A Tribute to Adrian Mole
UPDATE: I’ve just heard the news that author Sue Townsend has passed away. Coincidentally, it was the death of Margaret Thatcher almost exactly one year ago that prompted me to think of Townsend greatest character, Adrian Mole. I explain why below.
Last week, with the news of Margaret Thatcher’s death, I immediately recalled a poem by legendary character Adrian Mole which I hadn’t read for two decades:
Do you weep, Mrs Thatcher, do you weep?
Do you wake, Mrs Thatcher, in your sleep?
Do you weep like a sad willow?
On your Marks and Spencer’s pillow?
Are your tears molten steel?
Do you weep? Do you wake with ‘Three million’ on your brain?
Are you sorry that they’ll never work again?
When you’re dressing in your blue, do you see the waiting queue?
Do you weep, Mrs Thatcher, do you weep?
The greatest thing about the terrible poetry is the line that follows,
“I think my poem is extremely brilliant. It is the kind of poem which could bring a Government to its knees”
The seriousness of the delusion is magical. Like much of character-drive English humour, which unfolds with nuance, the biggest laughs are in the subtlest detail.
The importance of Adrian Mole in my pubescent literary formation just can’t be underestimated, and may be best captured by a quote by comedian David Walliams: “The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole was our Bible. It was probably the biggest phenomena of my youth after Star Wars, and Star Wars was bigger than God”
Adrian Mole is a magnificent embodiment of English teenage anxious ambition. A skinny rebel with Noddy wallpaper.
The very first time I read the Secret Diary, probably in late primary school, I didn’t even realise it was comedic. He was this truthful, awkward nerd who loved reading and took things incredibly seriously. He worried about the important things I worried about.
Part of the brilliance of Adrian Mole as a character is the humorous naiveté of his worldview. As I grew older I found multiple re-reads increasingly funny. So many of his worries and judgements (which I shared) are mistaken readings of adult life.
And things DO seem incredibly worrisome and serious at that age. But while other characters in a similar vein – think Kevin Arnold in The Wonder Years – have a sense of settled popularity and ‘everyboy’ about them, Mole by contrast, sees himself as true outsider, albeit too riddled with anxiety and personal tidiness to ever do anything conventionally rebellious about it.
He feels the weight of dutiful responsibility beyond his years which is never asked of him, such as checking his baby sister’s breathing, and faithfully supporting, though hating, a lonely geriatric (and washing his bacon and egg dishes with no soap and cold water), without question. He generally sees himself as the one who must do the right things in the midst of an irresponsible world.
He also sees himself as a major intellectual, falling for the quite common mistake of perceiving his own subjective judgements on modern life as unique and insightful critique. His love of books and poetry betrays his idealistic view of his own literary prowess. He has, of course, an unfinished mammoth novel in him titled ‘Lo, the Flat Hills of my Homeland’.
It was also an education, indeed it is from Adrian that I first learnt about Margaret Thatcher, the Fawklands War and Malcom Muggeridge.
But the unique angle taken by author Sue Townsend is that whilst utilising the theme of viewing and judging the adult world through the eyes of a teenager, she makes the protagonist a conservative, not-very-clever nerd, rather than a rebel.
Something similar is used more obviously in the 80’s sitcom Family Ties where teenager Alex P Keating (Michael J Fox) is more politically conservative than his ex-hippy boomer parents. For Adrian, it’s in contrast to his 40 yo, Female Eunich-reading mother who is always encouraging him to get a trendy haircut, as in this classic passage:
“I think my mother is cracking up, she is behaving more strangely than usual. She came into my bedroom to change my sheets and when I objected to her dropping cigarette ash on my Fawklands Campaign map she said ‘For God’s sake Adrian, this room is a bloody shrine! Why don’t you leave your clothes on the floor like normal teenagers?’
I said I like things to be neat and tidy but she said ‘You’re a bloody obsessive’, and left.
When he does briefly try to be cool, joining a local gang before then leaving home, he leaves a note for the gang leader, Barry Kent which reads:
‘Baz – I’ve blown town. The pigs will be looking for me. Try and put ‘em off the scent will you?’
I love that he even though he adopts street language, he can’t help including the correct apostrophe.
But overall, Adrian Mole is a celebration of ordinariness. The flat, plain, domestic atmosphere of suburban life is unrelenting. There is no fantasy, no magical alternative world. Indeed as Mole grows older, in the (admittedly lesser) later books, reality only smacks harder.
The brilliance of the Adrian Mole series is not only the description of this reality, but his own mocking of those who push against it in superficial ways. Although he does acknowledge a shinier world in other homes, where people have new 10-speed bikes, and cool names like Jason.
And so there is certainly a sadness to the whole context, a collective suburban sigh, against which Adrian believes he may be a lone poetic reed.
In this vein, the Secret Diary is closer the The Office (UK) than Harry Potter, but while seemingly having the anxiety of a younger David Brent, and being similarly desperate for fame, he is more genuinely bookish and would look down on Brent’s desperate ways, seeing himself on a higher intellectual plane. He has a fair bit of Gareth about him too, if you substitute the army for a library.
It’s the lack of self-awareness that unites them all, not being able to see what everyone else can. Not getting the memo. This is paralysing at school, and social death at work.
That sense of missing out, but thinking everyone else has it wrong is a common experience, and one with which I resonated with Adrian Mole.
One of the hardest quests in life is to find the truth. Comedy can be our friend in this endeavour, along with Jesus Christ himself, pricking balloons, speaking directly to us.
And that’s why we’re totally with Adrian. It’s so funny, and it’s so real.
For whilst my bedroom wall was plastered with posters of Dermott Brereton & Poison; it was Adrian Mole who was closer than a brother. Someone else not great at sport, who loved reading, and felt a strange overdeveloped sense of responsibility.
The Secret Diary takes us into these precious, precise thoughts and observations, and on every single page it’s still absolute, hilarious, gold.