Suburban Purgatory: A Review of Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia by Tracey Thorn
Originally published at Terror House Magazine
Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia
by Tracey Thorn
(Canongate Press, 2019)
(Original article can be read here at this link). Published 8-6-2021.
If you don’t know who Everything But the Girl is, it was an English alternative band in the late 80’s to 90’s comprised of the couple Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn. They were known for their 1994 remix single of “Missing,” which made the band focus into the electronic genre. Since then, the original name is but a memory for the two, as they now just release music under their own names instead of as a group. If you also remember Massive Attack’s song “Protection,” featuring Thorn, then you know what kind of poet she is when it comes to lyrics.
Her latest books do not disappoint common readers. Bedsit Disco Queen (2013) was a promising debut about her first band. It was followed by Naked at the Albert Hall (2015), about her long music career, and leading up to 2019’s Another Planet, which was the first book I actually started to read by her. Expected this April 2021 is her new book, My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend, which continues her life’s work, and I’ll be sure to pick it up.
Thorn’s lyrics and writing often invokes failed relationships and a melancholy about modern life, somewhat nihilistic and sad. Her music left a huge impact on me as a teenager, when I sat in the back of the bus to high school, listening to downloaded copies of Amplified Heart (1994), Baby, the Stars Shine Bright (1986), The Language of Life (1990), and Walking Wounded (1996) over and over again on my obsolete iPod.
I was able to get my copy of Another Planet signed by Thorn. And it’s a psychical moment for me that I treasure because how important of a musician and writer she is to me. I don’t know her, but her presence to me is special.
Another Planet is about 1970’s Brookmans Park, Hatfield, Hertfordshire. This is an English suburban town Thorn grew up in. She crystalizes this experience with the context of some innocent nostalgia for this distant middle-class.
Brookmans Park was designed to be self-sufficient, but so successful was this that it created a feeling of isolation, even though it was not far from anywhere, turning it into an island floating in a sea of fields. I live in north London now, and Brookmans Park seems miles and miles away. It is 50 minutes on the train. Yet the sense of distance is overwhelming, lost in space and time, psychologically distant. In truth, it feels faintly fictional to me. There is a gulf between now and the past, just as there is a gulf between town and country. Between me now, and me then.
This passage recalls to my the very first lyric bit in Thorn’s hit song “Missing,” about her experience:
“I step off the train, I’m walking down your street again, and past your door, but don’t live there anymore…”
It sounds cliché to mention this tidbit of pop culture, but keep in mind that Thorn is still known as one half of Everything But the Girl, and her lyrics around her interest of the innocent, or the “missing,” still prevails in her prose.
Another Planet is a scattered narrative, presenting the reader with multiple diary entries in a stream of conscious manner as she tours the countryside. Thorn begins the text with her first visit to her hometown out of her own fascination with the past:
Brookmans Park was a village, but not a village. Rural but not rural. A stop on the line, a space in between two landscapes that are both more highly rated—the city, and the countryside. A contingent, liminal, boarder territory. In-betweenland.
The reoccurring theme in the text is her interest—and common hatred for—suburbia. Brookmans Park is a typical town, just like any other part of America suburbia, where nothing happens and where the people grow and die.
So many of us live in some version of suburbia, the majority of us I suspect, yet we heap scorn upon the place, and what does that do, I wonder, to our sense of self. My relationship with Brookmans Park is complicated, and always will be. I feel terribly at home here, and terribly out of place.
Thorn collects the vintage diary entries about her common outing with her friend Liz and makes use of these memorable screenshots of this so-called land in-between. Her hobbies? “Aside from the disco, my hobbies were walking the dog, playing badminton and piano lessons.”
…we lived in an atmosphere where sex was invisible and ever-present, girls were both ignorant and fair game, there were rules and no rules, and everything was a joke.
I found this entry interesting. This behavior that “everything” is particularly a joke strikes me, not because they are ridiculing suburbia (she is), but the sincere faith lost in a planned out, conservative society, like suburbia. Realities of the world, like sex, can be liberating for the common person. Always the intellectual, or the cosmopolitan, must leave for greater opportunities to work in a city far away, where trends reflect civilized society and are less related to the crass nature of the middle class, where they know that “sex is real.” This is not a joke, but a reality one chases after.
A few years ago I went on a walking tour of Algate, the tour guide being someone I was in a band with aged seventeen. He loves London as much as I do, which confirms my belief that growing up just outside predisposes you to overlook its faults and dwell forever on its beauty and allure.
This landscape of the cosmopolitan London provides the nowhere-class an opportunity to pursue the arts. This is why she saw a great reputation coming out of London, ignoring the fact it can be like any other town. Thorn however, makes the thesis that an artist’s origin in suburbia, leaving one to be nostalgic about it more than hating on it. This is interesting from an American perspective; that just as all abandoned towns, like in Appalachia, have a significant influence on the American mind, as so does Brooksman Park on the English.
Again, Thorn writes:
I’m thinking again about that idea that art flourishes in an unproductive environment, that suburbia is inspiring, surrounding you with ideas and people to reject. For David Bowie, and the Bromley punks, that’s clearly true, but I don’t know whether or not it applies to me, whether it was a spur or a hindrance, whether it inhibited me as much as it prompted. …Although, I didn’t know they were suburban; I just assumed they all lived in Soho, Chelsea, and that David Bowie had fallen to earth from another planet. If I’d known they all went to school in Bromley, might it have helped?
In the context of our culture, imagine living in the suburbia of Kansas, stuck with only video games, Discord, helicopter parents, and glued to one’s smartphone, being isolated from any natural community. With that kind of isolation, what kind of effects does it have on the suburban upbringing? A city may be up to date with culture and technology, while suburbia is a dead utopia where nothing happens. A suburban kid can be interested in Lou Reed and Patti Smith, idols that seem to live a paradise called New York City. The question then arises, “is suburbia a good influence upon a nation?”
Maybe I am taking an elite, Trotskyist position to the problem and having radical disdain for the suburban class, too. But Thorn reminds us of this problem and that the true nature of the suburban upbringing is a destined one by design. There is a natural urge to escape suburbia, leave the community, and become something of a pop star.
I’m not the only person to have grown up stifled and bored in suburbia; it’s almost the law. The diary entries, this monotonous litany of having nothing to do, are a relentless howl of frustrated energy. Brookmans Park was stultifying, frozen in time. In the world at large, things changed a lot during the 1960s and ’70s, but in the heart of the Green Belt nothing seemed to move. Stranded in the past, it wrestled with the present, and hated the future. And there I was, stuck with it.
And also, she writes:
I realize of course, that much of the time I was being a cliché, and that it is very much teenagers who hate suburbia, which is why there are so many pop song lyrics about it. It’s for squares, for drones, worst of all, for PARENTS, who love it for the quality of life it offers. Young people don’t care about such things as comfort and cleanliness—they want culture, and night life, and energy.
This grasp of wisdom illustrates the decline of community, of fleeting desires and the purpose of living.
Brookmans Park is frozen in time with little to immigration, according to Thorn.
What might seem as an ideal place for conservatives will be a place of angst for the next generations. We should reach our desires, but we must question the right and wrong types of paternalism that guides us. For example, the suburban parents lived in a society that was 95 percent white and their children will be left to a society that is barely half of that. Culture, nightlife, and energy should be something that is cherished, not isolated from.
It may be true that the most multicultural and “diverse” cities, like New York or London, will ironically be places for some type of white revival. This is in part due to the influences of gentrification and the natural lead into an art movement against the old ways of living. This is but a pipe dream, as the idols that influence Thorn’s youth, from David Bowie to Lou Reed, sell a different type of society. That is, a white society without the nihilism of suburbia.
In contrast to the anti-suburban sentiment, Thorn argues that suburbia is indeed nostalgic. People who live with their parents, or still live in suburbia, should not be shamed in this turbulent society. But rather, it is a natural outcome of the culture, where whites favor the dreams of utopia.
Thorn politically in her youth was pro-Labour and against the Tory party. This division was more in tune to “Punks vs. Squares”as she calls it. Politically speaking, ask a young person if they will vote for Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. Voting for Trump can be seen as reactionary, attracting anti-liberal scorn, while voting for Sanders promises a nice society for everyone, especially young people, where college debt is cancelled and the government pays for everything. To advocate reactionary politics, a pro-Trump supporter feels more aligned towards a pro-suburban stance. While much of nationalism is suck in a far-right ghetto, will advocating for dismal suburbia be acceptable?
While the happy ending to Thorn’s diatribe may be that suburbia is indeed a nostalgic place, growing up in suburbia is also an unavoidable aspect of growing up in modernity for both Generation X and Millennials.
In my own opinion, I do see how destructive American suburbia can be, from the nostalgia of a civic nationalist ideology, to a mundane place without real community growth. I actually fear the political right sees itself as a pro-suburban party and less about some type of “Promethean” progressivism (that is, reaching for the stars, having organic relationships, pride in meaningful work, etc.)
Asides from her commentary on suburbia, Another Planet shines with Thorn’s personal memories growing up in the 1970’s. Her life as an artist is an interesting one, and Another Planet is only a chapter in the autobiography of her own life. The narrative ends with her leaving Brookmans Park. Thorn’s prose is about struggling and understanding the previous generation and what they left for everyone else. Her own parents see her as an ordinary person, just really into music and writing. Can there be a future without the worship of the middle class utopia that ultimately strangles the artist from achieving greatness?
Click here to buy Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia.
This article, republished here on 2-6-2023.
“In 1971 the population was still only 12,405, and ten years later, still the same. I was born in 1962, the exact moment when the place stopped growing. From that point there was no building, no expansion, no immigration, no emigration. No change.”
“Debbie and I had recently decided we were Labour supporters, an act of rebellion as much as anything, which had more to do with buying punk records and straightening our jeans than actual politics. Labour vs Tory felt to me like a natural extension of Punks vs Squares. A girl at school wore a Vote Labour badge on election dat and was told to take it off.”