Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
I picked up this book in Riga at an excellent English language 2nd hand book store. I was drawn to the author because I recall the popularity of the Adrian Mole diaries when I was a child. This quote from The Guardian sums up my memories of Adrian Mole very nicely:
Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾, published in 1982, appealed as much to adults as children. Adrian is a self-styled intellectual who tries to read Jane Austen but doesn’t get on well with it; he thinks she “should write more modern books”. In his bright, naïve, and unintentionally funny style he gives his views of the politics and world issues of the day, and recounts his parents’ marriage difficulties and his own unrequited infatuation for the beautiful Pandora. It’s the first-person voice that makes this book so successful. You find yourself sympathising with Adrian’s troubles as if he’s a real person. Sue Townsend re-animated the diary form with this book, and established a character beloved by kids and grown-ups alike, who went on to star in a whole series of books, a TV show and a stage musical.
I was intrigued to see whether Sue Townsend has let Adrian Mole grow up or if he is still just as gauche as a 33 year old as he was at 13. I also was captivated by the endorsement on the cover of the book from the Guardian suggesting that it make me laugh and laughter is always very welcome!
I quickly discovered that Adrian is still distressingly naive but has now had a string of failed relationships and is the father of two sons, neither of whom live with him. He staggers into a doomed relationship with a strange, controlling and maudlin woman named Marigold Flowers whose family deserves a comedy skit in it’s own right. He gathers debt like my bathroom/laundry gathers dust and I found my throat constricting at the horror of the magnitude and intractable nature of his debt as he applied for and then overdrew on various credit cards to buy ridiculous consumer good that he didn’t really want.
He bought a ridiculous apartment with a hyper-sensitive upstairs neighbour who can’t meditate while he listens to the radio and swans that he claims are nefarious but actually just sound like normal swans. He is still infatuated with Pandora (from his teenage crush) and now she is (rather unbelievably) a politician and published an awful book that detailed her sexual exploits. He runs a creative writing group that implodes, partly because the members are too self-centred to interact nicely with one another but also because none of them have any writing talent.
The most lovely aspect of the book is the book shop that he works in. The shop is run by a delightful older man, Mr Carlton-Hayes, who is kind, thoughtful and empathetic but surprises the reader when he punches Marigold’s father (the awful Mr Flowers). Mr Carlton-Hayes is the kind of man that I would like to be friends with and Adrian is very lucky to be employed by him. Adrian makes several good suggestions for modernising the shop, including a fireplace, seats and a coffee machine and these are so successful in drawing in new custom that Mr Carlton-Hayes can afford to increase Adrian’s pay, but not by enough to overcome his awful debts!
Adrian’s friends are interesting. In fact it’s hard to think that any of them are actually friends, due to their mercenary nature (the accountant that charges him for advice and the IT consultant that charges him to install his home entertainment unit) and how mean they can be to Adrian. His friend Nigel says some cutting things to Adrian but these are perhaps to try to bring some honesty into Adrian’s fantasy world.
I am thirty-five today. I am officially middle-aged. It is all downhill from now. A pathetic slide towards gum disease, wheelchair ramps and death.
Of course, the other aspect of the book, beyond Adrian’s awful life, is the build-up to and beginning of the invasion of Iraq over supposed Weapons of Mass Destruction. Very early in the book is a ridiculous letter from Adrian Mole demanding his deposit back on a holiday in Cyprus, because Tony Blair has told him that Saddam Hussein has weapons that can be dispatched in 45 minutes to Cyprus. By the end of the book, Adrian’s eldest son is suffering in Iraq with the British Army and he rails against his father’s stupidity for supporting the war and suggesting that he go. In the final section of the book, there is a confrontation of Adrian’s strange fantasy world by reality and Adrian finally matures and realises how to deal with his debt and that Tony Blair lied after-all.
I let him shout and swear at me and didn’t try to defend myself because he was correct in everything he said.
Sue Townsend was registered as blind, due to diabetes, in 2001 and managed to write this book using a thick black marker with big writing and a magnifying machine on a computer. What an amazing accomplishment then to write a 430 page novel! Overall, I’m glad that I read the book and I certainly laughed out loud in several sections, as well as crawling with discomfort and being annoyed by Adrian’s naivety and lack of character.