Tracey Thorne, in her new autobiography: Another Planet: A Teenager In Suburbia, begins a dig into how the things we experience as children edit us as much as when we grow up, we edit life back. Like Zadie Smith’s protagonists, Leah, Keisha, and Natalie in NW, Thorne gently touches the scars of truth and essential lies and secrets in the notion that:
“I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me.”
But like Fi and Jane, radio artists of similar age and background to Tracey who interviewed her recently on their podcast realised, the path to expressing all the pent up hopes, dreams and experiences of post war British suburbia, to a famous person and be able to listen and respond as the mature women they would like to be is really hard. They wouldn’t have responded like this had they all been in a coffee bar or a pub or a school or a kitchen or a hospital or a library or a university or in their homes.
It was intriguing to realise how two experienced women broadcasters and communicators found it really difficult to free the artist from the clutches of media estrangement. Both presenters were embarrassed that they couldn’t converse properly with the singer and I think they felt a bit wanting: the reality of their double act presentation was they took the mickey out of themselves in an apparently deferential but passive aggressive way. It reminded me of how when my daughter won a christmas painting competition at primary school and one of her best friends stamped on her foot in rage because the natural order of things (in her seven year old mind) had been frighteningly disturbed.
It made me think that radio still isn’t a safe and comfortable place for women to be accepting and supportive to other women. We’re acting ‘as if’ we’ve got all the t shirts and attributes of sophistication but we’re not in the kinds of working environments that develop us. Often we don’t even know that. We need to admit that more often and to be able to use and make culture in order to help take ourselves and other people seriously. At the moment we’re often in a cultural space where we apologise for seriousness, for not following a populist route. Women are still rewarded in radio for taking other women down a peg and preferring low to high culture.
Art and culture are important because they enable us when we come upon estrangement, marginalisation, sidelining, bullying, to change it. Instead of teaching children to survive in an environment that arbitrarily favours some people over others and sidetracking questions of inclusion and equalities, we need to face the future realising that we may have been wrong and need to change.
Tracey mentioned a fear of everything in her autobiography and referred to it on the podcast. It struck me that this fear is a knowing but also a studied unknowing that we all use to negotiate social and cultural injustice, where the average kind child understands that to succeed and be normal she/he has to exclude others.
In their writing, Tracey Thorn, Zadie Smith, the wonderful Andrea Levy, Patti Smith write as if they’re teenagers: Inside Outers, propelled, like David Bowie, in the BBC documentary Finding Fame, into their space by the shock and awe of ancient injury and childhood experience that needs expression.
Bowie, as a child, teenager, young adult and older man, continually revisited the early traces of what he didn’t know, thought he knew, couldn’t have known. It was a simple question about his mum’s happiness. He wanted to know about why she was unhappy.
Levy grew up in a seventies TV orientated Britain that taught social equality through great documentary, plays, films but didn’t practice it consistently. Levy’s evolution into writer was through absorbing that Britain. She realised that a writer was sometimes born but only after she/he was made by experience. Until you wrote your history (and in her case, you could argue that the journey she went on to write was incredibly harrowing) but she knew if she didn’t do it, nothing would change. Levy went to grammar school and Middlesex Poly and worked for the BBC but found discrimination prevented her developing a career. Like Thorn, Bowie and Smith, Levy unpacked the migrant suitcase that everyone had after the second world war, a suitcase that was as much a part of the white suburban, town, village and city home as every diasporic attic and travelling museum: it was just packed up differently.
Complex connections, myriad personal and historical changes are human forms of currency: layers of experience, folded away neatly inside every city, village and suburban home and family. Levy, Bowie, Thorn and Smith touch, research, then practise, rehearse and express in their heads, in songs, books, all the conversations that our lives give us, strings, strands, fragments, threads of other lives that as a wider society and culture we’re urging into existence.
The space between theatre and home psychically, emotionally and physically for anyone who wants to use performance to understand, change and create a better world is often very small. By the time they’ve created what an audience sees they may have rehearsed thousands of times how the natural spontenaiety of a performance might happen. We suspend disbelief because we’re dreaming too. We all have the capacity to dream, imagine, empathise with art and the arts even if we’re not artists. But we shouldn’t confuse celebrity and status with the person who still aspires to know, understand, be curious about the world and change our minds and hearts.
I went to a school reunion recently: it had been organised by someone I knew and liked at school and it was quite weird how easy it was to pick up conversations with people you hadn’t seen for years. (Where are we really?)
After a few long conversations, it struck me how many people who didn’t move away after school were now working as civil servants, solicitors and teachers in environments that have been badly troubled by social inequality. Yet most of the people I talked to had no perspective on the need for diversity or even understand what it is.
The people I spoke to seemed to be dying for things to be better but for nothing to change. They had no sense that they had any responsibility to make society work better for other people or any idea of how to change the institutional blindness and inequality in their working environments. That’s why we need to bring culture to the culture starved professions who need and want change.
I think that the fears that I see in the local professional middle class around me is the same fear that Tracey (and Fi and Jane the podcast interviewers) expressed, even now, all these years on, of being in a society where you should never admit that you don’t know all the answers, that you were still terrified of being bullied, having the mickey taken, of being shown up as a fraud by not conforming when you are desperate to be valued. To be able to ask why are we here and not feel a fool.
It’s probably time for our society to have a bigger heart and take ourselves and others seriously: it’ll make us all better.