dies, Viv writes:

“My ninety-five-year-old mother *was* beautiful. ‘You’re so beautiful, Mum’ I said again. How can someone who’s stood by you your whole life – who helped you empty the contents of the kitchen bin onto the floor when you were seventeen because you accidentally threw away a piece of hash the size of a cocoa nib, or who accompanied you, when she was eighty years old, to the Southbank Cinema on Mother’s Day to watch hardcore gay and lesbian sex films because no one else would go with you…. how can that person, who you’ve been through so much with and who is now lying in front of you with snow-white hair, pale-grey eyes, soft pink skin and worry lines not be beautiful?”

So she puts the two carrier bags of other people’s truth to one side in the shed and asks her mother to haunt her… whilst appreciating she might finally want a bit of peace. If you want to know Viv, please don’t leave this book unopened.

To Throw Away Unopened by Viv Albertine (Faber, £14.99), buy it now.

❉ Liz Buckley is a manager and compiler at Ace Records. Liz has also written about rock and pop for various publications and websites including We Are Cult, and in 2016 was one of ThatLot’s 30 Amazing Women You Should Follow On Twitter. Read our Cult & A with Liz here!

Feature image credit: Viv Albertine | Charlie Llewellin | Flickr (Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License)

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