Viv Albertine: ‘The Slits was exhausting and I ended up in hospital’

Speaking in this week’s Letter to My Younger Self, Albertine, who has recently released two acclaimed books about her life, reveals how difficult she found life in the band, who reformed without her in 2009. But she says she’s thankful her mum was there to support her through the process

At 16 I was at a comprehensive school in North London. I had long hair, parted in the middle, probably with peroxide slathered into it. Very dark eyebrows. No makeup. I had lots
of friends whose parents were in the Communist Party so we were going to see alternative films, reading alternative  books – I was a big reader. We were very poor, a one-parent family living in council accommodation, but what was good about that time was that I was able to get a very good alternative education. Maybe because I was always in the art
department at school, that’s probably where I found most of my mentors.

That alternative education stopped me going down that prescribed route you can take when you’re poor, of being frightened of the arts and of taking risks. I went to art school when I was 17, confident that I was going to have an interesting life, even though I never had money. I still think that art education has served me well all through my life. It taught me how to look at life from a different angle, encouraged me to take weird routes, think creatively, take risks and not worry too much about failing. And now I’m old that creative thinking is fucking coming back into play I can tell you.

I got on well with my mum when I was a teenager. I was out pretty much all the time, going to gigs or films. I was so much more sociable than I am now. And mum was pretty hands off, she gave me an incredible amount of freedom. She knew I was living a life she could never have lived when she was a working-class teenager. She taught me to ask, how can I make my life interesting, not the usual nine- to-five. She was always encouraging me to think for myself, question authority, and that made me a very antagonistic, unusual young woman. Underneath there was real self-doubt and terrible fear – there still is – but I’ve worked my whole life not to let that dominate me.

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By the time I was 13 I’d seen lots of bands live, everything from Bowie and T. Rex to weird jazz. When I went to university I saw one of the Sex Pistols’ first gigs. Then I bumped into Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten on Portobello Road and told them I was going to buy an electric guitar. And Sid said OK, I’ll be in a band with you. So he went off and got hold of a saxophone and we started meeting up in some squat. That folded after a few months and then I went to see The Slits play their first gig. And I had never seen anything like them in my life. They were just brilliant. So I rang them up. It was such a tiny scene, but everyone was trying to do something interesting, though most of us couldn’t sing or play an instrument. It doesn’t matter if you can’t play if you’ve got something to say, that was what we always said.

If someone had told that shy, frightened little Viv that one day she’d be in a real band and writing well-received books she’d say you’ve made a mistake. That was a life for intellectual men with wide educations, enormous talent and all the right contacts. Can you see how impossible that would seem to her? That would have been the life of my dreams. And when I’m grumping off to do something I don’t want to do, I should probably remind myself of that a bit more.

If I could take the 16-year-old Viv anywhere it would be to an open-air gig The Slits played at Alexandra Palace in 1980. That’s a venue I’d gone to lots of times as a child with my mum, and then to see gigs. I went there to rollerskate, have a snog behind the toilets. So to take her back there to this great big open-air concert. I think that was one of the pinnacles. But there have been a few of those – going to America, writing books and having them so well received. Being shortlisted for the Costa Prize. I mean honestly, when you think of everything I’ve done… it sounds pretty good.

Do you know, the whole Slits experience was pretty dreadful. I was the one who worked hard, and tried to make the others work. It was fucking exhausting and I ended up in hospital. Thank God my mum was there to say, they’re treating you like shit. It still hurts me to this day. What I would say to the young me is, don’t worry Viv, in 30 or 40 years’ time you’ll still be that person having ideas and having the drive, writing books, making albums, writing new songs instead of just playing the old ones again and again. I know it’s not cool to talk about that sort of thing but really, I’ve had enough. It’s still painful to me. Why not talk honestly about it?

When you have a life-threatening illness [Viv was given a cervical cancer diagnosis six weeks after she gave birth to her daughter Vida] it’s almost like you’re drowning. You are so in the moment, fighting each thing as it comes. I was floored. I had just had a baby, it was right up in my face. But if I hadn’t had my baby I might have gone under completely. Someone did come and cook a meal for my husband and my child every night without being asked. I think it’s great when someone does that without being asked because I didn’t ask for help much. I went to ground, like an injured animal hiding in a hedge, licking my wounds. It took me years to get over it.

The cancer has fucked me a bit physically though it’s not obvious when you look at me. The treatment is so brutal it does ruin your insides a bit. But I still duck and dive, even though I’m older and not as strong. In some ways this period of my life might be my best. I’m financially solvent, I have enough to buy a house, I can buy food. I’ve hassled and hustled and I’ve been put down a lot for not being very ladylike. But I wouldn’t be the survivor I am if I had been fucking ladylike the whole time.

After doing all that work with The Slits and being exhausted by it for years, I did think, OK Viv, you’ve done your bit now. Let the young girls come in and take the flame. But when I got my energy back after the cancer I was absolutely overwhelmed by the drive to do something new. Now I look back and feel very, very glad that I wrote the books. I think older people would have so much to give if they were given more space to express themselves. I grew up dreading being old. I grew up in the western world where being old was just the pits. You were nothing, you were worthless, you were invisible. But I’m here to say the world is still all out there to be used, and being old can completely and utterly be the best laugh ever.

The paperback version of Viv Albertine’s book To Throw Away Unopened is out now (Faber & Faber, £8.99)