Thursday, June 15, 2006

Sue Townsend: Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction

Adrian Mole is not quite up there with Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Harry Potter; but in the UK his recognition quotient can't be far off that of those three other literary giants. Outside the UK I don't think Adrian is anything like so well known; I have a suspicion that he doesn't travel well. No matter, he is much appreciated in England, and this latest book about him is wonderful.

First a few words about Adrian's history; then something about his creator, Sue Townsend. And finally a brief account of the book.

Sue Townsend's The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 was published in 1982. It was, as the title tells us, the diary of an angst-ridden teenager; it was very funny, and a huge seller. Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction is, by my count, the sixth in the series, and once again the title tells us where we are: the book is set at the time of the Iraq war (it covers September 2002 to July 2004, to be precise), and at the start of it Adrian is 34.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Adrian has his own web site, where there is lots more information about him.

The onlie begetter of young Adrian is Sue Townsend, a woman who deserves your warmest admiration (though she wouldn't thank me for saying so). Born in 1946, she left school at the age of 15 and had a number of modest jobs in factories and shops. She began writing immediately, but had little success for twenty years. Then she won a prize for a television play, which got her started. Since then she has written quite a number of books and several successful plays. Not the least of these is The Queen and I, which has the royal family deposed from the monarchy and forced to live a normal life on a housing estate in a provincial city; it's also available as a novel.

Sue is a very private person and avoids the celebrity circuit. But I can tell you that she is the mother of five children, is a lifelong Socialist, and since 2001 has been registered blind. Diabetes is what did the damage to her eyes, and you can read all about it in an interview that she gave to Balance, which is a magazine for diabetics.

She still has some small amount of vision, and manages to write by using inch-high letters in thick black marker pen. She only gets about 30 words to a page and reads it back with the aid of a magnifying machine attached to a computer. This is, naturally, a laborious way of working, and I take my hat off to anyone who can write a 460-page novel under those circumstances.

Anyone not yet acquainted with Adrian will soon get the hang of him from the first page of the new novel. He is writing a letting to our glorious leader, Mr Blair. 'Dear Mr Blair,' he begins, in a letter dated 29 September 2002. 'You may remember me -- we met at a Norwegian Leather Industry reception at the House of Commons in 1999.'

In other words, Adrian is one of those people who are really quite bright, but who somehow or other manage to live in a different universe from the rest of us. He is a direct descendant of that other notable diarist, Mr Pooter.

Adrian is currently working in a secondhand-book shop (run by an amiable old gent called Carlton-Hayes); in his spare time he is acting as chairman of a creative-writing group, and he is also worrying about his 17-year-old son, Glenn, who is in the army and may be sent to Iraq.

Adrian has a long history of involvement with women. His great abiding passion is for Pandora Braithwaite, once a teenage girlfriend and now a junior minister in the Blair government. Then there's Sharon, mother of Glenn; there's a Nigerian princess, mother of Adrian's son William, who has been taken to live in Nigeria but misses his Dad. And in the present book Adrian gets himself engaged to the ghastly Marigold, though he can't stand the dreadful neurotic woman, and much prefers her sister Daisy, with whom he has a passionate affair.

On top of that, Adrian succumbs to the contemporary disease of over-spending. People keep sending him these credit cards, you see, and as he's feeling rather depressed about Glenn and the WMD he keeps buying things. By page 267 his minimum monthly repayments already exceed his monthly pay cheque, and the situation deteriorates further after that.

Shining through this portrait of the clueless but well meaning Adrian Mole are a number of political points. Adrian is portrayed as a man whose friends regard him as a kind and likeable person, but as something of a simpleton. He is a man capable of writing things like this: 'How anybody could doubt Mr Blair's word is a mystery to me. The man radiates honesty and sincerity.' So you really don't need to be particularly perspicacious to realise that Sue Townsend has total contempt for Blair and New Labour and their wretched war. At least Adrian's old flame Pandora has the good sense to resign from the government in protest.

In the shape of Adrian's friend Nigel, who is going blind, we also have someone who speaks for the author. Nigel does not take kindly to losing his sight. And he is not grateful when people ask him things like whether his hearing has improved now that he can no longer see. In his spare time Adrian reads Private Eye aloud to Nigel -- an experience which might teach him something about how the world really works -- but Nigel is driven to comment thoughtfully, 'You don't understand half of what you're reading, do you, Moley?'

All in all, this latest episode in the difficult life of Adrian Mole is a delightful read. It is not without its darker passages: you can't run a war without someone getting badly hurt or even killed. But it is a book written by a very warm-hearted, decent woman, and it shows. She equips the hapless Adrian with enough good friends to help him out of all the dreadful messes that he gets himself into, and the ending is a happy one. So much so that it made me cry. But then I always was a sentimental old fool.

Rumour has it that this is to be the last in the Adrian Mole series. That would be sad but, in the circumstances, entirely understandable.


Anonymous said...

What an amazing woman Sue Townsend is! Thanks, GOB, for recommending another book! The last book I picked up based on your recommendation was the wartime diary To War With Whitaker by The Countess of Ranfurly. I couldn't put it down.

Anonymous said...

The first two Adrian Mole books were a huge success in the Netherlands as well, at the time. And I remember the TV adapations were broadcasted over here. Don't know how the later books were received, which probably means they didn't do much.

Anonymous said...

I'm a great fan of GOB, and of all the other "Grumpy's " in the U.K.
Here in Flanders (Belgium) Adrian Mole was also a big hit.
Wish Sue Townsend all the best!

- Leopold said...

Adrian Mole is certainly 'heard of' over here (Canada), but far from famous. Quite undeservingly, because the two books I read were excellent. I've fallen out of reading them, but I should really find out what Adrian's been up to lately.

MarkFarley said...

Ahh Pandora, how you were the fire in my youthful loins so.

Martin said...

I'm a long-time fan as well. Do have a look at Townsend's 2003 novel Number Ten! It has a thinly disguised Tony Blair traveling around the UK in drag in order to get to know his people. Hilarious! But back then, Townsend still had some room in her heart for Blair-the-human.

Camilla said...

Adrian Mole is a(n) (anti-) hero in Sweden as well!

Just finished AM and the weapons... as an audiobook, and it was brilliant!

Anonymous said...

I too listened to AM and Weapons on audiotape, and it was wonderful!!!!!! It makes me want to know more, more, more about his adventures in his later years!!!

Anonymous said...

Ah,Adrian...I have been in love with Adrian since I was 11 years old (20 years ago!) I always went straight out and bought copies of his latest diaries,so I was with a pang of sadness that I discovered this was the last,but It was outweighed with happiness at the ending!
Sue Townsend is a fantastic writer,and I'm quite sure she is in part,responsible for my rebellious streak....

Anonymous said...

It was not easy to get hold of Adrian's diaries here in my neck of the woods. I requested them at our local library, which in turn transmitted a search throughout the Pennsylvania library system. One by one each book was found, one here, one there, and sent my way. The last was Weapons of Mass Destruction. We've one man, slow-talking and middle-aged (like me), who is employed at the Tunkhannock library. He called one night and drawled, "We've got another one of those Adrian Mole books here for you." He is so obviously perplexed by my taste in reading. I will miss Adrian. I hope Ms Townsend will change her mind and allow him to emerge from retirement some time down the road.

Anonymous said...

Came across the book in Termini Station, Rome. Started reading it on the platform while waiting for the train to get in. Got on train, face buried in the pages. Kept reading. Couldn't put the book down. Could hardly keep a straight face. Giggling most of the time. Then later fumbled for a Kleenex. Lovely, very funny,touching book.

Anonymous said...

I always loved reading the books, but the Weapons of Mass Destruction one has left me with a distinctly bitter taste.

Too much hilarious fun at the expene of the under-educated and not-too-intelligent; too much laughter over those who talk funny; too many giggles over a serious war.

And there is a really nasty part about a young man who is killed, and the "doggerel" relatives write on his death. Yes, such doggerel is in poor taste. Yes, the working class world is full of platitudes and cliches. And Yes, Ms. Townsend is getting some very cheap laughs.

Sorry, no more Adrian Mole for me.

Olivia Duncan

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