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30 January 2019

Tracey Thorn’s memoir of growing up in suburbia finds the extraordinary in the ordinary

It was boredom that produced Thorn and hundreds of artists like her. Now that it’s gone we might miss it.

By Frank Cottrell-Boyce

“I step off the train,” goes the lyric to Everything but the Girl’s biggest hit “Missing”. “I’m walking down your street again… but you don’t live there any more.” It could be a précis of Tracey Thorn’s latest memoir Another Planet, in which she returns to Brookmans Park – the green belt commuter village where she grew up – on a kind of psychogeography field trip. Teenage Tracey doesn’t live there any more but happily she’s left her diary behind, extracts from which are one of the pleasures of this delightful, incisive memoir.

Not that Teenage Tracey was exactly Samuel Pepys. The entries are mostly single sentences tagged with the occasional adjective and acned with exclamation marks: “Went to Brent Cross after school. It’s lovely!! All indoors.”

Part of the appeal of Everything but the Girl is that they did extraordinary work while themselves seeming ordinary. Thorn and her now husband Ben Watt got their recording contracts while still at Hull University but continued with their studies. There was a rumour – false as it turns out – that they turned down Top of the Pops because they had exams. They approached Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” as though it really was about time we had some answers to its dreamy rhetorical questions. “‘Night and day/You are the one.’ Discuss.”

You don’t turn to Thorn’s memoirs (this is her second; she is also a New Statesman columnist) for rock ’n’ roll name-dropping, but for someone who can – to quote her quoting Updike – “give the mundane its beautiful due”. My brother-in-law says of being a fan of the band: “The only difference between them and us was that we were listening to Everything but the Girl, while they were in Everything but the Girl.” The past is another planet and the diary twinkles with the arcane poetry of lost brand names – Aqua Manda, Green Shield Stamps.

Though it does turn out that Thorn was a bit more rock ’n’ roll than you might have thought. There’s a lot of underage drinking (“Southern Comfort, gin and orange. LOVELY!”) and sexual danger: “Creep asked me to dance again but I said no – found out he is a policeman. Yikes!” She was 13 when she wrote that, but the boys, she says, were “always older”. Grown-up Tracey finds the naivety and anxiety hidden in that throw-away exclamation. “Did I look 13, or even 14? I suspect that to the men and boys I met, I just looked like a bird. Fair game.”

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Teenage Tracey, though, did not lack agency. There’s a hair-raising account of a week spent sleeping around and breaking hearts on a holiday in Jersey. The diary’s comment on this is: “Naughty naughty.” She was, she says, a rotten girlfriend – disloyal and prone to over-dramatic break-ups and make-ups. She puts this down to boredom, to willing something – anything – to happen.

Because, of course, Brookmans Park was boring. Everyone knows suburbia is boring. Despising suburbia is the last great permissible snobbery. I grew up on a big, aspirational housing estate not unlike Brookmans Park. When we first moved there it was indescribably exciting. Full of kids, on the edge of the countryside.

Then one night in my mid-teens, that rancid, clunking pantomime of condescension Abigail’s Party came on the telly. I remember feeling mortified as it dawned on me that the play was laughing at my mum and dad and their neighbours. What were they thinking of!? Moving us out here to the little boxes of status-symbol land, and away from the thrilling dockside streets with their fabulously dangerous wastelands and alleyways. When I was older I realised that those wastelands used to be houses and that my parents – as children – had seen them burning in the Blitz. They were places of fire and death.

Of course, Seventies suburbia was boring. It was built by and for people who were coming home from – who had lost family and homes in – a terrible war. Thorn’s dad was in the RAF – just about to go on his first missions when the war ended. Boredom must have seemed like nirvana.

Nothing is as invisible as the motivations of our parents. Here’s a chilling bit of indifference from Teenage Tracey. “April 5, 1978: Mum went to the doctor and got some tranquillisers to calm her down a bit! Watched Crown Court.” Grown-up Tracey circles back and finds that her mother’s snooping and vigilance was rooted in a consuming (and often justified) anxiety, which was treated with drugs instead of respect. A mother now herself, she is shocked by how dismissive Seventies feminism was of the creativity of motherhood and child-rearing. She quotes Germaine Greer: “Mother is the dead heart of the family.”

The Aqua Manda and the Green Shield Stamps have – as it says in “Missing” – disappeared somewhere. But the most significant loss might be the possibility of that despised boredom. The kind of boredom that Thorn describes – the mooching, the waiting,the hanging around, the keeping of a Letts diary of trips to Brent Cross – is impossible now. The styles and sounds that took time to reach Brookmans Park, the music and books that were unobtainable there, are now always, everywhere, instantly available.

Thorn has a positive take on our children’s digital world. It makes us more connected and more tolerant, she says. But it also banishes boredom. It was boredom that produced Tracey and hundreds of artists and adventurers like her. Now that it’s gone we might miss it. Like the deserts miss the rain. 

Tracey Thorn will be in conversation with Kate Mossman at Cambridge Literary Festival on Friday 5 April

Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia
Tracey Thorn
Canongate, 224pp, £14.99

This article appears in the 30 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Epic fail