‘Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke’

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Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys

by Viv Albertine

I don’t read many biographies to be truthful. I don’t know why really. In the book club, biographies are frowned upon as a lesser form of writing, quite why I don’t know, it’s on of our many weird rules: no biographies. On the QT, I like a bit of historical bio action and in the past I’ve voraciously consumed weighty tomes on Churchill, Hitler, Julian Cope and Humphrey Bogart to name a few randoms. In truth I don’t remember much about them and perhaps that’s the curse of the biography: ephemeral in many ways.

So when I was handed a copy of Viv Albertine’s memoir Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys I thought I’d slip it in between ‘serious’ book club books for a little light relief. The title comes from what her mum accurately surmised as her primary interests when she was younger, and sets the tone for a bright and honest journey from seventies London, being in a punk band and to be honest, an ordinary woman’s life with no holds barred. The opening chapter coverers in detail her lack of interest in masturbation this honesty sets the tone for the rest of the book.

The first half of the book is a solidly engaging and innocent romp through London seen through a teenager’s eyes: the beginning of punk, it’s magnesium-bright pinnacle and its inevitable fizzling out. As someone who was too young to catch the first wave of punk, this is a breathlessly enjoyable sequence that shines alight on the surprisingly random and quite frankly coincidental series of events that led to the watershed in music that was punk. Just after punk in the early eighties, we all imagined it was some kind of co-ordniated movement to dethrone the establishment, but it was just a bunch of disaffected kids who were in the right place at the right time—with wrong kind of attitude.

Viv’s voice is clear and distinctive. She confesses to the reader all manner of surprising feelings centred on inadequacy and fear which is refreshing when punk was all about conveying an attitude with a look. For her the veneer and sneer of sexualised punk was just that, a front but it gave her the permission to be different. But we’re in good hands with Viv throughout and she never fails to convince even when she makes some quite frankly crazy decisions. I can completely identify with the attitude that lead to her embrace punk is such a passionate way: we were post war kids and we were part of a new generation that felt the old ways had had it and it was in with the new. I even felt the reverberations of that in post punk—new wave took a sanitised version of punk and ran with it, leather keks and all.

The second half of the book is where it gets really interesting for me. After she leaves The Slits her life opens up in front of her and she realises that she has to do something with it. Her story then becomes one of education, families, relationships ending, illness and some successes. In short, the normal life of any woman. Viv is always true to herself though and the bravery (and innocence) that led her as a 14 year old to travel to Amsterdam and live in a squat manifests itself in all kinds of situations in her life. But she is always true to herself—eventually—whether it is music or relationships.

So this is no light relief biographical sideshow, it’s a moving and engaging story of an extraordinary life and an ordinary life, meshed together.

Anselm Kiefer

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Seeing the Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the Royal Academy just after reading Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest was quite an experience. The Second World War informs every pice of artwork on show, not just casting a shadow but engulfing everything in its blackness. This exhaustive (and exhausting) collection of the celebrated German artist’s work is an intense experience for the casual gallery goer looking for a mild diversion from Christmas shopping in London.

The show delivers room after room of powerful art, all on a big scale. Big in size and big in emotion, Kiefer is all about emotional impact, which is by and large dark and foreboding with the odd respite here and there. We see exquisite books packed with pencil drawing and watercolour, huge canvases with layer upon layer of paint, mud and god knows what. We have spectacular sculpture too thrown in for good measure.

Across all media there is a consistency of thought and spectacular execution from star-like diamonds embedded in dense back canvases to lead books whose pages turn and crumple like paper — the lead itself reclaimed from the roof of Frankfurt cathedral. The craft of the work is spellbinding too, often more convincing than the work itself at times. I was taken with his idea of using the original zinc baths that the Third Reich gave to every family to make submarine sculptures, depicting the loss of life underwater. Idea and craft working seamlessly together.

Time after time the holocaust surfaces in his work, burned into the artists’s consciousness, a palpable driving force behind much if his work if not all in some way. It got me thinking about how art deals with horrors on the magnitude seen in Germany and how the artist must feel responsible in some way to try to interpret what’s happened, not make sense of it, but to process it in some way to ensure it must never happen again.

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The Zone of Interest

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

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Before I read this book, the first question I asked is does the world need another holocaust book? The death camp Holocaust story has been told powerfully many, many times in film, book, stage and for me there has to be a very good reason to put the reader through it again. But after I’d read it, I had to re-appraise my view.

Firstly I have to say I found the The Zone of Interest one of the most brutal, empty, morally void, ambivalent and unflinching books we’ve ever read. At times this book was unreadable—in a good, bad way.

Amis is clearly a writer of real stature, a ‘proper’ author who uses words to massive effect (often ones I have to look up in a dictionary, so he must be proper). He’s that good. He perfectly captures the stark contrast between the captors and the captives – each suffering in their own way. I was reminded many times of Maus, a very different take on the holocaust but no less powerful.

I like at 1st how we didn’t know when the story was set. The picture gradually revealed itself, which usually frustrates but I enjoyed this reveal. Initially it could have been any time in history or the present day, which I’m sure was an intentional dramatic ploy.

The multi-voice narrative was bold, powerful and immersive. Confidently painting the darkest picture imaginable. Unusually, this was easy to navigate, displaying the author’s prowess. The impeccable research and exquisite German cultural detail sat alongside horribly accurate concentration camp atrocity. I felt the book laid bare the German psyche: the reasons, the impact, the retribution, the horrific fallout and consequences of their actions. Amis casts an unswerving eye on Germany as a whole and whether involved directly in the mass murder or not, everyone is guilty by implication.

The notes at the end of the book were most enlightening: the immersion and desire to understand what happened and the philosophical arguments that to somehow understand why it actually happened actually validated the actions. These discussions actually helped me to make some sense of the book.

There was of course a mini drama being played out against the harrowing backdrop: Hannah, Thompson and Doll’s complicated relationships seemed at first petty and pathetic, annoying details set against the enormity of industrialised death. It seemed horrifically banal. But in the final chapters, the bitter love story developed into an insightful filter by which we could observe and understand how Germany came to be like this and the dreadful outcome. The relationship was unexpectedly but satisfyingly resolved in the end, in a typically and brutal fashion, the long, icy fingers of the past creeping into the present.

This book made for a truly unenjoyable read: not in the sense that it was hard to read or that it was laborious prose, but because to turn each page was to unearth inhumanity. In the end I didn’t want to turn the pages but I felt compelled to. At times I felt hollowed out by it. There was no triumph of the human spirit to be had here. The atrocities were laid bare, responsibilities clearly handed out and the complicated aftermath only just beginning. Amis revels in the moral ambiguity of his characters, challenging the reader at every turn. At the heart of it were meticulously drawn characters – not sketches – but Leonardo-esque in their detail and accuracy.

I actually love reading history books about the Second World War: Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad and The Second World War are immense and immersive accounts of man’s inhumanity to man (both credited by Amis I noticed in this book). But for me personally, the veneer of factual history literature protects me from the grab you by the balls detail of a novel, where the writer has unfettered access to our imagination—the imagined more powerful than the actual, for once.

And yet his book digs deeper. Gets under the skin of the Third Reich, using the collective German psyche as a prism for their actions; gradually, imperceptibly becoming truly horrific. The book maps out the moral maze Germany faced: everyone implicated from locals turning a blind eye to grey snow and the stench to corporates like Bayer, who still exist today in our everyday lives, quietly making products like Alka Seltzer.

It’s not often I wheel out words like elegant, intense, powerful, truthful. But this book is all of these. I’m not sure it’s ‘fearless and original’ as the blurb describes (back to my earlier point about does the world need another book about the holocaust) but In The Zone of Interest demands the attention of the reader until the very last page and I’ve scored it high because the book held me in its vice-like grip to the very end.

Impossible to pick up, impossible to put down.

Halloween

I’ve always liked Halloween.

When I was a kid, it wasn’t anywhere near as popular as it was these days. We’d get together, our little gang from the estate, tell scary stories on the steps of each others houses and frighten ourselves silly with stories of Chalkie White (local imaginary weirdo killer), missing children and persistent, peripatetic spectres in council houses. We’d hollow out turnips (oh for the luxury of soft pumpkins) and stay up far too late. And as the turnips started to smell nutty and cooked, the witching hour approached.

But still, over the years, it resonates. I’ve been fascinated with being scared and as such, through every horror phase: comics initially then the quite immersive books and then ultimately the movies. Each has built in me a fascination and fear of the supernatural that although seems somewhat diminished at my age, it still informs a lot of what I enjoy to this day.

So I got to thinking: what were my top five scary films?

After lots of discussion, both on and offline, here they are in classic reverse order…

What are yours?

5. The Exorcist

I mentioned horror books earlier, and the daddy of them all was William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. As an avid reader of horror and scifi as a teenager, this was the bad boy of them all. I seem to remember plucking up courage to read it after mum had put it down and after reading it, wasn’t sure it was a good idea. Books always leave a bigger impression with me (that imagination again) and this one was no exception. it was chock full of horribly visual and very realistic set pieces: the whole country seemed to be talking about how bad it was.

When the film came out I was too young to see it at the cinema and it took years for it to appear on old school video tape. I avoided it. I knew it was scary – I’d seen bad clips of Linda Blair doing horrifying things and I’d read the book so I knew what was coming. When I eventually summoned up the courage to watch it, it was part of an all night horror video session with me and my old mate Carl Milner. It was scheduled for a 2am slot (because we reckoned that’s when we’d be at our lowest ebb and therefore more susceptible to frights) coming right after Romero’s frankly unsettling Dawn of the Dead.

Suffice it to say we had the lights on and we made plenty of cups of tea when it got a bit much. It still has a hold of me even now – it was on tonight, but I wouldn’t watch it: there was something else on.

4. Blair Witch Project

It’s funny, when I got to thinking about the films that affected me at the time that I saw them, there weren’t many modern horror films. Oddly, when I saw Blair Witch at the cinema, I marvelled at the fake marketing campaign around it and enjoyed the thrill of one of the best ‘must see’ cinema events of recent times.

It was only when I first saw the film on a television, in a hotel room, a long way from home, that the full power of the film hit me. Made for the small screen, it really got to me – jittery, claustrophobic filming and the one hundred per cent believable scenario drew me in.

I looked around the empty American hotel room except for me and my imagination and again, my mind filled in all the gaps and made it way scarier than anyone could have made it. It builds and builds to an ordinary, horrific crescendo that genuinely chills you to the bone.

3. Alien

This film is not a traditional frightener in my books, I’ll come clean.

But the first time I saw it – the theatre was packed with tension. Word had got out about the ‘chestburster’ scene and people were nervous about it. Before that, the anxiety builds portentously and after that it’s pure adrenalin punctuated by moments of genuine horror. These days it’s been superseded by all manner of shockers but it’s the daddy of all monster movies for me.

Ridley Scott builds the tension beautifully and the genius is that we don’t see the monster until near the end — and even then we don’t really get to see it. Our minds work over time. I remember in the days before video, it took 8 viewings at the cinema to appreciate HR Gigers’s magnificent monster. And still it fascinates.

2. The Haunting

Of course, you’ll know that I mean the original Robert Wise version from 1963, not the shoddy remake. How can a film made the year I was born pack such a chilling punch? This film is all about what is not shown on the screen – the mind does all the work and as I write this a chill goes down my spine and goosebumps appear when I think of the door handles slowly turning and the wood of the doors bowing with supernatural pressure. The director skilfully lets our minds do all the work and modern directors should take note: scares are to be cultivated and not dropped in willy nilly. That’s the power of this film.

Not much else to say except don’t find yourself at home, on your own, with this film on the television. Turn it off and watch a re-run of Family Guy. Or Top of the Pops.

1. Halloween

The first 18 film I ever saw in the Odeon Cinema in Leeds has left a lasting impression. John Carpenter’s genre defining movie has it all: a relentless, demonic killer with supernatural overtones, middle America that looked like the promised land, plenty of gratuitous boob shots of babysitters and stacks and stacks of tension and shock value. The soundtrack was home-made electronica and brilliant – of its time and at the same time, timeless.

It’s lo-fi horror with the bad guy wearing a cheap mask (based on William Shatner, fact fans) and a boiler suit hunting down local suburban kids in small town America in what would become a staple scenario for years to come. Carpenter delivers a taut, edgy and to this day iconic movie full of memorably shocking scenes.

It still sends a chill up the spine: its knowing classic horror movie references and its cold, cold heart. Oh, and of course Michael Myers, who just won’t lie down. At least until the sequel, but that’s another less interesting story. Halloween is a classic — still unbeaten after all these years.

Geek Love by Catherine Dunne

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There is something unsettling about a carnival, a freakshow.

Even in my relatively mundane West Yorkshire childhood, there was always something cool about when the ‘feast’ came to town. The feasties were travellers of dubious character and to be avoided. Of course there weren’t any freaks on show (most of them were the customers) but even then it was exciting and out of our usual experience, perhaps even a little bit dangerous.

I recently read and hugely enjoyed Ray Bradbury’s Something wicked this way comes, centred around a supernatural carnival that visits fifties mid west towns, seducing people, stealing souls. I think the travelling circus or carnival or midway or even a plain old carnie feast plays to our fear, excitement and ultimately fascination of the outsider. Our dull lives are shown to be lacking but for the fleeting visit of thrills and scares.

Geek Love takes the idea of a freak show and cranks it up to eleven with in your face thrills and chills. Dunn takes the perverse idea of biological manipulation to create the ultimate family of weirdos, each sibling taking the freak factor to the next level — I saw parallels with Nazi Germany playing God with human experimentation, as Al tried a new concoction of drugs on Lil to see if he could create the next headline act. In fact if there was a modern incarnation of this travelling circus of unease it would definitely have some kind of ‘Freak Factor’ feature with a Simon Cowell-esque take on what it really takes to be the top of the freaks.

Dunne carefully reveals the family in all its glorious physicality with eye-popping detailed description. There was no doubt in my mind who looked like what and how they all came about – well frankly it was absurd, comedic and actually very dark, at times disturbing: a trippy cross between the Addams Family, The Partridge Family and Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The author built the characters so solidly that we cared about the outcomes and the complexity of this ultimate dysfunctional family. The early days of the family cutely telling stories by the fire like a twisted Little House on the Prairie or better still, The Waltons, is in stark contrast to the empire of dirt they ultimately, unintentionally create.

As I write, the characters come tumbling onto the page and it’s at times like these that I’d be riffing on the family…Arty, the twins, Oly, Chick and how much Dunne made me care about what happened and what helped me make sense of the ending of the book. The crazy characters we meet along the way add a lush depth to the storytelling too, detailed case studies of oddness and weirdness, all looking pretty normal against the Binewski backdrop.

The book reminded me of an amphetamine-fuelled take on John Irvine, perhaps crossed with Tim Burton on acid. It’s bizarre, surreal and quite electric. All credit to Dunn though as we take each increasing level of disturbing activity in our collective stride. From the pinnacle of Arturism, a kind of amputee Moonie division to Miss Lick’s reverse plastic surgery, we were relentlessly pounded with outrageous themes that dared us to read on…

Yes, at times it was disturbing. And yes, at times I was properly shocked and had to close my mouth at the sheer oddness of it all.

But the language was unflinching and felt accurate, visceral, direct, the sledgehammer prose at times delivering knockout blows…but tender when it needed to be and patient when painting the picture.

Ultimately for me it’s a book about fitting in, examining what we mean about being normal and what it means to be an outsider. As a kid all I ever wanted to do was fit in — I was embarrassed by anything that made me stand out: my mum being too fat, our house looking too poor, and wearing the wrong type of parka (yeah…really). Central themes of surgically altering body shapes to look unattractive and biologically altering bodies to make them more entertaining are pretty hardcore and amongst the most challenging we’ve read.

But Dunne takes us on a journey that is moves at a clip (unpretentiously super easy to read), breezily taking us on a macabre road trip through the darkest heartland of America, holding up a mirror to my own ideas about self esteem, image, delighting in shocking my sensibilities but at the same time seducing me into feeling that really this is just a normal tale, about normal folk. Perhaps it’s me that’s weird??

The ending is like an episode from Tales from the Unexpected (as I suppose the whole Miss Lick exercise is, but no matter) and rather unsatisfyingly for me, Oly’s daughter never gets to know she is her mother.

But Dunn is merciless, and she was always going to be brutal with her ending of Oly’s life as she was with the Fabulon burning to the ground with all destroyed, burnt to a crisp and Arty cooked to a turn.

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