Were it not for that observant mind of hers, Tracey Thorn appears like an unlikely candidate to release a second memoir. Meeting her in a London studio in which she's just recorded a promotional piece for Audible, she appears mild-mannered, relaxed in personality and cool as they come, dressed in a dotted monochrome shirt, sparkly short A-line, and red trainers, with her sloping pixie cut now 50 shades of silver. She wears all of it well. Like her previous books and her columns in New Statesman, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia comes less from a place of self-importance and more from a place of impressive insight – arguably the only quality that could make the book about growing up in the commuter town of Brookman's Park, just outside of London, as compelling as it is.
“When you’re writing about yourself, there’s a voice in your head going ‘hang on, I’m going on about myself again’,” she says. “But you have to hope you’re finding things that are shared experiences. And when I showed a rough version of it to a couple of people, the first response was ‘oh god, yeah me too’. That’s what you’re aiming for.”
While her 2013 book, Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to be a Pop Star, focused on how she broke into the music industry and found fame with 1980s duo Everything But the Girl (best known for Missing and Each and Every One), Another Planet goes back further. It splices recent memories and a present-day return to her stomping ground, while gently poking fun at the naivety of her teenage diaries. Sample entry: "Saw P who has slicked his hair down and gone NORMAL. So have N and J etc. God, what's come over them all? BOORING."
There had just been a sexual revolution and we had the pill and drugs, and I felt like I was growing up in a place where none of that had happened
“I’d looked at my diaries once already when I was writing my first book, but I was just writing about my music career. I got interested in what wasn’t in them: the bits I left out, that thing of keeping secrets from my diary. I wasn’t sure what that was about,” she observes now. “I don’t know whether that was because I was scared my mum was going to find them, or I didn’t know how to put some things into words.”
Instead, the book focuses on the negative space – fitting because that’s a partial description of Brookman’s Park in Hertfordshire, her childhood town that wasn’t London, not quite country, but created “with the idea that you could create this utopian environment for commuters to live in,” she says. “It was only there because it was a stop on the train line. It doesn’t have its own independence, like a village that’s grown because people farm. It was put there so people could work in London and come back and live in this apparently idyllic place that was sold as a version of English countryside.”
Lucan, on the fringes of Co Dublin with estates of new-build family houses and an express bus service, might provide a modern-day comparison in Ireland, except critically, it can continue growing until it has its own centre of gravity. But Brookman Park’s growth was stopped by the Green Belt: a post-war policy to preserve countryside areas around London. Years later, we can see that the belt was pulled tight enough to restrict progress; it geographically isolated many towns and caused a low churn of residents, resulting in these places becoming insular. Thorn recounts that the town’s Jewish GP wasn’t welcome in the local golf club. And the second wave of feminism had yet to enter its closed boundaries during her adolescence in the 1970s.
“It’s hard to realise how old fashioned the thinking was,” she says. “It felt like people there were keeping to the conventions of the 1950s. There had just been a sexual revolution and we had the pill and drugs, and I felt like I was growing up in a place where none of that had happened. The expectation of how I should behave was so narrow. Don’t be too loud, don’t swear, don’t wear a dress like that, don’t wear too much make up, don’t lead boys on, don’t walk home after dark. The rules just seemed endless, and that was specially infuriating.”
Returning to those memories and the location for her book was a particularly emotive experience, especially as it shined a light on the often-difficult relationship she had with her late parents. Each parent merits poignant moments in the book, like the last months of her father’s life, and for her mother, the expectation-rejection dynamic that came to a head when Thorn left for Hull University and moved in with Ben Watt, her Everything But the Girl co-member and partner for more than 35 years. In an acutely relatable passage, she writes: “Like so many similar parents, they’d wanted me to do well at school and go to university, to take the chances they never had. Then when I did, it turned me into someone they thought they couldn’t understand.”
Indeed, the title comes as much from the famous punk track as her father assessing her adult self as “from another planet”.
“Writing about my parents is something I’ve really never done before,” she says today. “I started out with the attitude that I was going to write about rebelling against them in my teens. But I then thought I need to be more honest about the longer-term aspects of our relationship, which isn’t focused on my teens. It made me realise how close I’d been to my mum especially, and really, how difficult that break had been. In my mind I squared it that it was a teenage rebellion, and that’s it. But actually, the break with my mum was very painful. I’m not sure I’d quite taken that on board before.”
How does she feel about it now, having reflected on it for the book?
“It was valuable to look that closely at those relationships and what they meant, and mostly how conflicted I felt. I still feel conflicted about the place I grew up in: I half-love it, I half-hate it, and it’s the same for the relationship I had with my parents: it was half-brilliant and half-awful.
“It got to the point where you acknowledge that conflict and as mindfulness people say, you sit with it. Because it’s not going to go away, you have just [to] learn to accept and allow it and not deny it while not think that you can tie it up with a bow and resolve your feelings on it. There’s no such thing as closure. That’s what human life is like: it’s complicated, but that’s fine.”
I don't like the idea of division becoming more entrenched. I was part of the generation hopeful we were making progress from that, so I'm alarmed of any sense of return
Nowadays, she lives with Watts in Hampstead, with three grown children, and is one of a handful of artists who’ve opted out of the touring life – regardless of the four well-received solo records she’s released since Everything But the Girl fizzled out.
It’s telling that the place she’s chosen to settle is a spiritual opposite to Brookman’s Park, most easily shown by the Brexit referendum. In her current borough, 25 per cent voted Leave; in Brookman’s Park, the figure was 53 per cent.
“I wasn’t surprised,” she says. “Brookman’s Park is an affluent place so you can’t use it as an example of a place that’s neglected and hasn’t been heard, which is the sympathetic view of why certain parts voted Leave – I can completely understand that. It’s just Brookman’s Park expressing its innate conservatism.”
Of the current debacle, she views it as “a mess”.
“I imagine whatever side people are on, everyone is united in just being incredibly anxious, because it could go one of many different ways,” she says. “In my ideal situation, I’d like us to stay, but I can see how that could anger a lot of people who would feel they hadn’t been listened to, and their opinion counted – especially as they were asked their opinion. And I’m scared about a second referendum, because I’m not certain it would bring about a nice, conclusive outcome that would make people feel better about things.
“I don’t like the idea of division becoming more entrenched. I suppose I was part of the generation that was hopeful we were making progress from that, so I’m alarmed of any sense of returning to those ways of thinking being okay.”
Her visit to Ireland, for the Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival, takes place the day after the UK is due to leave the EU. “So I’ll be there, that’s assuming the planes are still working and the visa situation is okay,” she half-laughs.
For many reasons, here’s hoping.
Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia is published by Canongate. Tracey Thorn will be speaking at the Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival on Saturday, March 30th