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Friday, April 11, 2014

Remembering Sue Townsend

Sad news today that Sue Townsend, the author of the Adrian Mole diaries, has died. Like many others I enjoyed the books immensely but I could not hope to do justice to a review of them as

The point of course, as Sue Townsend says is that the book wasn't even aimed at teenagers: "It was written for parents, that was the intended audience. It was for the mothers of teenage boys.":

That seems obvious now. Reading it as a 40-year-old father, I recognise it as a book clearly written by one of my own: Mole is simultaneously lovable and completely exasperating, and as anyone who has had kids will tell you, love and complete exasperation are pretty much the defining emotions of parenthood. I find my interest resting less on Mole and his on-off girlfriend Pandora than his mum and dad, particularly his mum Pauline, with her ambitions crushed by the suburbs and her late-flowering feminism and her fantastic line in The Growing Pains about how the only thing more boring than listening to other people's dreams is listening to other people's problems.

Indeed, reading it as a 40-year-old father, I occasionally wonder what I got out of it 30 years ago. I missed almost everything I now love about the book. I didn't notice how doleful its very Midlands sense of humour is – like a long resigned sigh you laugh at – or how beautifully drawn the other characters are: not just his parents, but Bert Baxter, the octogenarian communist who refuses to die until he sees capitalism dismantled, and Pandora's earnest, Guardian-reading family, their marriage torn asunder by the foundation of the SDP. I didn't get a lot of the references. I had no idea who Iris Murdoch was, nor Malcolm Muggeridge, nor indeed RD Laing, whom one of Mole's teachers doorsteps during a school trip to London in the hope he will give the delinquent Barry Kent "a quick going-over". And I completely overlooked how Townsend uses Mole's naivety as a vehicle for the occasional burst of more vicious wit: "Bert showed me a picture of his dead wife," he writes. "It was taken in the days before they had plastic surgery."

"That would have been a completely serious point to Adrian too," says Townsend. "He wouldn't think there was any humour in that at all. When it was done as a radio play that was what was so wonderful, the actor who read it was 13¾ as well and he didn't get it at all. He read it without any semblance of humour in it: he didn't know."

And 30 years ago, that was the point. I identified with Adrian Mole, which on one level seems bizarre – he is a self-obsessed prig and a hypochondriac to boot – but on another seems perfectly understandable. His brand of adolescent angst felt and still feels more realistic and relevant to me than any other hero of the great teenage novels I went on to read. Holden Caulfield might have been alienated, but he knew how to book into a hotel, get served cocktails and hire a prostitute, all of which marked him out as almost unfathomably exotic and alien. Adrian Mole couldn't even repaint his bedroom without the Noddy wallpaper showing through, which seemed much more my style.

We all fell in love with Adrian Mole and his world, simply because it was so realistic in its ordinariness. Sue Townsend's genius was to capture that world in a funny and insightful way. The books were beautifully observed and well-written. They created a genre. That is quite a legacy.
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