What follows is a personal salute to Vi Subversa, via the biography of fellow anarchist Colin Ward.
Back in 1945, my dad Colin Ward, then a soldier, was a witness for the prosecution at the trial of the editors of the anarchist newspaper War Commentary. John Hewetson, Vernon Richards and Philip Sansom were being accused of sedition. My dad had been receiving the journal and it’s anti-war message in Glasgow, where he was stationed. The three men went to prison for 9 months but my dad came out of the experience believing that, in his words ‘the anarchists were right’.
Colin Ward became an editor of the newspaper in 1947, after it had reverted to its original name, Freedom. He and the three accused parties all ended up moving, at different times, from London to a small area of south Suffolk, around ten miles west of Ipswich. John Hewetson moved to the village of Boxford, Vernon Richards to Bower House Tye and Colin to Kersey Uplands. Philip Sansom also moved to the area, with his partner Frances Sokolov and their two kids Dan and Gemma. When the couple split up Philip returned to London and Frances moved to Brighton, where she met the other members of what was to become the band Poisongirls. Frances was the lead singer and songwriter, adopting the stagename Vi Subversa.
Vi died six months ago, on February 19th, 2016. Poisongirls made several records between 1977 and 1986 and were known nationally and in mainland Europe. In the early 80s some of their early records were given to Colin. His musical taste, however, was firmly rooted in pre-rock and roll days. I would say he appreciated the first Viennese school of Classical composers (Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert) greatly and the flip side of this was his enthusiasm for American folk music, early jazz and some skiffle. So the rawness of punk guitars and vocals were not his thing. I, on the other hand, was bowled over by it and subsequently went to a lot of their gigs and bought the later Poisongirls releases from Parrot Records and Andy’s Records in Ipswich.
Unlike many of her peers, Vi could cross the generation gap easily. She talked to teenagers the same way she talked to people her own age and could relate to their outlook and culture. Her bravery, compassion and charisma, as well as her great lyrics, which combined the confessional and the political, attracted fans and journalists alike. I remember a gig in the mid-1980s in Battersea Park, London, a benefit for the soon-to-be-abolished Greater London Council, or GLC, bearing the slogan ‘Jobs For a Change’. At that time, every left-leaning act was being co-opted into supporting the Labour Party and its causes. When the Poisongirls took the stage, Vi took a look around and remarked:
“Jobs for a CHANGE? What about the right NOT to work?”
Just like those anarchists forty years earlier, she made the world aware there was another viewpoint.
I should also mention Poisongirls’ guitarist, and equally captivating stage presence, Richard Famous. Richard’s energetic, staccato playing was just as effective when the band made their transition from punk to pop (1982) and back again (1986). He took the lead vocal on ‘Alienation’, one of their important early songs, and continued playing with Vi as ‘That Famous Subversa’ once the band proper had split up.