Vi Subversa - a tribute

Musician and author Helen McCookerybook was mentored by Vi Subversa of Poison Girls, and pays tribute to the punk legend.

Vi Subversa - pic Iona Dee

Vi Subversa

I found it hard to call her Vi, because I first knew her as Frances. She had set up a promise by the Trustees at the Presbyterian Church just off North Street in Brighton, where there was a Community Resource Centre in the old church hall, to allow bands to rehearse and play gigs in the capacious vaults underneath the centre.

Before punk started up, I went to the occasional party down there in The Vault and sometimes saw bands playing. The partygoers were hippyish sometimes, sometimes transgender, always alternative and unusual.

Everyone who was everyone in the impoverished non-mainstream used to drop in there; political activities were planned, arguments between different factions played out, and it genuinely was a centre for outlaws.

Things hotted up after The Buzzcocks played there. Sadly, I missed the gig, but my then boyfriend had managed to get a job as a video director upstairs, where there were advice people, poster printing, constant cups of instant coffee and a two-bar electric fire.

Frances was a presence, and we knew that she played in band with her family: the early Poison Girls, with a woman called Sue who was one of a twin and who had very long hair, on semi-acoustic bass.

When the band in the basement of our squat, The Molesters, had one deafening rehearsal too many, we got them a gig at The Vault so we could have an evening’s peace.

They wouldn’t do it, so Steve, Nick and Joby decided to form a band. Steve and Nick decided to be guitarists and Joby decided he would be the singer, and they all decided that I would play bass guitar.

We went to tell Frances, and immediately she offered us her 14 year old son (who was Poison Girls’ drummer at the time) to stand in on drums, and Sue offered to lend me her bass which I was delighted to discover had once belonged to The Buzzcocks.

“To have her support was a blessing”

Frances was full of glee, because she wanted young people to make bands and say what we had to say through music. Unlike the rest of us, she was 40, but she was so open and easy to talk to that it was impossible not to trust her completely. An adult who didn’t judge? Extraordinary.

I don’t think she ever 100% agreed with Joby, who was exploring various abrasive avenues that punk was leading him to, but she supported his right to be himself whatever he said or did (or indeed anyone’s) - so long as he was happy to have a conversation about it. Frances was like that with everyone, and to have her support was a blessing. I had had a miserable time at Brighton Art College being alternately flirted with and insulted by my tutors (all apart from Stuart, but I’ve written about him before) and it was a genuine surprise to be able to talk wholeheartedly with an adult who treated me with respect and who seemed interested in what I had to say, rather than imposing their own ideas on me.

After that first gig, with songs written in an afternoon from copies of The Sun and The Mirror, we got more - that was the way with punk bands. Poison Girls continued to play, we continued to see them, until eventually they left Brighton for London and the anarcho punk scene.

“She mentored the entire early punk scene in Brighton”

I cited Vi Subversa as a mentor when Women in Music asked for people to tell them about their mentors. I think it might usually mean a one-to-one relationship, but I would say that she mentored the entire early punk scene in Brighton. Everyone knew and trusted her, even bands from different strands of punk with their silly small-town stand-offs; she was good-natured and listened to immature ramblings and grand plans with the same attention and patience.

Years later, when I wrote The Lost Women of Rock Music, she sent me a lovely letter along with the questionnaire I’d sent to Spain, where she was a blueswoman (just changed to bluesman by autocorrect: what an extraordinary thing!) and I was able to fill in some gaps about her own experience of Brighton at that time.

She had really stuck her neck out to protect us all from the Church Trustees (who ever paid rent for their rehearsal arches? Practically nobody - we had no money!) and often had to fight off unfair criticism. The Brighton Women’s Group, which was supposed to be a feminist support group, subjected her to a really unpleasant experience. That was the major reason why I wouldn’t touch 1970s feminism with barge-pole; what should have been an open-minded support group was horrifically ageist and nasty, and I am so sorry that they were like that.

We had been hoping to film her for our documentary, and now I know why she didn’t answer the phone when I was trying to contact her. It is tremendously sad not to be able to include her stories, but I felt so very lucky to have known her because she restored my faith in humanity at a very cruel time in my life, and made me realise that there are great ways of growing up and growing older, and that much of our power as human beings exists in the sphere of independent thought and positive action.

Frances deserved every good thing that life brought to her. Her kids had a fabulous Mum, we all had an amazing mentor in Brighton, and Vi Subversa was truly one of life’s great characters and loving beings; what an inspiration.

  • Helen McCookerybook played bass with Brighton punk band Joby and the Hooligans before founding The Chefs, and later, Helen and the Horns, who both recorded sessions for John Peel. After seven years as a professional musician and music work on South London Estates, she became an academic, publishing The Lost Women of Rock Music: Female Musicians of the punk era (Equinox) in 2012. She is now researching female engineers and producers in the UK, lecturing at the University of East London, and continues to play live. You can read more about Helen’s book The Lost Women of Rock here, and more about the Brighton Punk scene at PunkBrighton.