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6 April 2022

After eight happy years of column writing, I think I’ll take that sabbatical

During lockdown writing this column was a refuge. Coming out the other end, it's time to try to make something new.

By Tracey Thorn

A friend once made me laugh by telling me that when his father used to embark on one of his oft-repeated stories his mother would quietly mutter in the background, “This is a recording, this is a recording.” The phrase always comes to mind when I fear I might be repeating myself, either in company or in print, and I have to admit that I have had that fear more and more in recent months.

I start to write one of these columns and then pull myself up short, thinking, “Have I said all this already? In these exact same words?” I open up the folder where I keep completed pieces and trawl through them, hoping not to find an entire paragraph recurring. It has made me consider the situation, and it is with some surprise that I realise I have now been appearing in the New Statesman for a full eight years.

I never expected to last so long, imagining I would run out of steam, or be replaced by someone, I don’t know, younger? Better? More qualified? Instead I have found myself becoming increasingly at home, happy to be part of such a great team, honoured and still slightly astonished when I see myself tucked in the back pages of a magazine so full of big ideas and big stories.

And yet. The fear of running dry has now become ever-present, and I am relieved to be able to say that instead of quitting entirely I have been allowed to take a long sabbatical. It’s a word that gets used a lot nowadays, and I google it, realising I’m not entirely sure what it means. There I learn of its biblical origin (of course, from the Hebrew word for the sabbath) and how it referred to taking a year-long break from working in the fields every seven years. Well I’ve been working these fields for eight years now, so I’m overdue my break thank you.

And I do want to say thank you – to anyone who has read any of these columns, and to the editors who have allowed me so much freedom. Not once have I been pressured into a hot take, and in fact I’ve shied away from those moments when music has hit the news, my feelings often being too mixed for me to easily package into anything like an opinion piece.

Instead I’ve roamed in a fairly random manner, telling stories about having lunch at the House of Lords with Brian Rix, visiting New York, attending the Brit Awards, gardening, guest-editing the Today programme, bringing up twins, going on holiday, listening to audiobooks, joining protest marches, DJ-ing at Duckie, mourning the death of my father, grieving over my kids leaving home, and flying to Australia to write a book.

I’ve been allowed to write about artists I love – from Chrissie Hynde, Sade, David Bowie, Mavis Staples and Björk, through to George Michael, Jens Lekman, Stephen Sondheim, Sylvester, Poly Styrene and Tyler, the Creator, taking in Nick Cave, the Raincoats, Madonna, Taylor Swift, Bette Davis and the Rolling Stones along the way.

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When I started writing here my kids were 13 and 16; my life still revolved around the school day, the school week and the school term. Now they have all left home – with occasional returns due to lockdowns and flat leases. I have more of my time back, and more time to wonder what to do with it. But with less of it ahead of me, I feel certain that I don’t want to waste any of it.

Lockdown left me creatively stunted – unable to write a book, or any songs, struggling just to put together a few bleak thoughts about how stuck we all were. My mood sank. I took refuge in this column, and was grateful. Now, coming out the other end, I am trying to gently nurture the creative flame, without beating myself up about the inevitable setbacks.

I’ve been sitting in the garden these last few days in the unexpected warm sunshine, thinking about spring, and new beginnings. March is like that moment in The Wizard of Oz when we go from black and white to technicolour, and as I look around at crocuses the colour of egg yolks, and the neon flare of new green leaves on red dogwood stems, I think, “Come on then. Something new. Time for something new.”

[See also: In Mike Nichols’s inspiring life, I find a brief, defiant distraction from war]

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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special