Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia – the latest book from Tracey Thorn, newly published by Canongate – reconsiders the greenbelt post-war dream. John Grindrod reviews:
Did you grow up on the fringes of suburbia, near one of those green belts frozen in time by midcentury planners? If you travel around Britain there’s a peculiar familiarity to them, no matter the town or city. Estates sit on old farmers’ fields, surrounded by countryside. Cities straggle to an end, and green – tended or not – continues beyond, a place where teenagers go to escape, where golfers, dog walkers and doggers go about their business. This is a place that, rightly or wrongly, gets a raw deal in songs, in novels and memoirs, travelogues and polemics. I grew up somewhere like this, and I find these green belt suburbs endlessly fascinating. I’m drawn to writers who don’t dismiss them with all the clichés we’ve had handed down for generations, those reheated scraps about small minds and blots on the landscape. Tracey Thorn grew up in such a place – Brookmans Park in Hertfordshire – and has written about the experience of this strange edgelands existence in Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia.
The Tracey Thorn presented here is an ambiguous, half-formed thing, not the fledgling (and fully fledged) musician of her previous two books. Many of the chapters of this curious teenage memoir revolve around diary entries from the 1970s, entries which record in hilarious blandness not what she got up to, but what she didn’t: a litany of cancelled plans, items not bought, fun not had. They set the tone for the book, a deliberate flatness, not outright jokey, not heavy with melancholy, just a little semi-detached, like the house she grew up in. These entries have the abruptness of correspondence recounted in Postcards from the Past, the Twitter account that pulls curious sentences from vintage postcards. As this is Tracey Thorn these memories aren’t of the Peter Kay garlic-bread-and-Spangles sort, but rather the intimate record of an anxious middle class adolescence. And what happens over the course of the book is the bland suburban child Thorn finds in her diaries grows ever more opinionated and outspoken, rowing with her conservative parents (and the Conservative Club) and getting into punk, disco and boys. The world she evokes is seen through vivid glimpses: of predatory older men and drunken car rides, extraordinary DIY punk outfits and secret encounters with drugs. But her records of these events – her diaries – are unreliable. She wonders why she didn’t trust them enough to commit the truth of her feelings or actions to the page. Trust is a big issue in this book. Nowadays it might be we, the readers, who she doesn’t trust, or it might just be her own judgement. ‘All this quoting from my diary looks confessional, looks exposing,’ she writes, ‘but there are pages I’m not showing you’.
There are books and records full of sentiments assuring you that all suburban experience is the same, whether it be the Monkees’ Pleasant Valley Sunday to E. M. Forster’s dismissive sideswipes in Howards End. Well, Thorn’s recollections couldn’t be further from my timid green belt adolescence. Teenage escapades with boys and drink. Singing Rebel Rebel at a band audition (okay, she was so shy she hid in a cupboard to do it). A diary entry wishing she could remain 16 forever. She must have been the kind of proper teenager I’d only ever seen at a distance. It would have seemed unimaginably glamorous to a kid like me, where no rebellion took place and life seemed indefinitely delayed. There’s a strange charged energy to the book, to her writing, which, like her singing voice, seems both controlled, and containing something powerfully yearning and emotional. A lot of green belt writing has a slightly mystical, psychogeographic quality to it. In Another Planet, that hint of supernatural emerges not from the undergrowth, but from the blanks in Thorn’s diaries entries, the gap between the adolescent who was never there, and never did anything, and the suddenly strident rebel. It reads as if she has never quite reconciled this emergence, this contradiction in herself, and that the book is an attempt to understand that. But, three books in, she is still half in love with the idea of being unknowable, of holding back, of the songwriter’s beguiling trick of suggesting rather than telling. It’s not a weakness or a problem, in fact it makes her writing all the more captivating.
While Thorn was agitating for life to happen, to break out of the conformity and boredom of Brookmans Park, she created space for a bigger, more ambitious version of herself to emerge. In Another Planet there are admiring descriptions of a pioneering generation of 1970s female musicians, from Viv Albertine to Chrissie Hynde, inventing what being a female rock musician could be. She shares with us the formative records and gigs that would spur her on to become a musician too. The narrative suggests a drive to combat shyness, to break out of her green belt world and into the buzzy excitement of London. It seems a miraculous transformation, yet one of the things that makes the book so fascinating is that, if left to the diaries alone, Thorn has as little an idea as the reader about how this transformation took place. It is only now, with her desire to share the humiliations and indignities of a stumbling emergence into adulthood, that the hidden background of these diaries can come into focus.
Another Planet, Thorn tells us in her brief author’s note, began life as a long essay called ‘Green Belt’, into which she has added articles and reviews she’d written. But rather than the book having become an essay collection, what we have here reads more like a series of glimpses of a life, both inner and outer. There are occasional abrupt gear changes and unexpected jolts of subject matter, but such are the focussed preoccupations of the book – adolescent longing, the search for self-identity, a sense that life is elsewhere – that we never stray too far from the concerns of her original essay. The writer Andy Miller recently detailed the uneasy relationship between suburbia and its chroniclers in an essay, Glorious Suburbia, a place written about chiefly as ‘a location which only exists to be escaped from.’ Given Thorn’s glittering success as a singer and songwriter this book might have been one long extended eye-roll. And certainly she is not in love with the green belt or suburban life, and dissects it with the curiosity of the worldly Camden urbanite she has become. But the best parts of this book come from those moments when she explains how for her it’s not that simple. ‘I like to think I’m London,’ she writes, ‘but in fact, like many people, I have suburban bones.’ Thorn invokes an army of suburban observers and outcasts to support her: Siouxsie; Bowie; Kureishi; Ballard. But her instincts towards the suburban experience are kinder that that list might suggest. Only occasionally does her desire to replicate John Updike’s objective of giving ‘the mundane its beautiful due’ trip itself up on a rare dismissive phrase. ‘Those gardens were all the same,’ she states, of the street she grew up on, then immediately describing how different her next door neighbour Gladys’s was from her own. Sometimes the distance between her life then and now feels like it might undermine her project of giving those details their due. But she has an eye for a killer image or detail, of bungalows or railway lines or teenage parties, moments that we recognise instantly, that give the book its truth.
There are moments of great sadness. It made me cry on the train. The family revelations are a shock when they come, because the opening chapters set up a lacunae that the entire book might fall into – the reality not recorded, the days bleached away. She has a wonderfully subtle way with an anecdote. Often a devastating punchline or telling detail is relayed with little more than a raised eyebrow. Her most recent album, Record, is full of the kind of domestic stories she relates here. She has a way of making particular incidents universal. The minor rebellions, combative relations, everyday triumphs and humiliations rendered with warmth and gentle despair.
As we move further into the book she describes contemporary life crowding in from every angle, physical or digital. I can’t help thinking that her image of a lost boring world with its limited possibilities and its small acts of DIY rebellion seems more attractive than ever. I don’t know whether that is deliberate or inadvertent. Possibly both, because for all of its starkness Thorn’s writing excels at ambiguity. In the end there is a kind of magic to the strange edgeland world she evokes here, a place she was desperate to escape from, but which remains in her bones. Viva suburbia.
Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia is out now. You can listen to an accompanying soundtrack to the book here, via Spotify.
John Grindrod is the author of Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain, Outskirts: Living Life on the Edge of the Green Belt, and How To Love Brutalism. You can follow him on Twitter here.