Saturday, 12 April 2014

Adrian Mole - helping generations of teens through their growing pains.

I was really saddened to hear of the death of Sue Townsend.  Although I know she said herself that she wouldn't "make old bones", part of me hoped that she would be proven wrong, and that she would go on for as many years as old Bert Baxter himself, smoking woodbines, buying a Communist newspaper and eating nothing but pickled beetroot.

She spoke at the Oxford Union when I was at university, and I went to see her.  She seemed like the sort of person you could have a good chat with if you ended up being stuck together waiting at a bus stop, or similar. By which I mean she seemed down-to-earth, wry, interesting.

She was certainly an exceptionally talented writer.  Not only the Adrian Mole series, but her other works were often hilariously funny, but heart-breaking, all at the same time.  Whenever I see the Queen on TV, I always feel a bit warmer towards her because of her close and trusting relationship with her neighbour Violet in The Queen and I and Queen Camilla, even though, of course, both Violet and the relationship, are completely fictional. 

I was introduced to Adrian Albert Mole when I was 8 and a half. I often have very clear memories of where I acquired books which turned out to be lifelong favourites, and this is no exception.  My Nan and Grandad lived in Wolvercote, near Oxford.  In order to buy a 3-bed semi in Wolvercote now, you have to be independently wealthy, or some kind of hedge-fund gambling crazer, but back in the 1960s when Nan and Grandad bought their house, you could buy a family home in a pleasant village within walking distance of Oxford on the income of a factory foreman and home help. The past is, indeed, another country.

Anyway, there were regular jumble sales at Wolvercote Village Hall. This place seemed huge, and miles away from Nan's house (it was neither), and there were often jumble sales.  Mum and Nan would always take us along, about which we often moaned.  I wouldn't moan now - a) because I'd dearly love to be able to spend some time, any time, with my dear old Mum and Nan again, and b) because you just don't really get jumble sales any more, do you?  Even bring-and-buy sales seem not to occur with the regularity they once did.  I'll blame ebay, I think - that fits in nicely with my prejudices.

So, it was at one of these Wolvercote Village Hall jumble sales that I acquired The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 3/4. I thought it must be a children's book, because it had a picture of a Noddy toothbrush on the front.  I bought several books (I was allowed because they were only 5p each, and it meant that Mum and Nan could look at jumpers and cream jugs, and other really boring things that adults are interested in).  When Mum came over to pay the lady at the stall said "How old is she?  I'm not sure this book's totally suitable?"  Mum explained that I was 8, and, yes I was tall for my age, wasn't I, and that she'd long since given up trying to control what I read, and that I probably wouldn't understand any bits that I shouldn't, because I didn't know any swear words and wasn't very worldly-wise. This was all an accurate representation, so off I went, clutching my Adrian Mole.

I am glad I read it so young, as I knew that whatever teen trauma came up (and they certainly did), I never had it as badly as Adrian Mole.  There were a few copycat type series, such as Diary of a Teenage Health Freak, which were more overtly trying to help you with puberty and nowhere near as rude or funny.

There are so many expertly drawn characters in the series.  The first few are still my favourites - I found the hope that teenage Adrian still has for his future deeply touching, and did feel that the later novels were a touch dark, and not quite so life-affirming (perhaps not a surprise given what Sue Townsend was going through). 

If you've not read the series, I would strongly encourage you to do so. They paint the whole of life in its true colours.  A real gift to the world.  Thank you, Sue Townsend, for sharing your gift with your readers. And thank you Adrian Mole, for being an even bigger geek than me.

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