At some point in my childhood, I was led into a room in a school with a middle aged woman behind a desk. It was some kind of interview, for secondary school, I don’t remember, I was around ten or eleven at this time.
What I do remember is the woman asking me: ‘What’s your birthday?’
‘November 17,’ I said.
The woman produced a book. ‘Okay,’ she said, ‘let’s find out what Adrian Mole did on your birthday.’
That icebreaker was the first thing I thought of when I heard about Sue Townsend’s death. We all knew Adrian Mole. We had grown up with him. I read the teenage diaries as a kid, of course I did, but it’s the adult novels I loved most, because childhood in the main follows a set path, whereas once you’ve grown up, anything can happen.
Not that much happens in the Mole diaries. As teenagers Adrian and his girlfriend Pandora are snobs in the way that only teenage outsiders can be. But Pandora grows up to be an Oxford PhD, Member of Parliament and bon viveur, while Adrian lives a life of poverty and disappointment. He racks up debt, two failed marriages, spends years raising children alone on a sink estate and, in the final book, develops prostate cancer. The books are well loved despite this darkness. Or perhaps because of it. Townsend has Chekhov’s chip of ice. Life is hard. Bad things happen. Dreams dissolve like morning mist.
My favourite of the Mole books is The Wilderness Years. In this, it’s the early 1990s and Adrian is a young man squatting in Pandora’s Oxford boxroom. Over the course of the book, he gets fired, dumped, moves cities, all the while writing a ludicrous novel, Lo! The Flat Hills of My Homeland, featuring Adrian’s fantasy surrogate and wish-fulfilment icon, Jake Westmorland. Jake’s adventures become a book within a book as Adrian excerpts his work in progress alongside his regular diary. The Mole novel is preposterous (‘Put your foot down!’ Jake barked to the minicab driver. ‘Take me to the nearest urban conurbation’) but develops a poignant edge as Adrian’s fiction mirrors his moods and charts his growth as a person. We laugh at Adrian, but never stop loving him. He has no talent but is in his own way a wonderful human being.
There are probably millions of Adrian Mole type intellectuals in provincial towns and cities all over the UK – reading in old man’s pubs, working the counter at secondhand bookshops, raising pigs in the fields of England.
This post is meant as my tribute to these fine men.
Sue Townsend 1946-2014. Image via The Daily Edge