What I learnt about boys from the genius comic creation that was Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole

The author’s death takes me back to the joy that was the hapless teenager’s secret diary

Share

Has there ever been a more sublimely comic vignette of teenage angst than the sorry tale of Adrian Mole and his Noddy wallpaper? In a series of diary entries over a torrid week one May, Mole, aged 13¾, decides that he can no longer sleep in a room papered with Enid Blyton characters (“positively indecent”) and paints his walls a vinyl, silk-finish black. It does not work out well for him. 

“Wednesday May 27th. Third coat. Slight improvement, only Noddy’s hat showing through now.

Friday May 29th. Went over hat bells with black felt-tip pen, did sixty-nine tonight, only a hundred and twenty-four to go.”

It is a perfect little episode, encapsulating all of the growing pains, absurd posturing, lonely obsessions, disappointments and stationery-related woes of life as a teenager and would-be rebel. As literary set-pieces go, it is up there on the snort-out-loud scale with Lucky Jim panicking over Mrs Welch’s burned bedsheets or Gussie Fink-Nottle’s slurred speech at Market Snodsbury School. 

Sue Townsend, who died on Thursday, aged 68, must surely be remembered alongside Amis and Wodehouse as one of British literature’s great humorists. For children of the 1980s, the names Pandora and Ashby de la Zouch will forever bring to mind a spotty young man with a head full of intellectual pretensions and a ruler down his trousers.  The first two instalments of the teenage diaries made Townsend the best-selling novelist of that decade and she returned, without coyness or reluctance, to her best-loved creation again and again. Until the end, when meeting fans, she would sign her name in their books Mole-style: “Sue Townsend, aged 66 1/4”.

Adrian Mole, the hero of eight volumes between 1982 and 2009, sits somewhere between naughty schoolboy Nigel Molesworth and naughty singleton Bridget Jones in the comic diary canon, but unlike the former – forever pickled in (glorious) puerile boyhood – and the latter – who lost her voice in the clamour of her creator’s success – Mole matured, morphed and grew in unexpected directions, like one of the zits on his adolescent chin. Down the years, he became newt conservation officer, chef, antiquarian bookseller, husband, father and ultimately cancer patient, living in a converted pigsty.

The first volume - with its on-the-cusp cover of a misty bathroom mirror, shaving brush and Noddy toothbrush – remains the best. All teenage life is here - from acne to bullies, divorce to tonsillitis, pornography to pocket money. Some of the entries are beautifully prosaic.  “7am Boarded coach. 7.05 Ate packed lunch, drank low calorie drink. 7.10 Coach stopped for Barry Kent to be sick”. Others are poetic, of course, like his dramatic ode to a dripping tap (“For the want of a washer the carpet will spoil/ Then for another my father will toil.”) or his many missives to Pandora, who always inspired his most florid outpourings - “Pandora! I adore ya. I implore ye. Don't ignore me”. He is priggish, puritanical (but only when it comes to his parents. He and Saffy from Ab Fab would have got on famously) but, thanks to his innocence, still endearing. 

There are other great teenage characters – the terminally bored Holden Caulfield, Judy Blume’s emotionally articulate, sexually precocious heroines - but Mole always felt real, still does to those who grew up with him.  He experiments with sex and drugs, but ineptly. He buys Big and Bouncy and Grow It Big cream and has his first wet dream after flipping through his mum’s feminist literature (“So my mother was right about The Female Eunuch. It has changed my life.”). When he tries sniffing glue he gets his nose stuck to a model aeroplane. That never happens in the glossy world of Glee. Entirely un-self-aware, he revels in being a misunderstood intellectual and an unrequited lover. It’s the same gauche combination that has made Hannah Horvath the voice of a new generation in Girls today.

Unlike Girls, Mole’s diaries crossed all boundaries – of gender, class and age. Reading them as a young girl was an illuminating, more often hilarious insight into how boys probably thought. Reading them now, it is the sly undercurrents of his interactions with his parents and other adults that make me giggle.  He is a true crossover phenomenon, so much funnier and more flawed than Harry Potter.

It helped that his readers grew up with him. I am the same age as the first book. Today its references to Hush Puppies, joss sticks, Vimto and snaplock executive briefcases are deliciously nostalgic. More than that, the books are a remarkable, comic, chronicle of an era. Townsend’s brilliance lay not only in her ability to capture a male voice from puberty to middle-age, but also in the way she played out Mole’s personal struggles against a wider political backdrop, whether Thatcherism and Greenham Common or New Labour and the Iraq War.

What might an austerity-era Adrian have looked like? Townsend was reportedly writing a new volume when she died. If so, it will likely be published now, finished or not. In 20 years or so, someone might decide to re-boot Mole for a new generation. I have no doubt that he will still be as funny and true as he was when he first opened his diary on 1 January 1981 and wrote the words “Eight days have gone by since Christmas Day but my mother still hasn’t worn the green lurex apron I bought her for Christmas. She will get bathcubes next year.”

www.twitter.com/alicevjones

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - A great new opportunity with real pot...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - An outstanding senior opportunity for...

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: When is a baroness not a baroness? Titles still cause confusion

Guy Keleny
 

CPAC 2015: What I learnt from the US — and what the US could learn from Ukip

Nigel Farage
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower