Book Review: Another Planet

With a highly successful memoir on the bookshelf, plus a follow-up volume about the art of singing, and her bimonthly column in The Staggers, as well as an appearance on Desert Island Discs in 2018 and the strongly-autobiographical Record (in this context, not least on ‘Smoke’) the same year, Another Planet provides a new angle in Tracey Thorn’s mining of the seam of her own life story for creative juices, now that live performances of her music are out of her life. Here, we have her reflections on growing up as a teenager in Brookmans Park, in suburban Hertfordshire, drawn from her own assiduously-written diaries, kept since she was 13, and amidst reflections sparked by two visits back there for virtually the first time since leaving home, rupturously, in 1981. My hardback copy with a personal dedication, too (thanks, Trac(e)y!).

It’s clear that Thorn writes prose as she writes songs: there are not only quotes from songs, with copyright acknowledgements, but other snippets of half-lines creep in, too – her own ‘Missing’ is there, as is some Springsteen (‘The River’). The idea of songs as prose gives us a major clue to Thorn’s approach to songwriting – her personal prose style highlights that her songs, too, are also deeply personal. Another Planet reveals that, in her case, the origins lie in her relationship with her parents and it is perhaps this, rather than the expressed boredom of growing up in Brookmans Park, which is the prompt for her long-lasting, and continually refreshed, creativity. Twas ever thus – and not only via Philip Larkin (who , interestingly, would still have been librarian at the University of Hull when Thorn was an undergraduate there) – but of all teenagers rebelling against stultifying authority, from Johnny Strabler onwards.

Another Planet‘s title is not drawn from that song by Peter Perrett or any other such reference, but is a deeply personal (and upsetting) observation which strongly resonates with her own relationship with her parents. It seems not so much that her parents did not understand her, as in their reaction to her perhaps not particularly accessible (not least to them) but strongly personal second album, Out of the Woods, but they had little appreciation for who she was or her own desire to make her own way in a world which was contrary to theirs and in the underaking of which she so demonstrably rejected their values. This leads Thorn to some interesting, if rather light, ruminations on the role of suburbia in generating creativity, not least among musicians, as well as, rather more importantly, to the less understood role (at the time) that her relationship with her parents at 18 had for her song-writing, style of singing and shy stagecraft. The book is dedicated to her siblings and, tellingly and forgivingly, to the (now deceased) parents they shared.

The diaries in this volume stop at 18 which is fair enough in the sense that, with the ‘Marine Girls’ already underway, this is enough of the prequel to the material covered in Bedsit Disco Queen. Furthermore, with her moving on from Brookmans Park, the reflections on growing up in suburbia surely ought to cease. And yet there is little clue in the diary entries mentioned here about suburbia; Thorn’s concerns are those of many teenagers – school, work, music, parents, discos and, in her case, boys – with her locational milieu providing little conscious contribution to her understanding of her life at that time. As, perhaps, it could only do in retrospect. We should also note that the diary entries are circumspect, available space being occasionally the key not only in regarding the importance of what is left out at the time (as well as regarding any other prying eyes that might have seen it), but what Thorn has also chosen to leave out, and put in, now some forty years later. We are getting the Thorn-as-teenager that Thorn herself wants us to see. This is absolutely fine, and not only from a private person, with teenagers of her own, but it does allow us to provide some reservations about her notes on the boredom and frustration of growing up in suburbia because we also know – from Desert Island Discs – that Thorn, as a child, enjoyed living where she did. Though perhaps we shouldn’t draw too many parallels between children and teenagers.

Occasionally somewhat disjointed thematically – the work has its origins in a lengthy essay on growing up in suburbia as well as various pieces of other published writing – Another Planet has a fantastically appropriate and judiciously-chosen cover from the work of Gavin Watson and I defy anyone of our age not to connect with it at some level. I say ‘ours’ deliberately as Thorn, one year older than me, was also born in the front bedroom of the house she grew up in, we both left homes in the south-east of England to go to higher education institutions in the north-east and even Thorn’s aversion to driving shares some aspects of my own. Her first solo work – A Distant Shore – proved as strongly influential on me in my twenties as the emotions she was under at the time were on her writing and singing of it.

Part-memoir, part-social history, part-conversation, this is unmissable for any fans of Tracey Thorn – and for, that matter, anyone born in the early to mid 1960s.

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