Thursday, 19 January 2012
It's the 30th anniversary of Adrian Mole today - can you believe it? - and the good people of Penguin offered me their new editions of all the books. Knowing that my brother Colin is an Adrian fan, I thought I'd suggest him as a more suited recipient. They sent off a set, and he wrote me a fab review. Whenever I feature other people's posts I want to say COMMENT, COMMENT, MAKE THEM FEEL WELCOME! The new comment system may scupper this, but if it does, go and say hello on Facebook(!) Over to you, Col.
It is 30 years since Adrian Mole leapt into the national consciousness from the pen of Sue Townsend, and to mark the occasion Penguin are re-issuing all eight volumes of the Mole saga.
Eight volumes? Really? The first surprise to many readers who loved Adrian in the seminal The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 ¾ - even the title is funny – and perhaps Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years, which was televised for the BBC, is that Townsend has been quite so prolific in writing about her best-loved creation. If for nothing else, then, this re-issue is a fine reminder that there was life after high school for the poet of Ashby-de-la-Zouch.
Adrian Mole is, to my mind, one of the finest comic creations in English literature. The diary format is perfect for exposing his lack of self-awareness, utterly delusional nature and inability to understand the world around him (a trick played many years before in The Diary of a Nobody) but, like many of the finest comic characters, we cannot help but empathise with him and hope that maybe, this time, he’ll get it right. Maybe Pandora, the woman Adrian is pathetically in love with for the majority of the series, will return his affections; maybe one of his literary efforts (Longing for Wolverhampton; Lo! The Flat Hills of My Homeland; Plague!) will get the respect it so richly doesn’t deserve; maybe his parents will cease to be a constant source of embarrassment and anguish. But then again, of course, maybe not.
As a teenager, Adrian Mole has a few themes that he returns to with unabated zeal: how much he loves Pandora (“Pandora’s father is a milkman! I have gone off her a bit”); his manifold sufferings (“I will be a latchkey kid, whatever that is”) and, unfailingly, the fact that he is an intellectual (“I have written to Malcolm Muggeridge, c/o the BBC, asking him what to do about being an intellectual”; “I am an intellectual but at the same time I am not very clever”). Then, of course, there is the Norwegian Leather Industry, knowledge of which – based on his score in a single school test – Adrian carries around with him like Bertie Wooster with his Scripture Knowledge prize. Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction begins with a reference to meeting Tony Blair at a 1999 conference on the topic.
When the series begins, Mole is – of course – 13 ¾, and by the final volume (so far; Townsend’s only comment about the future is her hope that Adrian go “onward, ever onward”) he is 40 and a grandfather, and it is a great tribute to the series that the child is still recognisable in the adult. From the first few pages of book one you could tell that he is the kind of person who would engage in a lengthy correspondence about the existence of WMDs, simply in order to get a refund on his travel expenses. Some of his traits are diminished a little by time: Mole no longer has such a heightened view of his importance in the world, and is not so blithely unaware of his surroundings as he once was. This is all to the good; a teenager whose reaction to Animal Farm is to ponder becoming a vet (later amended to boycotting bacon) is amusing; a grown man – and father to children from various different mothers – showing such vapidity would just be sad. Townsend is obviously fond of her hero, and he is not designed to be simply a figure of fun; it is genuinely touching when, in Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years, ‘The Top Secret Diary of Glenn Mole (13)’ begins “When I grow up I want to be my dad.”
As well as being an excellent character study over thirty years, the Adrian Mole series always has its finger on the political pulse, starting under Margaret Thatcher (“I was looking at our world map. I couldn’t find the Falkland Islands anywhere. My mother found them; they were hidden under a crumb of fruitcake”) and self-evident in The Weapons of Mass Destruction. Just the unlikely fact that Adrian’s only published work (actually ghost-written by his mother) is ‘Offally Good! – The Book!’, the companion to his TV cooking show, is an indictment of celebrity culture in Tony Blair’s Britain. Of course, the most overtly political entry in the Mole canon is The Secret Diary of Margaret Hilda Roberts Aged 14 ¼, which forms part of True Confessions of Adrian Mole.
As the series develops, so do the cast of characters in Adrian’s life (helpfully detailed in the back of these editions). Pandora becomes a prominent MP; school bully Barry Kent becomes a successful poet; Adrian’s best friend Nigel becomes a blind, gay, Buddhist van driver (though not necessarily all at the same time). Townsend also introduces a host of new characters, including the excellently-drawn Flowers family, one of whom becomes Mrs Daisy Mole in Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction. It is at this point that Adrian Mole lays down his pen, saying that “Happy people don’t keep a diary”, only to pick it up again in Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years (the title taken from the fact that Adrian has problems with his prostate and, true to his nature, is chiefly annoyed by people pronouncing the word with an extraneous ‘r’) to record the fact that “it is two months and nineteen days since I made love to my wife, Daisy”. In the Q&A accompanying this new edition of the books, Townsend says that her favourite book in the series is The Prostrate Years, because she herself had suffered serious health problems and wanted to tackle the subject in a comic manner. I applaud the sentiment, but I must confess that I wish she hadn’t gone down the path she chose; while Adrian’s pursuit of Pandora was always amusing for its hopelessness, his relationship with Daisy appeared to be the true romance of the series, and its collapse was unfortunate. I would rank the first two and the penultimate books as the highlights of the series, but the central character is so strong that I re-read them all with enjoyment.
So that’s the books themselves: what about this re-issue in particular? I feel sorry for Roderick Mills, who was tasked with designing the new covers, because the original cover (the bathroom mirror with a shaving kit and Noddy toothbrush, beautifully demonstrating the dichotomies inherent within a youth becoming a man) is rightly iconic – something that is tacitly admitted by including it on the inside cover of the new Secret Diary. The designer opted for pastel shades for each book in the series, which strikes me as a little odd given that I would normally associate the colour scheme (though not the overall effect, I admit) with chick-lit. Perhaps it is an attempt to emphasise that Adrian Mole can be read and enjoyed by men and women of all ages, and is not the preserve of teenage boys, even given that David Walliams’ foreword to The Secret Diary (in which he finds space to name-check his own book for children) says “boys who were proud to say they had never read a book in their life read this one”.
The new editions also include a Q&A with Sue Townsend, Adrian Mole’s CV and literary CV, the Mole story, a roll call of principal characters and the first chapter of Townsend’s new book (this last I must confess I haven’t read, but having read The Queen and I and Rebuilding Coventry, I can assert that her skill with her pen isn’t limited to residents of Leicestershire). This is a generous set of add-ons, many of which help to give a sense of continuity to the chronicles of Adrian’s surprisingly eventful life and the array of characters who enter and exit it.
When asked if she regards Adrian Mole as a millstone round her neck, Townsend was emphatic in her response: “authors who complain about the success of their most well-known characters are fools”. If she chooses to continue his run, I won’t be complaining either.