*Guest post by Laura Cofield*
A moment of pure joy washed over me last Wednesday as I watched my two favourite feminist icons sit on stage together and chat about pioneering women in music as part of The Odditorium series of events for Brighton Fringe Festival. Viv Albertine, writer, artist and guitarist of The Slits was invited to talk in conversation with Lucy about the women she had come to recognise as influential in her life. It was like ‘grasping at straws’ she described, born in the fifties and with so few women visible in the public eye, let alone pioneering in alternative and subculture.
I was there because I have fangirled Viv for a while now but have never had the chance to hear her speak live. Before I left for the event I placed my copy of Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys optimistically in my backpack just in case there might be opportunity for book signing. In an unexpected turn of events I ended up crying uncontrollably as I approached Viv at the signing table. And then I cried all the way home.
Lucy has encouraged me to think more generously about this involuntary response to meeting one of my feminist idols. Writing this blog has helped me unpack what it means to encounter our heroes. And why tears are sometimes the only way of expressing an attachment to another person you’ve never before met.
Before I talk about crying over Viv, here is Lucy’s introduction from the night about why it’s so important to remember and recover our female icons…
Viv is going to share some of the women who have been her inspirations and icons. And on the way I want to think about what it means to have a woman icon, to be one and to need one. When we build our lists of inspirations in the present, we take power from our pasts. We uncover lost stories, find resonances, and challenges. But more than that, when we find inspiration in the icons of the past we are situating our self in their struggle. And situating them in ours. I’m a big fan of the work that women put into uncovering and building their own statues.
Yes it can be really shit being a woman and getting the recognition you deserve, but here’s a list of women who have already done some of the ground work
When we put our own girls to the front we challenge the way our stories have been fed back to us. We can tell our own life stories through the icons we connect with on the way.
It wasn’t always easy to find an inspiring woman to connect with. Viv talks about the power of finding women mentioned on the backs of album covers
So part of what I want to do tonight is to build Viv’s community, her army, or inspirations for us all to share.
But also I want to try and get at the processes of forgetting. So often when women take to the stage, take to the front, are heard, it is treated as if it’s the first time ever, a novelty or a freak. Whether it’s the all women Ivy Benson Orchestra – who were the BBC orchestra during WW2 or the shock when punk women like Viv took to the stage, it is so often as though we have never been there before.
The history of punk that Viv shared with us in her memoir was an intervention in the punk nostalgia of the Sex Pistols 40th anniversary. Her memoir refuses to reiterate the same old cliché’s. it changes the parameters. Whilst this year has been framed around celebrating the Sex Pistols, all sorts of different stories of punk have slipped through the gaps of forgetting.
We uncover not only lost and forgotten stories, but all that enormous effort that went into forgetting them, over and over again. Viv had to get out her sharpie and intervene at the British Library’s 40th anniversary exhibition by adding a women’s names to the list of performers in the exhibition guide.
Demanding being seen never ends.
Viv chose to talk about
How John Lennon led her to Yoko Ono, How Vivienne Westwood taught her not to smile, Arii Up and The Slits showed her the revolutionary potential of women’s bodies, and her daughter taught her to get back on the guitar.
Viv and Lucy on stage and with The Assistants
Crying over Viv
Last Wednesday I met Viv Albertine and I cried.
Then I cried even more because I was so embarrassed about crying.
Lucy and I have talked about the politics of fangirling before. Our trip together to the Riot Grrrl Collection at the Fales Library Archive prompted us to think about what it means to support and idolise other women, particularly the tensions that arise from investing emotional labour, developing expertise and working through hierarchies of authenticity. We wanted to demonstrate the immense work, community-building and creative production that riot grrrl fans participated in, when in wider society the behaviour of teenage girl fans has often been disparaged as ‘hysterical’. When female fans cry it becomes a sign of immaturity, mental instability, feminine weakness, a missing grip on reality. It is for reasons such as these that Channel 4 decided to retitle director Daisy Asquith’s documentary about One Direction’s female fandom as ‘Crazy about One Direction’. It is because of my understanding and internalization of the patriarchal codes around gender and ageing that I felt uncomfortable and embarrassed about my own ‘hysteria’ in meeting Viv.
Much of Viv’s story recounted in her beautifully written autobiography Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys, is very different from my own life experiences. I don’t think that really changes what I have learnt from Viv about strength and bravery, oppression, survival, creativity, independence, resistance and collaboration. The second time I read Clothes Music Boys I did something I have never felt inclined to do before. I began to write a letter to Viv to tell her how much her words meant to me. That letter was never finished or sent. I think because even just jotting down those thoughts was enough of a release for me, at that time. I think also because the thought of her reading my letter was a bit overwhelming and I wasn’t ready to generate that intimate and direct connection between us. I was happy to fangirl from a far.
Proximity and temporality therefore have significant implications on our relationships with our idols. Because these relationships inhabit somewhat in the imagined, sharing space and time within a physical encounter has the potentiality to distort, threaten or intensify the intimate connection you have mentally forged. I think subconsciously I was very aware of this. Tammy Rae Carland wrote about how her crush on Amy Carter ‘should never be manifested as a possibility or even a reality, that would spoil it.’ I can understand why she says this. Sometimes the fantasy crush is powerful and meaningful enough.
As I waited in the book-signing queue last night, I was reacquainted with all the times Viv had had a guest-starring role in my life. She is a significant part of my attachment to Brighton and was very much embedded in my feelings of expectation, overwhelming-ness and apprehension of first moving to the city to embark upon my PhD. I can visualise the independent bookstore in Kemptown where I bought Clothes Music Boys. (It was the 11th September 2014, a few days after I had moved to the city. I know because I took a picture of the first page and uploaded it to twitter – I was sold in the first sentence).
She was in the room a lot as I began to learn more about punk DIY politics and praxis: hearing Matt Worley speak for the first time at Sussex about punk fanzines, and working with Lucy on intergenerational feminisms which would influence my own research and writing. She has been a journey companion on holiday and as I travelled between Brighton to London, wondering occasionally whether she had ever taken the same trains that I did. Viv has also been part of my personal life as I have repeatedly shared her with my friends and family, creating a community of my own around her work. I have bought several copies of Clothes, Music, Boys to give as gifts to people that I love, in so doing she has become a symbolic gesture of mine to demonstrate my affection and care of another person who I thought might also gain something from her story.
All these different strands of time seemed to converge in one finite moment as I was approaching the book signing table. Seeing Viv sitting there was weird and overwhelming because it was as if the present was colliding with these memories to create a ruptured moment. It almost seemed not to be about Viv anymore at all, but a reconciliation with myself, with the person I was three years ago and the work and communities I had cultivated in the interim. Sam McBean has discussed the significance of ‘queer temporalities’ within feminism and the co-existence of multiple past, present and future conceptualisations of the movement. Selves are similarly unstable and unfixed, and in meeting our idols we are made to confront this precariousness and disrupt our perception of the linearity of the passage of time. It’s hard to know what to say and do when there are so many versions of you being acknowledged all at once.
So now when I think about why I cried I can think about it in three ways. I was crying because Viv was fucking brilliant, as I knew she would be. And it was a dream come true to see her in conversation with another one of my feminist icons, Lucy. If I’m completely honest I was also crying because fangirling + PMS = emotional overload and the body just has ways of dealing with stuff that we sometimes have to accept. But also I was crying because I realised how capable I was/am/will be since moving to Brighton. In our article, Lucy and I discussed how two zine writers explore ‘what it is like to look at yourself by looking at another’.Viv is constantly reminding me I’m brilliant because she’s brilliant. Fangirling is powerful but it is also complex. Crying over Viv (literally over her) was uncomfortable and unexpected for me, but as Viv reminded us on Wednesday surprising people with the unpredictable is how the boundaries get pushed.
 S. McBean, Feminism’s Queer Temporalities (London: Routledge, 2016)