Sunday, April 14, 2013

Adrian Mole: From Minor to Major

Adrian Mole:  From Minor to Major 

I needed to rest my head from its multi-century bounce between AD 46 and the 1770s, so I decided on what seemed to be historical (non)fiction’s furthest pole, the lauded Adrian Mole series by Sue Townsend.  At first, I really wasn’t sure.  Then I resolved that I was going to teach Adrian Mole as part of curriculum to Americans training to go to the UK (diplomats, transplants, and interested parties):  I can’t think of many avenues so comprehensively and idiosyncratically symptomatic of the real British psyche, though naturally 1981 when Adrian began his diaries is far removed from us today.  But not so far removed.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ is in many places absolutely hilarious and, to use a thoroughly British phrase, completely mental.    The back of this collected edition, From Minor to Major, tells us that Adrian Mole diaries “constitute an attack on all the half-baked ideas of marriage and parenthood.”  I wouldn’t phrase is quite like that, though not having ever spoken to Sue Townsend I have no idea what her thought process was.  I would say Adrian Mole, like some of the greatest characters in literature, is so utterly successful because we can all relate to him, despite now being an advanced age and never having been his gender, in my case (therefore having foregone Adrian’s obsession with measuring his “thing”).  I don’t know about you, but I was pompous at 13.  Sometimes I did look at grown-ups and certainly at my peers and think, “Oh the humanity.”  Only to me did the world reveal its revelations and even then I was too young and insignificant to do anything about them.  We can laugh at Adrian because he acts utterly ridiculous to an outside and rather cooler mind, but at the same time, it gives us a valuable nugget of humility, as even in moments in which we find ourselves of turmoil of soap opera dimensions, we need to put it all into perspective.  

I commend Townsend for being able to so easily and completely assume the authorial voice of a 13 ¾-year-old British boy of the Midlands.  Occasionally you come across an author who is otherwise masterful, but for some reason their getting inside the head of certain characters rings false (I had a bit of trouble, for example, with the way Sarah Waters presented her male characters in The Night Watch).  This never happens in Adrian Mole the first 10 years.  Alas, I think the collection suffers from the fact that as Adrian gets older, he becomes much less interesting, much less sympathetic, and peters out the kind of character—I must speculate—populates the writing of Kingsley Amis et al.  Furthermore, by 1989, reality seems to have spun wildly out of control and I feel less and less invested in the characters’ lives. 
Much of Adrian’s conflict, humor, and indeed, the source of the rather improbable turns the narrative eventually takes, is with his parents.  “My father is in a bad mood,” he writes on January 10th [1981].  “This means he is feeling better.  I made my mother a cup of tea without her asking.  This made her cry as well.  You can’t please some people!”  On the next day, as per his “bad home,” poor diet, and not liking punk, he decides he is an intellectual.  Upon making this decision, he decides to write some poetry, which he sends to Malcolm Muggeridge[1].  “I showed it to my mother, but she laughed.  She isn’t very bright.  She still hasn’t washed my PE shorts, and it is school tomorrow.  She is not like the mothers on television.”  Having recently read into the history of Britain from 1956 to 1970 and a bit of the 1970s, I am familiar (and feel I could teach to my hypothetical American class) the significance of Adrian worrying he will become a “latchkey kid” when his mother starts looking for work.  This gives one further importance of Adrian Mole; it’s certainly worth reading as a historical document.  Adrian becomes a big reader, and since I was reading Wuthering Heights[2] and The Hunchback of Notre Dame when I was 13 (or younger) I can understand some of his (big, intellectual) choices.  On the other hand, I draw the line at War and Peace—I couldn’t get through it at 27, so there’s no way Adrian could have read it within 1 day.  

 All joking aside, Adrian’s eventual having to go to school, take care of his father and/or mother and/or baby sister plus Bert Baxter, his OAP (another footnote for my American class, that’s old age pensioner = senior citizen), whom he grudgingly likes but causes him no end of trouble.  This is like Adrian being of a sandwich generation before such a thing was called that, although a radio play I heard not too long ago makes me think young people as caretakers for their older dependents, even their parents, is quite entrenched in British society.  Furthermore, I don’t know exactly what Townsend is saying about Women’s Lib.  “It is lousy having a working mother.  She rushes in with big bags of shopping, cooks the tea then rushes around tarting herself up.  But she is still not doing any tidying up before comforting Mr Lucas[3].”  As far as I can tell, the days of electricity rationing were over before Adrian was 13 ¾ , but his father does fail to pay the electricity bill.  “After supper of cream crackers and tuna fish, played cards in the candlelight.  It was dead good.  My father cut the ends of our gloves, we looked like two criminals on the run.  I am reading Hard Times, by Charles Dickens.”  July 1st [1981] marks the arrival of “brown-skinned” people to Adrian’s neighborhood.  On Royal Wedding Day (ie Charles to Diana, not William to Kate), Adrian writes, “How proud I am to be English!  Foreigners must be sick as pigs!”  And Adrian weighs in on the recently-deceased Margaret Thatcher.  “Sometimes I think Mrs Thatcher is a nice kind sort of woman.  Then the next day I see her on television and she frightens me rigid.  She has got eyes like a psychotic killer, but a voice like a gentle person.  It is a bit confusing.”   Furthermore, “Grandma has got a funny look in her eyes.  My mother says it is called Jingoism, but I think it is more likely to be cataracts forming.”  Adrian’s mother’s dour Yorkshire relatives the Sugdens are also worthy of a sidebar in American class. 

Despite moments of clarity, Adrian can be thick (again, in the English parlance).  It takes him way too long to realize his mother is having an affair with Mr Lucas from next door and longer still to discover his mother is pregnant.  But other surprises we don’t see coming.  For example, it’s Adrian’s grandmother who somehow convinces Barry Kent to stop bullying Adrian[4].  Adrian, of course, reacts in a totally overblown way.  “I bought her a box of diabetic chocolates as a token of my esteem.”  I read a headline on a magazine at the supermarket counter the other day that asked, “Are you so much posher than him?” and presumably detailed the dangers of being posher than your husband/boyfriend.  Pandora, Adrian’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, is certainly posher (and from a more liberal background) than him.  Due to Pandora, he tries many things he might not have, including starting a short-lived literary magazine.  They also star as Mary and Joseph in a “progressive” version of the Nativity play (you can imagine how that goes).  

Of particular interest to my American class will be Hamish Manicini, Adrian’s occasional pen-pal from New York.  Hamish is an odd one, because his first appearances in the books require him to be a hysterical, stereotypical loud-mouthed gum-popping slang-toting American; it caused me to wonder if Townsend had ever, at that point, actually met an American.  I don’t think she had[5].  I do think she may have, however, in the extended Mancini letter, in which he gives a list of British-icisms that he needs translated by Adrian, which Adrian helpfully does[6].  (Nice to know, also, that I missed the roller skating craze by about 29 years.)  

“I have put my name down for the school play.  We are doing The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.  . . . I hope I get to play Earnest, although my mother says the handbag is the best part.  She think she’s such a wit.”  I am pleased that Adrian saw fit to laugh at Waiting for Godot:  “Nigel had hysterics when I said that Vladimir and Estragon sounded like contraception pills.”  I’m even more pleased that Radio 4 plays such a big part in Adrian’s life, even if it is a satirical one (isn’t that rather like biting the hand that feeds you??).  “There was a good play on Radio Four about torturing in concentration camps.”  Adrian also hears about a “yukky” woman on Radio 4 who has made millions writing romantic fiction; therefore Adrian tries his hand at it.  In fact, Adrian begins a correspondence with John Tyneman, then Head of Drama at Radio 4.  Tyneman is more than indulgent with Adrian, but by the time The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole ends, things have gotten a bit surreal.   I imagine “Adrian Mole on ‘Pirate Radio Four’” is meant to be funny.  Perhaps to someone, somewhere, it is.  Furthermore, Adrian Mole in Moscow?!  Adrian Mole and the Amphibians is a real disappointment, to the point where I do hope the next books in the series are nothing like it.  

There are, I confess, a few moments of genuine gooey-eyed sentiment in this book.  For example, after the birth of Adrian’s much-younger sister, while his father is living at his grandma’s with a woman he got pregnant, “The midwife came at 2.30 . . . She asked me who was looking after my mother.  I said I was.  She said, ‘I see,’ in a thin-lipped manner.  I said, ‘I am perfectly capable of pushing a Hoover around!’  She said, ‘Your mother needs more support.’  So I took the pillows off my own bed and gave them to my mother.  This act of kindness made my mother cry.”  Furthermore, Adrian’s entry for December 4th [1982] is my motto for the rest of life:  “I am having a nervous breakdown.  Nobody has noticed yet.”  Adrian runs away and lives rough starting on March 29th 1983.  (I ran away but only to my grandma’s house and I was about six?  But it was for the same reason:  lack of parental paying attention.) Adrian’s depressive episode after he runs away is funny and yet recalls my own black moods, so it’s nice to see it satirized. 
So there you have it.  I found most of Adrian Mole to be hilarious, but the last third seriously needed an editor’s pen. 

[1] By the way, Adrian never hears from Muggeridge.  “Perhaps he is in a bad mood.  Intellectuals like him and me often have bad moods.  Ordinary people don’t understand us and say we are sulking, but we’re not.” 
[2] “I am reading Wuthering Heights.  It is brilliant.  If I could get Pandora up somewhere high, I’m sure we could regain our old passion.”
[3] Can a woman have it all?  It’s something still debated to this day.  I lack kids, but having juggled working part time, studying full time, cooking, cleaning, shopping, and keeping my affairs in order, I think it’s an unrealistic expectation to force on women. 
[4] In some of the latter pages, Barry Kent actually becomes a friend to Adrian. 
[5] One address in the US she gives as The Dixon Motel
1,599 Block 19
NY State
[6] See January 1st 1985.

1 comment:

cackle_jr said...

I commented over at your other blog but it was enjoyable to reread your review.