I’ve spent this weekend reading Tracey Thorn’s ‘Another Planet’ and it’s made me think about my own life. I thought it would, which is why I’d left its reading until a weekend when I knew I’d be on my own for the whole of the time. The book tells her story of growing up in Brookmans Park, a newly built subtopia in the greenbelt north of London, and is told through extracts from her teenage diaries and by Tracey visiting the place again after a thirty year absence.
She talks about music a lot, as you’d expect. Musing on whether the boredom of such suburbs, ‘like a Truman show stage set’ might have prompted the teenage rebellions and subsequent gender and society-questioning creations of her own inspirations, the Slits, Siouxsie Sioux and David Bowie. Though she sums her own place up with a song not even written when she was writing in her diaries, ‘Nothing ever happens’ by Del Amitri, a song about boredom itself,
As the book develops she makes it clear she’s telling us a story. That she’s deciding what to tell us and what to leave out, as is a writer’s privilege, because it’s her story. Which, like a good book will, made me think about my own story in occasional gaps between chapters.
In the version of my life story that I’ll usually tell, if asked, I’m from Walton in north Liverpool. Just by Everton’s football ground in streets full of terraced houses. But actually that story was over by the time I was three years old and where I’m really from, from then until I’ve grown up, is a place called Maghull. Not unlike Brookmans Park and, similarly, a train ride north of the city in Liverpool’s version of a greenbelt. Another subtopian place, mostly created in the 1950s and 60s, made up of miles of spread out semi-detached houses, gradually filled up by families from Liverpool like my own. A great place to grow up in and, again like Tracey in Brookmans Park, a place I couldn’t wait to leave once I’d got to the raging, boring, nothing ever happens of adolescence.
‘Another Planet’ is not a boring book though. In fact I think it’s wonderful, which is why I’m writing all this about the thinking it’s made me do all weekend. About my own life, the growing up and growing older and what Tracey calls ‘the blank pages’ in her own diaries and life story. Pages she decided not to write on at the time they happened, for fear her diaries weren’t all that private, and things she mostly won’t tell us about now, because her own life is her own business. We get the bits we’re given and some of them are about angst and anxiety, her own and her mother’s, trying to live their lives in a place where defining yourself means being like everyone else.
Along with her diaries, the other binding thread in the book is her visit back to Brookmans Park, where she finds it not all that changed since the 1970s, except for the cappuccino in the local hotel, though at least this innovation comes with a reassuring small bowl of Smarties. Otherwise the not quite a village still feels as locked in the same dull self-sufficiency it always was. A place to grow up in then leave.
Reminding me of the few visits I made to my own growing up place a few years ago, around the time when my mother had just died. Getting off the train after a long separation, walking through memories to the house we grew up in, seeing some of the people I used to know, then getting back on the train, to probably never go back there again.
And there are blank pages of my own in that last short paragraph, of course there are. In this version of my story that’s running parallel to Tracey Thorn’s.
Like her I live on my own planet now, the planet Liverpool that my parents, like Tracey’s from London, strove so hard to leave. And like her, with age I’m coming to some understanding of their leaving and am grateful, at last. Though the details weren’t much mentioned out there in Maghull, that generation had lived through a brutally awful growing up of their own. The bleak poverty and hunger of the 1930s being followed by the blitzed terror of the century’s second World War, ended by a victory that felt like a defeat, and leaving them longing for peace so much, once they’d grown up, that they chose to move their young families to places like Brookmans Park and Maghull where nothing awful could ever happen to them again. And if that ‘nothing awful’ eventually turned into ‘nothing at all’ then it was still better, so much better, than the century had been up ’til then.
None of which we realised of course when we were bored teenagers listening to David Bowie:
Rebel, rebel, you’ve torn your dress,
Rebel, rebel your face is a mess,
How could we know?
This is a great and thoughtful book, which might make you think.
More reading about writing here at ‘A Book in Your Bag.’