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Suburbia and me: ‘It’s complicated’

By and
Q&A | 8 minute read
Tracey Thorn on boredom, adolescence, rebellion and reconnecting with her past self.

Tracey Thorn is a writer and an award-winning singer & songwriter who found fame with the band, Everything but the Girl. Her first, critically-acclaimed book, Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star (2013) was a Sunday Times bestseller. Her second book, Naked at the Albert Hall, was published in 2015. Her most recent book, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia, is about growing up in Hertfordshire in the 1970s.

Arifa Akbar: Another Planet grew out of an essay that you originally wrote called ‘Green Belt’ about growing up in 1970s suburbia. But this book seems as much a reflection on the cloying experience of growing up in a suburban corner of Hertfordshire as it is about motherhood, adolescence, memory and self-definition. Will you explain how the book grew out of the essay and whether  you think it is primarily a book about place?

Tracey Thorn: I was asked a few years ago to contribute to a series of short monographs on nature themes, and I said no, as I hadn’t grown up in the countryside, and felt I didn’t really know anything about mountains or forests, or rural landscapes. But it got me thinking, about the idea of place, and the way we ascribe more value to certain locations (the country, the city), and look down on others (the small town, the suburb). The Green Belt essay grew out of that, an attempt to pay proper attention to the place I DID know about, and the landscape that so many of us grow up in, and live in. Writing that made me realise how much the place formed me, and so it inevitably started to grow and include more themes and ideas about my life, my family, how my past has shaped my present.

AA: You itched to leave your commuter-belt hometown of Brookman’s Park as a teenager, and succeeded in doing so when you went to study in Hull, never to reconnect with it in adult like. But you say in your preface that it is a place that resides within, that ‘as I get older, I sense its presence inside me. I think I want to reconnect with the self I left behind.’ That was at the beginning of the book. You take journeys back to Brookman’s Park with your sister, Debbie during the course of the book. Did you feel after having written it that you had reconnected with the place, and with your former, suburban self?

TT: It certainly made me face up to the fact that I haven’t left it behind nearly as much as I think I have. What’s that line from Faulkner, the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past. Very much that. When I revisited Brookmans Park, which I hadn’t done for years and years, I felt like a complete outsider, and also completely at home. Partly because the feeling of being an outsider was so familiar to me!

AA: Boredom crops up repeatedly in your adolescent diaries whose entries you describe as ‘a catalogue of the humdrum’. But later you suggest that creativity was born out of this boredom; you say ‘I can see now the boredom was inspirational as well as dispiriting’. Do you think boredom had a positive value back then?

TT: Positive and negative. Certainly the boredom contributed to the creativity of our generation. We had fewer entertainment possibilities on offer, so made our own. The punk and post-punk scene was extremely DIY – making our own music, making our own clothes. But on the other hand I also think the boredom could have a deadening effect. Sometimes it just wore me down. I regret the fact that school was so boring, that my education was presented in such a dull, uninspiring way. I think I missed out, and could have got more out of that period of my life.

AA: What is your relationship to boredom now? Is it deadening or do you think that it is a necessary prerequisite to creativity – letting the mind wander aimlessly, switch off or sink into apparent emptiness?

TT: I’m hardly ever bored now. Maybe that’s because I’m very busy much of the time, but then when things are quiet there are a lot of options which are very distracting. But interestingly I’m not finding that is a problem for me in terms of being creative. I’m full of ideas, and inspiration, and motivation. So maybe you don’t need to be bored after all. It’s easy to romanticise boredom.

AA: I found your diaries as a teenager to be one of the most beguiling elements of this book. They are filled with everyday detail and longueurs but there is another aspect to the writing in them: you reflect on how they are filled with gaps, things you leave out and lies too (partly, you suggest, because you weren’t convinced they were not being read by your mother). How was the process of looking back at yourself through these diaries? Did you encounter someone you had forgotten about, for instance, or who appeared opaque because of the wilful obfuscation? And did certain aspects of the diaries surprise you?

TT: I’d looked back at my diaries a few years ago, when I was writing Bedsit Disco Queen, but at that point I was entirely focussed on looking for references to my growing interest in music – buying records, going to gigs, being in a band. I left out everything that didn’t fit. So when I went back over them again more recently I read them in a different way, and they seemed much stranger, more filled with odd juxtapositions, things that didn’t fit the straightforward narrative I’d constructed about my teens. I used them in a more personal way this time, and was fascinated by the gaps, and the untruths, the mixture of revelation and secrecy. I was surprised by the tone of nastiness that sometimes crept in – it reminded me how utterly selfish teenagers can be, wilfully blind to others, often lacking in empathy. I thought I had to be honest about that.

AA: Do you still keep a diary and how has your voice changed over the years and decades? Is it less self-conscious or do you think diaries are always, ultimately, written for the unseen reader?

TT: I don’t really, although I still write a lot of things down. Writing a column is a bit like keeping a diary, I’m often using the raw material of my life and telling stories about it. And if anything BIG happens, my instinct is to make notes. I’m never sure who for. Myself, I think. Writing things down still seems to me a way of ordering experience, making sense of chaos. Trying to exert control over life, even though I know that’s futile.

AA: Do you think you might have felt a yearning to be elsewhere even if you had grown up in a city – that it is perhaps a state of mind for a teenager to want to flee home, to feel part of a different crowd?

TT: Yes, possibly. Being a teenager is awkward, you’re so torn between wanting to be free, and wanting to belong. You don’t know who you are or what you want, so it’s inevitable that you spend a lot of time yearning to try new things and new people. In some ways, what I wanted from the city was the opportunity to be more anonymous. I found it very stressful being so watched in suburbia. Everyone knew you, everyone was judging you, disapproving, telling tales. It made me anxious.

AA: You grew up at a time when there weren’t nearly as many options for women in terms of identity and ambition and part of your early distrust of suburbia seemed to be about sexual politics, and not becoming the ‘suburban housewife’. Is this right? And did you feel that it was easier to be a different kind of woman in the city? In other words, was rebellion against suburbia a feminist rebellion?

TT: Yes I grew up surrounded by women who lived very conventional lives, which seemed to me to be very limited and frustrating. My mother’s suburban dream life looked horrifying to me – so boring, and repressed, and narrow. But I also write in the book about how there was actually something quite misogynistic in a lot of critiques of suburbia at that time. It was seen as a domesticated, feminised landscape, and the suburban housewife of the 1970s was sneered at for wanting nice things – a clean home, well-behaved children, safety. I rebelled against my mother for wanting all those things – but I’m not sure now that it was actually very feminist of me to be so dismissive, and not to see more clearly into the reasons why she’d ended up living that life.

AA: What is your relationship to Brookman’s Park now, and to suburbia in general?

TT: Still quite distant. I haven’t been back since my last visit during the writing of the book. I don’t know anyone who lives in Brookmans Park now so I don’t have any reason to go there. But I think I’ve made my peace with my feelings about the place. It doesn’t feel as strange and distant to me as it did before. I kind of know it’s there, and that I could visit at any time, and I’d feel both alienated and at home, and that actually that’s ok. Lots of people feel like that about the place they came from. It’s complicated.

‘Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia’ is published by Canongate (£14.99) Buy here

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