A Multimedia Phenomenon Ian Likes: Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend

Adrian has problems: his parents are going through a messy separation; the new girl in school won’t look at him; his community service project is a grumpy old man with a vicious dog; his lunch money is being stolen by the school bully; and he hates his Noddy wallpaper.

Unfortunately for Adrian – but joyously for the rest of us – his problems don’t end there…

Adrian Mole started life as a newspaper column. Then he became a bestselling novel, and then – for a couple of years – a media sensation. He was the subject of a stage show and a TV series that ran for two series and was resurrected about twenty years later. But why was the world so fascinated with a bespectacled “intellectual” obsessed equally with the Norwegian Leather Industry and the size of his “thing”?

Well, it’s a long story. Eight books across almost thirty years, to be precise. So let’s go back to the beginning…

The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ takes place across all of 1981 and the first part of 1982. Adrian faithfully keeps his diary every day of that tumultuous time. During this chronicle his parents break up and get back together again, he falls in love, makes friends with a senior citizen, and gets his first rejection letter from the BBC. It’s hilarious in places and quite often filled with the bittersweetness of being that age, though usually with the counterpunch that comes from being that age and utterly clueless about a lot of things. Although Adrian doesn’t believe that he’s clueless: he considers himself quite the intellectual, treating us to many examples of his deathless prose and poetry:

The trees are stark naked

Their autumnal clothes

Litter the pavements.

Council sweepers apply fire

Thus creating municipal pyres.

I, Adrian Mole,

Kick them

And burn my Hush Puppies.

Of course, the book was a major success, becoming ridiculously popular. And there’s no reason why it shouldn’t have: Adrian is gormless and unbelievably dim but he reminds us of the clueless snob that lives not very far beneath the surface within us all.

The first book was followed very soon after by a second, The Growing Pains Of Adrian Mole. It picked up immediately after the first, with Adrian’s concerns being the Falklands War, school, his love for Pandora, and the growing existential crisis within himself that his genius may never be recognised. It’s even funnier than the first book but it is also becoming aware of the place it holds in the public consciousness so the cultural and political references become more vocal and nuanced, recognising that Adrian (and anyone reading his diary) lives in a complicated world with issues that cannot be solved simply. It is probably my favourite volume in the series simply because it covers so much ground and reminds anyone who was ever Adrian’s age just how traumatic growing up can be. Adrian deals not only with the continual dramas of his parent’s rocky marriage, but a new baby sister, his friends coping with the issues of the day (being gay, dealing with unemployment and intergenerational poverty, racism and the problems created by and dealt with by an aging population). It also feature’s his mum’s hysterical letter to her parents who disapprove of her lifestyle and the heartbreaking funeral of a minor character which wrecks me every time I read it.

The third book, True Confessions Of Adrian Albert Mole, was published in conjunction with the memoirs of Margaret Hilda Roberts (better known by her married name) and Susan Lilian Townsend. Those are fantastic stories in their own right, but my concern today is with Adrian and his exploits. It chronicles him from Christmas 1984 to June of 1988. In this his parents continue to have a tumultuous marriage and he continues to pine after Pandora who is beginning to leave him behind, academically, socially and romantically.

Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years takes Adrian beyond young adulthood and into the concerns of a proper grown-up in early-90s Britain. He has achieved part of his dream: he is living with Pandora. Unfortunately, he is renting a room in her and her husband’s house. His misadventures with life, love and creative fulfillment continue though.

The Cappuccino Years takes Adrian into Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia. He remains creatively frustrated – or at least, unrecognised – and becomes jealous of the successful careers of his peers, particularly Pandora, who has become a junior minister in Blair’s cabinet. However, his fortunes seem to rise as he accidentally becomes the co-host of a cooking show and then must pen a cookbook based around it. This is a great read and the longest book thus far but lacks some of the bite of the earlier novels in which the troubles of Adrian flowed organically out of his situation: here they feel as though they are being used as targets for Townsend’s brilliantly satirical mind. However, we begin to get the feeling that Adrian is less of a comic figure and becoming more tragic and an obvious mirror for the times he lives in. His past also comes back to haunt him in the form of Glenn, a son he never knew he had.

The Lost Diaries Of Adrian Mole is an anomaly: in a way, it goes back to the roots of Adrian, being a collection of columns written by Townsend, but it never really succeeds as a story in its own right. It covers Adrian, his family and friends over the turning of the millennium but never picks up enough steam to become really interesting of itself. The need to have Adrian reflect the times he lives in in real time is sacrificed at the altar of situation, plot and character. Even the conclusion – in which Adrian is arrested for having terrorist links – is a jab at the Blair government rather than its own story. It’s Adrian ongoing struggles with the normal that make it funny and enjoyable, though.

Townsend’s issues with the War On Terror, though, are beautifully expressed in The Weapons Of Mass Destruction. Adrian’s son Glenn, convinced by his father’s defence of Blair, joins the army and goes off to fight in the Middle East. The rest of the novel details Adrian’s gradual and reluctant acceptance that he was wrong. It’s a powerful and moving novel and Adrian being our mirror is never more explicitly stated than in his need to trust those tasked to look after us. Of course, it wouldn’t be an Adrian Mole novel without the rest of his life being an utter mess: he has found secure employment but gets caught up in the credit boom and goes up against an angry swan…

The final novel details his fight against illness. The Prostrate Years is heartbreaking at times, with Adrian again being the last to realise just what a mess his life has become. It’s still hilarious but also serious and tragic in a way that only a few entries in the series have been previously, making them stand out even more because of it. Fortunately, it does end with a note of hope. However, two of the previous novels also ended with a similar scene and they didn’t turn out all right for our hero. Perhaps this third time will be the charm…

Unfortunately, we have been denied further chronicles of Adrian’s life due to the death of author Sue Townsend. However, eight books, several short stories, three TV series (two of which were dramatized by Ms Townsend herself) and two stage plays have also been gifted to us to help ease the burden.

I first encountered Adrian when I was in high school. He was never quite the phenomenon in Australia that he was in the UK but he did manage quite a lot of popularity. I reread the first two books with quite some regularity, loving them more each time. I was vaguely aware that there were sequels, but it seemed that they were quite hard to find or perhaps I just wasn’t looking hard enough. Anyway, it wasn’t until the late 2000s that I managed to dive into the rest of the series and realise just what an astonishing achievement Townsend had managed.

As I’ve said above, Adrian is a mirror of our times: all the major issues of the day seem to have affected Adrian: the cold war and the attendant nuclear terror, unemployment, disaffected youth, gay liberation, failed marriages, the credit crunch, the rise of tv populism, the decline of the royal family, aging populations, and the absolute horror of maintaining your health into middle age. And he does it in a way that is hilarious and touching, quite often in the same sentence.

Of course, there’s another reason why I’m so very fond of Moley. And it’s probably not one that I should be too keen to own up to.

You see, we all have favourite characters in literature, imaginary people whom we believe to have some sort of connection to us or who exemplify certain virtues and ideals that they believe to be worth upholding or who just reflect an element of their personality. Of course, I’d have liked it to have been someone like Jean Valjean or F’nor or even Simon Mooncalf, but Adrian Mole is the character in literature that I see myself reflected in the most. I’ve done a lot of similar things to Adrian: I’ve embarrassed myself in a lot of the ways he has, made a lot of similar terrible decisions based on similar reasons – there’s a few moments in the later books where Pandora rings him up to use him as a sort of anti-barometer to guide government policy – and generally made as big an idiot of myself as he has. He gives me that frisson of recognition that we get when art comes very close to imitating real life.

But there’s a lot to admire, there, too: Adrian is loved by his family and his friends: they put up with his terrible writing and his lowbrow intellectualism (or snobbery as we should more properly label it) but they don’t tolerate his rubbish and they let him know when he’s in the wrong or going against the tide. Adrian mightn’t feel it at times, but he belongs. And in return, he also cares about them: there’s a real community among the characters in this book, despite all the grumbling and hidden labour that their relationships are subject to. There’s a deep and abiding sense of caring among them. It’s a feeling that we only get when we’re with people who have known us the longest or have been through rough times with. Adrian sees himself as an outsider, the only sane man in a world going mad, but his tribe know him for what he is: ill-equipped and unready to deal with the world at large but decent at heart.

Not glamorous or exciting, but definitely worth holding on to.

You can find out more about Adrian (and Sue Townsend) at: https://www.penguin.co.uk/authors/21814/sue-townsend.html

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