As guitarist and songwriter for the all-female group the Slits, Viv Albertine was a crucial figure in the first wave of London punk. The band’s playful, reggae-inspired music and fearless attitude would go on to shape the sound and thinking of fans like Sleater-Kinney and Kurt Cobain. Even aside from the music, Albertine’s story is a great one, as she helped define punk’s aesthetic and ran with the likes of Sid Vicious and the Clash. She tells that story in her rollicking, incisive memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. The book is out November 25, but below is a chapter excerpt, both gimlet-eyed and harrowing, in which Albertine recounts her decision to abort the child she’d conceived with the Clash’s Mick Jones.
It’s a waste of time to think that if you coloured a painting red what might have happened if you painted it black.
Anxiously looking for blood. Please come, blood. I forgive you, blood. I will never be so stupid and careless again. I will never be horrible or have a fit about you again, if you will only come.
I’m pregnant. Mick’s the father. We got back together after we bumped into each other at the paper shop in Shepherd’s Bush. I was looking at the magazines when I heard his lovely soft voice behind me, asking for a paper. I turned round and there he was with Tony James (Generation X’s bassist), my heart leapt. I just can’t get him out of my system. I’m twenty-four — just the age I always thought I’d be ready to have a baby — and pregnant. But now it’s here, I’m not ready at all. I did what my friends said worked for them and always put a contraceptive pessary up myself after sex (although it is supposed to be combined with a Durex). I haven’t had a period for a couple of months, which isn’t unusual for me, but my breasts are all swollen and painful so Mum bought a pregnancy test. My friend Becca was with me when I did it. She was shocked at how calm I was when we saw the result was positive. The thing is, I knew.
Well I’m not going to keep it. No question. Mum says she’ll help me raise it. No way. Yuck. Me and my mum and a baby crammed into the top-floor flat of a council block. Nappies hanging on the clothes airer suspended from the ceiling in the steamed-up kitchen, no money, no heating, the metal lift that smells of piss: the thought of it makes me feel sick. It just can’t be, not now, not in this situation. I’ve been warned so many times not to mess my life up by getting pregnant and now I’ve gone and done it. I can’t keep the baby. Mum suggests adoption, but I think that’s crueller than death. That’s my opinion. To burden a child with abandonment and rejection right from the start. A living death. All or nothing, that’s me. I choose nothing. Nothingness for baby. I think this is a responsible decision. I will not countenance any other option.
I make an appointment at a clinic. You can’t just go and have an abortion, you have to prove you’re mentally incapable of having a baby or they make you keep it. I don’t know how I can think of getting rid of a baby so calmly and yet get so upset when some spotty boy doesn’t call.
I go to the clinic and cry. That’s what other girls who’ve been through it told me to do. If you cry, they’ll let you have an abortion. I’m sure the doctor would have let me anyway. He sits behind his desk, looking at me sobbing in a short, tight, pink second-hand child’s dress, fishnet tights and black Dr Marten boots, blonde hair sticking out all over the place. Better not let this one have a baby. In two days’ time I’ll be over the legal limit and then they’ll make me have it. I’m sent to a clinic in Brighton. Mum waves me off at the station. I’ve got a little overnight bag, it’s a duffel bag with pictures of 1970s pop stars printed on it, I bought it at a jumble sale, thought it was funny. I feel strangely calm. I don’t feel like I have a baby growing inside me. I don’t even think of it. It’s just something that needs to be sorted out. Before I leave I tell Mick over the phone that I’m pregnant and I’m off to the hospital to deal with it on my own. He offers to come with me but I don’t want him to. I don’t want to feel anything. If he’s there I might feel something.
I’m given a place at the end of a long row of beds with girls about my age in them. A nurse comes in to give us a talk. ‘You will be taken into the operating theatre. You will be given an anaesthetic. The foetus will be removed by suction. You will be wheeled back into this room. When you wake up you will experience cramping in your stomach, it will help relieve the pain if you draw your knees up to your chest and roll onto your side. Then you will be served dinner.’
The other girls are nervous. I’m not. I’m last to go in. I’ve never been to hospital before. I’m not allowed to walk anywhere, I have to be wheeled in a wheelchair. I don’t like it, I’m perfectly healthy. Two orderlies trundle me down the corridor, doors crash open and swing shut behind us. People hover over me fiddling with tubes and charts as we glide along. In the anteroom a doctor says he’s going to give me the anaesthetic now, it will feel like I’ve drunk a large gin and tonic. Just as he puts the needle into a vein on the back of my hand, the plastic casing on the ceiling light above me crashes down and lands on my face. A nurse rushes forward apologising.
I wake up in my bed. The girl next to me is sobbing. My stomach hurts, I draw my knees up to my chest and roll onto my side. The pain subsides. A trolley arrives with our dinner. I’m starving and it’s a Sunday roast, my favourite. The girl next to me can’t eat, she’s too upset. I ask if I can have her roast potatoes.
The next day I get the train back to London. Mum meets me at the station. We go home. I go straight to bed. Tomorrow I’m going to Paris with the Slits. Julien Temple is coming along to film us for Malcolm McLaren.
I can’t sleep. I think about the terrifying power that women and mothers have. We don’t need to fight in wars. We have nothing to prove. We have the power to kill and lots of us have used it. How many of you boys have ever killed anyone? I have. I’ve killed a baby. It doesn’t get much worse than that. Maybe your mother has secretly used her power to kill in the past and not told you. Maybe she even thought about doing it to you. It’s a secret and a burden she carries with her.
I don’t tell the Slits what I’ve been through. I’ll look like a bloated milk pudding in Julien’s film though (luckily it was never made). When I look in the mirror I see a round pale face with two little currants poked into the doughy, uncooked skin. I keep the hospital identity bracelet on my wrist, I think it looks good: no one notices it. Emotionally I’m in a bit of a state. I’m physically weak too.
After the Paris show — in a club called Gibus — along comes a very handsome French boy called Jeannot. He has dark hair, dark eyes and olive skin. He says that my name, Albertine, is considered ugly in France, it’s a servant’s name, a peasant’s name. I laugh it off but inside I’m crushed. I have no confidence. It’s been sucked out of me with the baby. Jeannot offers me heroin. I’m tempted. Not because I want to forget what I’ve done, or because I’m so down, even though both are true, but because I’ve lost my identity. I haven’t a clue who I am. I feel like a nothing. But I know without a doubt, if I take heroin now, I will destroy the tiny morsel of myself that is left, I will be lost forever. (Funny how heroin comes along at times like this. These guys can smell your weakness, like sharks smell blood.) I muster all my strength and say no. Jeannot sneers. He goes off with Tessa and Palmolive. He doesn’t speak to me again. Julien follows Ari around with the camera, because she’s the one Malcolm’s interested in. I sit in my little hotel room and stare out of the window at Paris, watching people walk up and down the street, the heels clacking on the cobbles keeping me awake all night. So this is what I’ve chosen over a baby: the Slits, gigging, hotel rooms, music, self-expression, loneliness. It was the right decision – wasn’t it? I wish I was at home with Mum.
I didn’t regret the abortion for twenty years. But eventually I did and I still regret it now. I wish I’d kept the baby, whatever the cost. It’s hard to live with. But I still defend a woman’s right to choose. To have control over her own body and life. That cannot and must not ever be taken away from us.