Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia by Tracey Thorn – review

Snogs at discos and Saturday shopping ... the Everything But the Girl frontwoman looks back on humdrum days in the spiritual home of English pop

You know Brookmans Park, don’t you? Of course you do – even if, like me, you’ve never been there. It’s a dormitory settlement in Hertfordshire, population around 3,000. Its railway station, leading straight to London, is its raison d’être. Shielded from further growth by the green belt, it looks broadly the same as when it sprang up in the 1930s. Around its village green cluster a few shops, including four estate agents, a hairdresser (Cutting It Fine) and a pet salon (Groomers on the Green). The three-bedroom semis all have front lawns ending in that hint of an Englishman’s castle, crenellated walls. Today one of those houses will cost you three-quarters of a million. Know where I mean? Thought so.

Tracey Thorn grew up there, in this “sea of green just off the coast of London”. She spent her adolescence lurking at bus stops, going to 35p Monday night discos at the Brookmans Park Hotel before graduating to gigs at Hatfield Poly, all the time scribbling diary entries that eventually grew into songs.

This diary, which she began in 1975 when she was 13, is filled with entries about not doing stuff. “Tried to phone Deb but no answer.” “Tried to get some black trousers but couldn’t get any nice ones.” “Tried to go to the library but it was shut.” Her comfortably dull days separate into fragments of non-events, “a life described by what’s missing, and what fails to happen”.

Thorn is not, she concedes, the first writer to have grown up stifled in suburbia. As one half of Everything But the Girl, though, she is well placed to explore how London’s commuterland became what the novelist Michael Bracewell calls “the spiritual home of English pop”. She knows first-hand how boredom and restlessness can cultivate creativity and crooked thinking. She grasps that, precisely because suburbia is a synthetic world, “a stage set dropped on to an empty landscape”, its bland exteriors conceal outlandish desires. And so a different small patch of south-east London around Bromley and Beckenham can give birth, through benign neglect, to David Bowie, David Sylvian and Siouxsie Sioux.

Everything But The Girl (Tracy Thorn and Ben Watt) by the Thames in Richmond, London, 1982.
Everything But the Girl (Tracy Thorn and Ben Watt) by the Thames in Richmond, London, 1982. Photograph: David Corio/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Another Planet is part memoir, part anthropology. The chapters flit between the 1970s and 2016, when Thorn journeyed back to this place she had not set foot in for more than 30 years, even though it is less than an hour via London Overground from her north London home. Following in the footsteps of other green belt writers such as John Grindrod and Nick Papadamitriou, she becomes an everyday ethnographer in this “contingent, liminal, border territory”, outside the M25 and beyond the reach of the tube. Thorn is trying, as John Updike put it, “to give the mundane its beautiful due” – to peel back those layers of suburban life that, cocooned in teenage self-concern, she once ignored. In her journeys between present and past, a stranger Brookmans Park emerges. Here there is no churchyard and hence “no gravestones to gather moss or summon the grieving”. Smaller trees, such as prunus, crab apple and silver birch, were planted there, giving “a feeling of newness, even now, after 80 years”. The main landmark is not a church spire or town hall clock but the transmitting station. Instead of steering people to a centre, this radiates radio waves to elsewhere. When Thorn listened to John Peel in her bedroom, the signal was coming from a mile away but “felt like it was being beamed … from a distant star”.

Brookmans-Park.
Brookmans-Park. Photograph: Courtesy Tracey Thorn

That other planet, 1970s suburbia, comes to seem not lifeless but uncanny in its neatness and order. Beneath the apparent classlessness, the narcissism of minor differences asserts itself: one neighbour is dismissed as “the kind of person who has too many annuals in the front garden”. The Jewish GP is blackballed from the golf club. Aged 13, Thorn snogs boys of 17 (and perhaps older) at discos. Brookmans Park is one of the many places that second-wave feminism failed to reach. Now Thorn notices how much the women she saw on TV – Thelma in The Likely Lads, Mildred in George and Mildred, Beverley in Abigail’s Party – carried the blame for suburban tedium, for emasculating their men and “forcing them into domesticity and acquisitiveness”.

There are touching sketches of Thorn’s parents, as she tries to reverse-engineer what brought them, in 1956, to a still unfinished road full of potholes into which they emptied the ashes from the coal fire, and made them submit to 30 years of lunchtime drinks and fondue parties. For these natives of Kentish Town and Finsbury Park, she concludes, the suburbs were “a place of greater safety”, promising them clean air in place of pea-soup fog, fresh fields in place of bombsites. Of course, like everyone else, they failed to leave life and death behind. Thorn now sees how many of her teenage rows with her mother were really about what her mother was going through: a cancer scare, a hysterectomy, an abrupt menopause and general anxiety numbed by Valium.

Readers of Thorn’s two previous memoirs will recognise the tone of this book, with its beautifully clean style, careful self-questioning and pervasive likability. Sometimes it loses its focus in riffs about her present life, borrowed from her New Statesman columns. She calls Brookmans Park “one of Planet London’s moons” and, as the book proceeds, the gravitational pull of her London life, and love of the city, gets stronger. I wanted her to stay in suburbia, walking up and down her old road, doing more of what Papadimitriou calls “deep topography”, instead of making what looks like the odd day trip.

Michael Frayn once said that we would see the suburbs as “a gigantic piece of folk art” if we could only learn to look at them obliquely “through the imagination they were designed to appeal to”. Half of Thorn wants to do this oblique looking – the half of her that still has what she calls “suburban bones”. The other half remains that jaded teenager at a bus stop, daydreaming of escape.

• Another Planet is published by Canongate (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Joe Moran

The GuardianTramp

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