Monday, January 12, 2015

Clothes, music, boys: Viv Albertine

The Slits, 1977: Viv Albertine, Ari Up, Tessa Pollitt, Palmolive

The full title of Viv Albertine's memoir is Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys—"that's all you think about," she says her mother used to tell her (p. ix). Albertine was the guitarist for The Slits, an all-women (at least in their first incarnation) punk band in 1970s London. When I picked up her book I assumed the title was ironic; unfortunately, it's descriptive, although a more accurate title would be Boys Boys Boys Clothes Clothes Clothes Music, since Albertine spends more time talking about her boyfriends and her look and than about performing with her band or the creation of their songs.

Side 1

The Slits—in addition to Albertine the original lineup included vocalist Ari Up (Arianna Forster), bassist Tessa Pollitt, and drummer Palmolive (Paloma Romero)—started out playing thrashy two- and three-minute songs about shoplifting and housing estates. Their first gigs were shambolic. Here's Albertine describing their first night opening for The Clash on the White Riot tour in 1977; at this point she didn't yet know how to tune her guitar, and she counts off "one two three four" at the start of a song like Dee Dee Ramone, but doesn't yet realize that her count is supposed to set the tempo:
We all play at different speeds. Ari screams as loud as she can, I thrash at my guitar, Palmolive smashes the drums—the stage is so big and Tessa's so far away, I can't hear what she's doing. I can't differentiate between the instruments....We all play the song separately, we know we should play together, but we can't. I hope that if I remember my part and the others remember theirs, with a bit of luck we'll all end at the same time. That doesn't happen. (p. 173)
But because they don't know how they're "supposed" to play their instruments, their music at this stage is strangely compelling: here's "Newtown" from their 1977 Peel sessions EP:

As they went on they absorbed influences from ska and reggae (their first album, Cut, was produced by Dennis Bovell, whose band backed the dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson). My favorite Slits song from this era is "Typical Girls":

Some of the lyrics:
[Typical girls]
Can't decide
What clothes to wear
Are sensitive
Typical girls
Are emotional
Typical girls
Are cruel and bewitching
'She's a femme fatale' [1]
Typical girls
Stand by their man [2]
Typical girls
Are really swell
Typical girls
Learn how to act shocked
Typical girls
Don't rebel

Who invented the typical girl?
Who's bringing out the new improved model?
And there's another marketing ploy
Typical girl gets the typical boy
It's odd that the woman who wrote these lyrics, which describe how women are influenced to obsess about clothes and boys, has written a memoir largely about what clothes she wore and what boys she flirted with, hung out with, and slept with (sometimes chastely). Of course, Albertine didn't wear typical clothes and wasn't interested in typical boys, but the concern with wearing the right outfits and having the right boyfriends doesn't feel very subversive of mainstream values.

And while Albertine gets points for frankness—we hear about her first (and second) case of crabs, her first time shooting heroin, her first attempt at oral sex (with Johnny Rotten—it didn't go well), and her attraction to bad boys (including Sex Pistols' guitarist Steve Jones, Sex Pistols' bassist Sid Vicious, Heartbreakers' guitarist Johnny Thunders, and, later in life, the actor Vincent Gallo)—the book has some odd elisions, too.

One of these comes when Albertine forces the other Slits to choose between her and Palmolive, who co-founded the group with Ari Up and was one of its main songwriters. Albertine writes that Palmolive had missed rehearsals and seemed interested in pursuing other possibilities (she later joined The Raincoats). But in Albertine's telling the decision to kick her out of the band was made in Palmolive's absence, and it feels like some of the story—even from Albertine's side—must be missing.

Also missing are mentions of many of the other women musicians in the punk scene: in the first part of the book ("Side 1"), which covers events up to the Slits' breakup in 1982, there's exactly one reference to The Raincoats, and none to Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex), The Adverts, The Mo-dettes (formed by The Slits' first guitarist, Kate Korus, whom Albertine replaced), Delta 5, Au Pairs, or Kleenex/Liliput. Since Gina Birch of The Raincoats, for one, has mentioned how much she was inspired by The Slits, the absence of these bands from Albertine's recounting of this period feels like deliberate disregard.

There are mentions, though, of the places Albertine bought her clothes. One photo caption actually names the source of the polka-dot hair ribbon she's wearing. Style has long been crucially important to self-definition in British youth culture—Dick Hebdige's 1979 book Subculture is subtitled The Meaning of Style—and Vivienne Westwood and Malcom McLaren's clothing shop Sex was both a sartorial and cultural center for punk. But in Albertine's memoir clothes and boys receive so much attention that other significant aspects of the cultural moment feel like they're given short shrift.

Albertine was somewhat older than many of the other participants in the punk scene: when she joined The Slits in 1977 she was 22—Ari Up was 15—and when they broke up she was 27. Perhaps because of this her sense of failure and the closing off of possibilities was especially devastating: "This feels like the death of a huge part of myself…I've got nowhere to go and nothing to do…I'm burnt out and my heart is broken." (p. 250)

Side 2

The second part of the book ("Side 2") recounts the long and painful process of reinventing herself and finding renewed purpose in the band's (and punk's) aftermath. It clearly wasn't an easy process: we hear about bad dates, mean bosses, life-threatening health crises, and her increasingly rocky marriage (surprisingly traditional, in that as in other ways). But again there's the sense that, despite all the self-revelation, key pieces of information are missing.

As an example, Albertine says that the decision to renovate their house in 2007 put a strain on her relationship with her husband from which it could never recover. But much earlier there are signs that all is not well between them. In 1999, after the birth of their daughter and her treatment for cervical cancer, Albertine is weak, exhausted and depressed, and experiences flashes of anger towards her husband:
Hubby does all her feeds and changes her nappies. She's started looking to him eagerly for cuddles, she feels safer with him because he's the the provider of comfort.

I watch as the intense bond I had with my daughter slips away. I'm losing the child I fought so hard to have in my life…

The next morning I say to Hubby, 'From now on I do all Baby's feeds and changes. No matter how tired I am.'

I don't have the energy to do it but it's that or lose my daughter… (p. 298)
That Albertine sees the care of their daughter as a zero-sum game—that every time her husband feeds their child or changes her diaper it means less affection for herself—suggests very strongly to this reader that their marriage already has some serious problems. (According to a Google Books search, the phrase "our daughter" occurs four times in the book; "my daughter" occurs 24 times.)

As her marriage disintegrates, Albertine returns to writing and performing music for the first time in 25 years. (After the end of The Slits, she writes, "I can't bear to listen to music. Every time I hear a song I feel physical pain, just to hear instruments is unbearable, it reminds me of what I've lost." (p. 250)) She begins to play open mics and small gigs, and with the support of friends like Mick Jones (The Clash), Jah Wobble (Public Image Limited, John Lydon's post-Sex Pistols band), Glenn Matlock (the Sex Pistols' first bass player), and Gina Birch (The Raincoats), records The Vermilion Border album, which was released in 2012. Here is "Confessions of a MILF," about the confinements and disillusionments of her marriage—sort of a "Typical Girls Part 2":

But confessions are not enough. In her memoir Albertine recounts plenty of appalling and/or mortifying incidents, but (as in the "losing my daughter" moment) her book is at times oddly tone-deaf. It reads a bit like worked-over diary entries, with occasional commentary by her present self added in italics. The present-tense approach gives a sense of immediacy, but at the cost of reflection and insight. To put it bluntly, if you weren't already a huge fan of The Slits or punk rock (and even if you were), why should you care where Albertine was buying her leggings and hair ribbons? Ultimately, C3M3B3 doesn't provide enough of an answer—or enough stories like this one:
...In a week's time the Slits are going on the White Riot tour with the Clash. I've got to learn all our songs, I can't even play guitar standing up yet. We haven't played a gig together either, so we go down to the Pindar of Wakefield pub in Islington to see if we can have a quick go on their stage. When we arrive we see that a bunch of boys are churning out some old rock music; we've got our guitars with us but we hold them behind our backs so no one suspects anything. In between songs I go up to the guitarist in the rock band and ask him if we can play a song. He says no, so I pull him off the stage and Ari, Tessa and Palmolive pull the other guys off, there's an uproar, a couple of cymbals get kicked over but Palmolive doesn't care, she doesn't use them anyway. We bash through "Let's Do the Split" before the manager and barmen pull us off. That's our warm-up gig done. (p. 172)

1. A reference to The Velvet Underground, "Femme Fatale," from The Velvet Underground & Nico, Verve, 1967
2. A reference to Tammy Wynette, "Stand By Your Man," Legacy, 1968 (released in the UK in 1975). The Clash's "Train in Vain" from the album London Calling (1979), with its refrain of "You didn't stand by me," was written by Mick Jones about his and Albertine's on-again, off-again relationship.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The other Brontë sister: Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey and the Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Anne Brontë, like her sisters Charlotte and Emily, was a poet and novelist; like them, too, she died of consumption at a tragically young age. But while Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are now among the most widely read novels in English, Anne's two novels, Agnes Grey (1847) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), remain relatively neglected.

Neither of Anne's novels appear, for example, on any of the four lists of 100 recommended novels I discuss in the post "100 novels"; both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights appear on three out of the four. As of this writing the free e-book versions of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights on the Project Gutenberg website have been downloaded as single titles 8474 and 6925 times, respectively; meanwhile, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has been downloaded only 674 times, while Agnes Grey has been downloaded a mere 360 times.

Why this comparative neglect? It's true that Anne is not as polished a writer as either Charlotte or Emily. Anne's heroines are trapped in painful situations which they find difficult to escape; large sections of her novels are litanies of torment. Her heroines are also intensely pious in a way that may make readers in our more secular age uncomfortable. But her novels deserve to be read for the light they shed on the plight of women in Victorian society; and their autobiographical elements provide another perspective on the troubled situation of the Brontë family.

Agnes Grey

Agnes Grey is based on Anne's unhappy experiences as a governess in the homes of two families, the Inghams and the Robinsons. As the narrator states in the novel's first paragraph, "shielded by my own obscurity, and by the lapse of years, and a few fictitious names, I…will candidly lay before the public what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend." It's not necessary to take this assertion completely at face value to recognize that Agnes Grey must indeed draw significantly on autobiographical sources.

When her father is suddenly impoverished by a speculation gone wrong, Agnes decides to seek a position as a governess despite her youth (she's 19, the same age that Anne was when she took her first position with the Inghams). She is hired by Mrs. Bloomfield to supervise her unruly children Tom, age 7, and Mary, age 5. It soon becomes clear that one of Tom's chief pleasures—encouraged by his harsh father—is torturing small animals. Mary obstinately refuses to cooperate with Agnes, and the situation quickly becomes a physical power struggle:
Sometimes, exasperated to the utmost pitch, I would shake her violently by the shoulder, or pull her long hair, or put her in the corner; for which she punished me with loud, shrill, piercing screams, that went through my head like a knife. She knew I hated this, and when she had shrieked her utmost, would look into my face with an air of vindictive satisfaction, exclaiming,—

'Now, then! that's for you!'

And then shriek again and again, till I was forced to stop my ears. Often these dreadful cries would bring Mrs. Bloomfield up to inquire what was the matter?

'Mary Ann is a naughty girl, ma'am.'

'But what are these shocking screams?'

'She is screaming in a passion.'

'I never heard such a dreadful noise! You might be killing her. Why is she not out with her brother?'

'I cannot get her to finish her lessons.'

'But Mary Ann must be a good girl, and finish her lessons.' This was blandly spoken to the child. 'And I hope I shall never hear such terrible cries again!'

And fixing her cold, stony eyes upon me with a look that could not be mistaken, she would shut the door, and walk away. [Ch. III]
Of course it was an era in which corporal punishment of children was routine, but it's nonetheless dismaying when Agnes fervently expresses a desire for a "good birch rod" or to deliver "a few sound boxes in the ear." Still, it's clear that she is in an untenable position: she has responsibility for the children's behavior and educational progress, but is given no authority (she is continually being undermined by both parents). The parents also squabble openly in her presence, making her the unwilling witness of their bitter arguments. It's hard to know whether it's a greater relief to Agnes or to the reader when she is dismissed by the nightmarish Bloomfields and sent back to her family.

Agnes then finds a position with the Murrays. The Murray children are older but only slightly better behaved than the Bloomfields'. Charles Murray, 10, is "a pettish, cowardly, capricious, selfish little fellow, only active in doing mischief, and only clever in inventing falsehoods, not simply to hide his faults, but, in mere malicious wantonness, to bring odium upon others"; she calls him her "little tormentor." John, 11, is "rough as a young bear, boisterous, unruly, unprincipled, untaught, unteachable."  The two older sisters aren't much better: Mathilda, 14, is "a veritable hoyden" who has learned "to swear like a trooper," while Rosalie, 16, is "testy and capricious" and "shallow." [Ch. VII]

As in her previous situation as a governess, Agnes finds herself in a strange in-between position. She is not considered the social equal of her employers or their children; but as a clergyman's daughter, fraternizing with the servants is beneath her. She is socially and emotionally isolated, and unable to form true friendships with either Mrs. Murray or her daughters. And in any case, she feels no affinity with the Murrays, parents or children: Mrs. Murray is superficial, far more concerned with her daughters' social position than their happiness; and the Miss Murrays are selfish (Rosalie), coarse (Mathilde) and willful (both).

Over time Agnes does, though, develop an attachment to the evangelical curate of the local parish, Edward Weston. When the beautiful, coquettish Rosalie Murray comes to suspect Agnes' regard for Weston, she determines to win his admiration for herself. "Whether she intended to torment me, or merely to amuse herself, I could not tell." [Ch XV] Even as Rosalie turns the full power of her charm on Weston, though, she is already engaged to a rich local landowner, Sir Thomas Ashby. Rosalie's marriage to Ashby will make her miserably unhappy and leave her a virtual prisoner on his estate—so desperate that she reaches out to her former governess Agnes for friendship and support. Rosalie's essential nature is unchanged, though, and her gesture comes too late.

If the Bloomfields, the Murrays and the Ashbys are cautionary tales of marriage in which love has died or never existed, Anne Brontë's next novel offers an even more alarming portrait of marital incompatibility.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

A mysterious woman, Helen Graham, and her young son come to live on a long-abandoned estate in the wilds of Yorkshire. Gilbert Markham, a young man in the neighborhood, becomes intrigued by the woman and eventually declares his love. She tells him that love is impossible between them, but asks him to remain her friend. Markham becomes increasingly jealous of Helen's intimacy with another man, Frederick Lawrence, who he thinks is his romantic rival.

When Markham finally confronts her with his suspicions, Helen gives him her diary. It reveals that Helen is not a widow, but rather is still the wife of Arthur Huntingdon. She has fled her husband to protect her son from his influence: her husband frequently drinks to excess with his dissolute friends, and is amused by encouraging his son to drink and swear in their company. Huntingdon is also openly having an affair with Lady Annabella Lowborough, the wife of one of his drinking companions.

Huntingdon's drinking and extramarital affairs are modelled in part on Branwell Brontë, Anne's brother (Huntingdon also shares Branwell's red hair). Anne had recommended Branwell for a position as a tutor to the son of the Robinsons, the family where Anne was employed as a governess. Branwell soon embarked on an affair with Lydia Robinson, the wife of his employer. Anne probably learned of the affair, and resigned her position in June 1845. When the affair was discovered by the husband a month later, Branwell was summarily fired. According to Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë, Lydia Robinson kept up a clandestine correspondence with Branwell, but on the death of her husband she distanced herself from him and eventually married another man. [1]

Over the next few years the rejected Branwell turned increasingly to drink and opium, dying of alcoholism and consumption (most probably) in September 1848. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall Arthur Huntingdon, too, becomes seriously ill from drink and a resulting injury, and Helen returns to him in order to try to nurse him through his crisis.

This return to her emotionally abusive spouse out of a sense of wifely duty is one of the reasons this novel may present difficulties to the modern reader. Another is presented by the man Helen has come to love, the volatile and violent Gilbert Markham. At one point Markham assaults Frederick Lawrence without provocation, smashing him in the head with the heavy metal handle of his riding whip and leaving him stunned and bleeding by the side of the road.

Helen's choice to leave an abusive marriage, live alone and support herself is truly radical. This reader, at any rate, was not eager to see her either patch up her marriage with her deliberately cruel husband or unite herself with the mercurial Markham. But these unsatisfactory alternatives are stark illustrations of the difficulties of independence for 19th-century women.

After resigning her position with the Robinsons Anne never worked as a governess again. In conversation with Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Brontë suggested why such a position had become abhorrent to Anne:
She said that none but those who had been in the position of a governess could ever realise the dark side of 'respectable' human nature; under no great temptation to crime, but daily giving way to selfishness and ill-temper, till its conduct towards those dependent on it sometimes amounts to a tyranny of which one would rather be the victim than the inflicter. [2]
In May 1849, nearly a year after the first publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, it became clear that Anne was dying. On May 24 she set out with her sister on a journey to the seaside town of Scarborough; she died there on May 28th at the age of 29.


1. Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Ch. VIII
2. Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Ch. VIII