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vi subversa - what a life
'Flesh and blood is what we are'
1935 - 2016
How was it that Vi, at the age of 40, decided to start performing in front of kids less than half her age, play loud distorted guitar and sing about her life, love and politics? And get away with it!
In the 1970s, at the age of 40 you were definitely considered ‘past it’. Past the time to settle down. Past the time to be making waves, rocking the boat and definitely past the time for a woman to get involved with a punk band! She will be remembered as a unique voice in rock music (never mind punk) an original political thinker and writer, and her band, Poison Girls, were ground zero for the anarcho-feminist movement that exploded in the 80s. But there was more. So here goes. One. Two. Three. Four.
Frances was an only child, born mid summers day 1935. Her parents, Sarah and Sydney Sokolov were from the Jewish immigrant community settled in the East End of London. It is thought they came from somewhere in what is now North East Poland. The actual location was always in doubt, though there is certainly a town called Sokolov in that area. Who knows?
1939 and the start of World War 2. Along with most London children, in anticipation of the Blitz, Frances was evacuated. In her case to South Wales. She had a label tied round her neck and sent by train, along with a carriage full of children, to the rural Welsh valleys. All the children were lined up at the station, and the families that had been ‘volunteered’ to take a child took their pick. Frances was the last one to be chosen and ended up billeted, an east end Jewish girl, with two elderly spinster ‘Chapel’ ladies. She was 4 years old and would spend all the war years in Wales.
She had fond memories of her time there. She liked her ‘foster parents’, visiting them in later life, and would tell stories of playing in streams and fields. Her life long love of nature seems to have been kindled at this time, as well as the view that good, kind and generous people could come from any religious background. A view not shared by her mother.
The ‘all clear’ for children to return home to London had been sounded after one year, but her parents decided she should stay in Wales. That decision, Frances took it as a personal rejection, was the start of a lifelong struggle with her mother. Her father died when she was in her early teens, and her mother never gave up hope she would settle down with a “good Jewish man”. She ran away at least once and was by all accounts, understandably, a difficult child and left home as soon as possible.
In the 50s she studied pottery, set up a studio, supplying, amongst others, Heals of London. She also took on a market stall and was known locally as ‘The Potter of Petticoat Lane’. She studied under, and worked with, noted sculptor and ceramic artist Nehemia Azaz at the Shenters pottery in London. Azaz considered her extremely talented and she was invited follow him to the Harsa sanitary ware factory in Beersheba. This was part of the Kibbutz movement, and she was to spend two years there. In the 50s the Kibbutzim were still very much a ‘utopian collective’. Back in Britain her work was gaining attention, and she was commissioned to design and produce a large ceramic tiled mural for the main stairwell at Loughborough College
Still in the 50s, and in her teens, and Frances became part of the Soho arts and politics crowd. She was listening to jazz, Sophie Tucker, Mahalia Jackson, and Ella Fitzgerald amongst her favourites. She would hang around the offices of the anarchist newspaper ‘Freedom’, and help collate and sell the paper on the streets. She met, and admired, amongst others, Philip Sansom. He was a commercial artist, occasional editor of ‘Freedom’, committed anarchist, conscientious objector, regular speaker at Speakers Corner, and campaigner against capital punishment. He was to become her partner and they lived together
The early 60s found Frances working in PR and advertising. She claimed to have come up with the ‘cushion soft’ toilet paper slogan (she was amused by the sight of a group of stuffy men, sat round a table, trying to think up a slogan to imply you could “wipe your arse without getting shit on your hands”). The corporate world didn’t suit her though and she preferred to revel in the cultural shifts and freedoms that seemed to be happening all around. She embraced the alternative, one could almost say hippie, lifestyle. It was now The Beatles on the record player.
It was also at this time that one of Frances’ close friends was severely beaten, around the testicles, by the French police during the 1968 Paris Student protests. This experience stayed with her, and she was from then on wary of the brutal power of the establishment to suppress dissent. She saw protest that escalated into violence, from whichever side, as just part of ‘male’ power politics. It played into the hands of the authorities who were more than willing and able to use and abuse excessive violence. This episode reinforced Frances’ belief in non-violent direct action
By the late 60s, living in the country with small two children, she was becoming increasingly frustrated and isolated. So Frances enrolled as a student at North London Poly, in the new discipline of group dynamics. This was the revolutionary DABS course (Diploma in Applied Behavioral Studies) a pioneering exploration of alternative educational ideas. With two children this was a topic dear to Frances’ heart. It was here that she met Lance d’Boyle, a tutor on the course, who was to become her partner and a life long friend.
In the early 70s Frances’ relationship with Philip broke down and she moved to Brighton to live with Lance. Brighton of the 70s was, even then, a hotbed of radical and sexual politics. Frances became seriously involved in the Feminist movement (still under the name Womens Lib), taking part in a Sexuality conference, and setting up Womens’ consciousness raising and Womens’ therapy groups. The feminist movement at this time tended towards the extreme, and Frances had difficulties, and arguments, with the more ‘separatist’ factions. Later she was to get little support for being in a punk band, and what’s more, working with men! Frances countered by saying “I have a son, so what can I do?”
Her anti-authoritarian nature and ideas about alternative education led her to engage with the Brighton Free School movement.
At this point, summer 1975, Frances was 40 years old, which is where we came in.
As she told it, she had just decided to spend the rest of her life lying on her back studying clouds, when, that same day, she was invited to join a disparate bunch of students, ex hippies and assorted riff raff (including Richard Famous, Bella Donna and Lance, who were to become the original Poison Girls) to write and perform in ‘The Body Show’. This was to be part of the Sussex University package that would ‘take the Edinburgh Festival by storm!’
At this time Frances had never sung in public, claiming to have been told throughout her life that she couldn’t (or shouldn’t) sing. Her first attempt (in private) was one of her poems, ‘Bird in my Body’, performed, for fear of anyone overhearing, under a blanket! She finished singing and realized the window to the street was wide open. First public performance? The first tentative sighting of Vi?
The Body Show, a revue show with sketches and songs on the themes of personal and sexual politics, was a major success. This was in no small part due to being banned from the original council venue. Refusal to provide a script (there was no script, but the group, under the howls of artistic freedom, point blank refused to provide one!) made the threat of full frontal nudity too much for good folk of Edinburgh council! The show was banished to a hall above a bus garage, and the guarantee of full houses. There was never going to be any nudity of course, but being banned was, as ever, brilliant for business. The Body Show featured Vi’s first ‘proper’ song, ‘Kitchen Floor Stomp’, with music by Richard Famous (generously borrowed from Muddy Waters via David Bowie).
On returning to Brighton, flushed with the success of the Body show, a fluid group of 8 or so musicians would continue to meet and make music at Frances’ house. There were performances under a host of names during the next year (Bellybuttons, Goldrush, Ordinary Decent Englishmen, Liz and the Corgi’s, Bare Hands, Vacant Lot being just some). By autumn 1976 though, after hearing the first demo tape from the Buzzcocks, it was obvious where the new energy was coming from. Poison Girls emerged as a 4 piece electric band (named by Pete Fender “Poison Girls”. 2 boys, 2 girls, get it”. Such is the way of these things!), and into the punk scene in Brighton. This change in decibels proved problematic for the neighbours and made looking for a rehearsal space a priority.
Still known as Frances, but by this time much more confident about her voice and performance she sang a selection of Kurt Weill songs, no mean feat, accompanied by her good friend Adrian Arriva as a support act for The Dandies, Adrian’s band. She was to continue her love of Kurt Weill songs and sang a couple at her 80th birthday party. She also performed various theatrical ‘turns’ during the Dandies set, including, for the 1977 silver Jubilee celebrations (!) arriving on stage riding a pantomime horse whilst dressed as the Queen.
Frances had been involved with various community groups trying to find a big suitable place for a council funded Resources Centre. It was eventually set up in an abandoned Presbyterian church, with a hall and stage, and various back rooms for meetings and simple silkscreen facilities (and very dodgy electrics). Frances ended up being employed as manager. There was however a basement vault to the building (not originally part of the deal), which we were told had not been opened since being used as an air raid shelter during the 2nd world war (there were certainly ‘bring your gas mask’ posters on the wall)
The Poison years -
From then on the history of Poison Girls, and the rise of Vi Subversa as a unique singer, brilliant lyricist, and leading light in the anarcho feminist peace movement is well documented. (for a comprehensive and authoritative essay on Poison Girls see Richard Cross’ piece in ‘The Hippies Now Wear Black’
Burleigh House was an abandoned mansion on the route of the proposed M25 motorway. Rented from the Department of Transport, it was basically a licensed squat, but provided a permanent rehearsal space, silk screen facilities, the beginnings of a recording studio, and plenty of space for creative activities of all kinds. It was, by chance, only 4 miles away from where the band Crass were based. The two bands were to form an informal partnership and play 97 benefit gigs together over the coming couple of years and galvanising a new generation of disaffected youth. Burleigh House, initially on a 9 month contract, lasted for 3 years before the motorway eventually ploughed through, and Vi and the band ended up in Leytonstone in east London
In 1985, Vi’s 50th birthday was celebrated by a packed gig at the Ritzy in Brixton (£1 and a present to get in) and at the Glastonbury Festival (one of the wet years!). As the band took the stage, Vi was serenaded with a rendition of ‘happy birthday’ by 10,000 or so extremely muddy punters. Quite a touching moment
By the mid 80s the musical and political climate had changed. Vi was increasingly interested in more diverse performers and performances. The band worked with several ‘Alternative Cabaret’ artistes, including Tony Allen, Benjamin Zephaniah, Mark Hurst, Akimbo, Toxic Shock, Janice Perry, as well as a host of punk poets and ranters. Vi and Richard were to perform as a duo (vocal and electric guitar) under the name ‘That Famous Subversa’, both as occasional support for Poison Girls, and as an ‘Alternative Cabaret’ act in its own right.
In 1989 Vi and Poison Girls were to write the music and lyrics for the Lenya Hobnoobs Theatre Groups international productions of ‘AIDS - the Musical’. She also performed in one production, according to Steven Wells, as “the wonderful sight of Vi Subversa, dressed as a vicar, holding a bible with ‘Holy Shit’ emblazoned across the front”. There were more Lenya productions and Vi continued to contribute songs.
Now, with Poison Girls disbanded and her Community Education projects winding down, Vi was restless and looking for a new adventure, albeit at a more leisurely pace. Spurned on by medical advice to move to a warmer, drier climate, she had an open house sale of her possessions, and relocated to Southern Spain, to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Lance had moved to the area 3 years previously, and whilst on holiday visits to see him, Frances decided that she could find scope for the things she loved most. So by the end of 1993, she was in Spain living in the countryside again. She also decided to ‘retire’ Vi Subversa and to revert to Frances Sokolov.
In southern Spain, following the death of Franco, the younger generation had rejected farming as a way of life. As a consequence there were many abandoned farms, often with ruined buildings, that could be bought cheaply and renovated or converted. Frances bought a small ‘casa’, but whilst building work on an extension was being undertaken, the original roof collapsed with her underneath. She repaired the house, finished the extension and sold it! She had found a sunnier plot nearby, and rose to the challenge of 'building her own house', more or less from scratch, on the foot print of a ruin. This house, ‘La Tejilla’, (or ‘Little Tile’), was where she lived and provided holidays for her growing extended family. Her gardening skills ran riot with the power of the Mediterranean heat and sun. She planted trees, vines and fruits, and the gardens hosted many live musical events and community celebrations, including, for a while, monthly ‘rastros’ (small scale craft and handiwork markets).
Spain is famous for its people's love of music and partying, and Frances was involved in this from the start. Both she and Lance were continually meeting old friends, fans, Stonehenge / Peace convoy veterans and fellow travelers. Their most common greeting was “Vi. You totally changed my life!” Many had been expelled from the UK, or other parts of Europe, and were looking for a place to park up or even settle down. The area was to host the ‘Dragon Free Music Festival’, which at its peak attracted upwards of 5,000 people. Frances (Vi for the day) and Lance played regularly with friends, and on one memorable occasion led a massive rendition of the Poison Girls anthem ‘Persons Unknown’.
Frances, with Lance, played with a variety of jamming bands, centered around the ‘Bands at Bills’ sessions. She was still writing new songs and one band, ‘The Rooms’, became more serious. They rehearsed, and for a year toured the local area, with one gig in Madrid. Frances shared vocal and writing chores with Manolo, a Spanish musician and bass player, (a rare live CD of ‘The Rooms’ exists).
On Frances' 70th Birthday, keen to continue the party tradition, an ad hoc band, ‘Stiff Biscuit’, was formed. The party became known as the legendary ‘Block The Street Party’. So many people turned up the parking facility overflowed and blocked the road to Granada!
Throughout her 19 years stay in Spain, Frances was continually writing. As well as songs for performance, she also took her poetry writing seriously and was a committed member of writing groups, from which she gained both support and recognition. Right up till a few days before she returned to the UK, Frances was singing and recording new material, accompanied by Lance and a good friend Rosie on piano.
Back Home -
In 2012 Frances moved back to Britain, to South Coast, to be closer to her family, taking great pride and joy in her three grand children. She teamed up with an old friend Michael Coates from the Brighton days, and, as Vi, they performed as ‘Naughty Thoughts’. Despite just having had a spell in hospital for a broken leg, her 80th birthday party, summer 2015, included a ‘Naughty Thoughts’ performance. A typically joyous occasion and a wonderful celebration with local musicians and many old friends.
Vi was delighted with the reissuing on vinyl, after 30 odd years, of the albums ‘Hex’ and ‘Chappaquiddick Bridge’ in 2014 (through Water Wing Records). The 12” vinyl single ‘Persons Unknown’ coupled with ‘Orchestral Statement’, (through All The Madmen Records) came out in November 2015. The launch party for the record was to be the final Vi Subversa performance, as ‘Naughty Thoughts’, special guests supporting ‘The Cravats’, December 5th 2015.
Many people have talked about Frances’ razor sharp insights, her listening skills, her sense of humour and deep belly laugh, her common sense, her moments of sadness and happiness, her absolute presence, and the love and generosity with which she lived her life. Anyone who met her was affected in one way or other. She was truly a one off.
Vi’s last email to me in November 2015, on receiving her first copies of the ‘Persons Unknown’ record, was