Tracey Thorn’s honest and highly absorbing work of creative non-fiction, Another Planet, brings together the teenage diaries of the Everything But The Girl singer before the musical success of the 90s.
Somewhere at the bottom of a box in my parents’ attic in Swansea is a pile of my teenage diaries. I haven’t looked at them since I made my last entry, which was probably about Simon Le Bon or A Level history or Princess Di’s hats. I don’t know if it’s possible to cringe yourself to death but I’m pretty sure I’d come close to it if I ever climbed the loft ladder and opened the one marked 1986 (purple velour, as I recall. I was going through a Prince phase). Tracey Thorn is a braver woman than I. Her diaries are the basis for her memoir, Another Planet, A Teenager in Suburbia, a title so gloriously concise and complete that the book really doesn’t need any further explanation.
Readers of a certain vintage will remember Tracey as the lead singer of 90’s pop duo Everything But The Girl (and I miss you like the deserts miss the rain,), she is also a solo artist, regular columnist for The New Statesman, film score composer and novelist. Normally I’d take an instant dislike to anyone with such an excessive amount of talent; it never seems fair to me that so much natural ability is concentrated in one person. Unfortunately Tracey Thorn is also funny, self-deprecating, frank and far more modest than she needs to be. In a highly entertaining and honest discussion with Kate Mossman, arts editor of The New Statesman, Tracey discussed her book and the themes of innocence, alienation, anxiety, frustration and boredom. It requires a certain kind of genius to take diary entries such as
‘1 January – Went to Welwyn with Mum and Dad to get some boots but couldn’t get any… 8 January – Liz and I went to Potter’s Bar in the afternoon to try to get her ears pierced but she couldn’t…’
and produce an entertaining, highly absorbing work of creative non-fiction, but Tracey does it with ease. From the banality of
‘Went to St. Alban’s with Debbie. Could not get a jumper or skirt…’
she comes to the realisation that her teenage diaries are as much about ‘what’s missing, what fails to happen’ as they are about what actually does happen. 1970’s suburbia, she says
‘is easier to explain by saying what it wasn’t than what it was…a village, but not a village. Rural but not rural…A contingent, liminal, border territory. In-betweenland.’
It’s a striking and effective metaphor – adolescence as the suburbia of life. A stop on the line. She also believes that the great benefit of diaries as a source material of memoir writing is that some of the early editing has already been done. Thus Tracey may not have recorded when she started her periods or her O’level results, but she did choose to preserve for posterity her high jump score (1.15m TUT TUT) and where she went on her dog walks. In amongst the wry observations and gentle self-mockery, there is also a hint of sub-texts Tracey could never have guessed at the time. Her mother’s cancer scare, hysterectomy, depression and menopause, for instance, dealt with in such entries as
‘5April 1978 – Got up about 10.30. Deb had a driving lesson. Mum went to the doctor and got some tranquillisers to calm her down a bit! Watched Crown Court.’
She also notes that, with the self-absorption of youth, the political turmoil of the outside world found its way into her diaries only in as much as it affected her.
‘8 February – FANTASTIC NEWS.- because of the oil strike there’s no heating at school so we haven’t got to go in again until at least Tuesday, hooray.’
Tracey was honest about her growing sense of alienation from her aspirational, working-class parents, who had escaped post-war North London for a better, more genteel existence in a new-build semi-detached. Her parents’ idea of suburbia as a safe haven, a refuge from the darkness and threat of ‘the outside’ was, to the teenage Tracey, fed by anxiety and narrow mindedness. The book documents parties and village hall discos, Saturday jobs and shopping trips, alcohol, drugs, song writing, band rehearsals and boyfriends. The restrictions and narrow-mindedness of Brookman’s Park, a sort of wannabe Welwyn Garden City, provided Tracey with something to kick against and her teenage rebellion manifested itself in ‘edgy’ friends (universally derided as ‘common’ by her mother) and youthful forays into music.
Nowadays, with the ever-helpful clarity of 20-20 hindsight, she recognises that it was precisely the stifling restrictions of suburbia that gave her the impetus to write and perform music. Perhaps a more liberal, less conservative upbringing, of the sort she has given her own children, would have produced less boredom, less creativity, less fruitful teenage angst. Certainly the frustrations of being ‘just beyond’ London made the city a tantalising draw to Tracey and her cohort in a way that sparked the excitement and energy to experience and be inspired by it, rather than the jaded, world-weary ennui of ‘proper’ Londoners. She acknowledged, therefore, that she has much to be grateful for to stultifying Suburbia and her boring parents. She also admitted that much of the time she was a cliché. This lack of conceit, this even-handed willingness to re-assess her teenage self without fear or favour is a a leitmotif of the book.
The talk ended with a Q & A which covered everything from her writing process to her music career. Tracey spoke with an honesty and modesty that was both surprising and refreshing in one so accomplished. It is perhaps significant that she has only felt able to write her memoir since the death of her parents, acknowledging that, while they were still alive, the sense that they were looking over her shoulder, judging and commenting on her behaviour, was never far away. Suburbia’s disapproving repression, it seems, casts a long shadow.
One day I may feel ready to open my own teenage diaries and sift through the frequent references to French verb tables, Dorothy Perkins and who I fancied in the first XV to unearth the truth of my own adolescent self. But that day has not yet come.
Tracey Thorn’s Another Planet, A Teenager in Suburbia is published by Canongate Books and is available to buy online and in all good bookshops around the UK. For more information and to read an excerpt from the book click here. Follow the links to find out more about Tracey Thorn, her work and Everything But The Girl.