Tag Archives: #books

Nostalgic Memories-The Chip Book Club

It’s World Book Day today in the UK (March 7th) an initiative set up to encourage children to read more books. Apparently vouchers are made available to help kids purchase a book at low cost. There wasn’t anything like that in my day, BUT I remember very fondly saving my tuck shop money to buy books from The Chip Club (Scholastic Books). From the late 70s to early 80s I looked forward to reading the leaflet advertising the terms offers. I made my purchase and they were delivered to the school. It was my first foray into the heady excitement of buying books. I never did buy the Chip Club diary which was much coveted, but I managed to make enough purchases to earn a Super Chip badge, which I treasure to this day.

       My treasured Super Chip badge. Image credit abmj

Somehow my Chip Book Club library managed to survive the parental cull, when my Mammy would toss out books I’d read for jumble sale collections at the door. I think I tucked them away from display, simply because I never knew the entire time I was in Cleland, what belongings of mine would be missing when I got home. To my knowledge these are my Chip Club treasures.

                       My Chip Club Library. Image credit abmj

Later on as a young teenager, I persuaded my Mammy to get a membership for The Leisure Circle, to enable me to buy science, poetry and photography books from saved lunch money. Then when I married, I enjoyed being a member of The Softback Preview and World Books clubs with my husband, which partly explains our well stocked book shelves today. The thrill of being able to buy a book has never left me.

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Adrian Mole Discrepancies

Sue Townsend began her Mole writing in 1982 with the final book published in 2009.  I’ve read all the Adrian Mole books in order of publication, and it seems obvious they were never meant to be read in this manner, as the story line discrepancies are infuriating.  Reading a Townsend interview printed at the end of my last two books she said “once published, I never read my own work”. Believe me you can tell, because at times Sue talked about characters like she never knew their back story at all. Somehow I don’t think the Harry Potter generation from 1997 onwards would tolerate such a seemingly sloppy attitude toward the main characters story.

The first discrepancy I noticed was in characters ages. Adrian’s Secret Diary begins on New Year’s Day 1981 and on April 2nd he turned 14, making his birth year 1967. In the third book Adrian loses a year, seems to regain it again in later narratives, only to celebrate his 40th birthday in 2008! Yet an Adrian Mole CV printed at the back of the last book states he was born in 1967. The Mole boys’ age references are even worse. In “The Cappuccino Years” which spans from April 97 to May 98, William started nursery aged three in 97 (birthday July 1st) and Glenn celebrated becoming a teenager the following year on April 18th. So there are definitely 9 ¼ years between them, but in October 2002 at the start of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” the difference is eight years. Glenn is 17 (correct) and turns 18 the following April as a serving soldier in Kuwait. William is said to be 9 when really he was eight and this strand continues In “The Lost Diaries” where the narrative frankly gets totally lost, with William aged 7 and Glenn 13? William is simultaneously described as a seven year old being drilled for SAT exams, with prevailing references to nursery school participation, yet at five he would have been between these educational reference points.  Glenn meanwhile celebrated becoming 14 in January 2000 when he should actually have turned 15 that April instead?

“The Lost Diaries” wasn’t written as a novel originally, but appeared in The Guardian newspaper as a series of weekly articles known as the Diary of a Provincial Man, between December 1999 and November 2001.  This time period usefully filled some of the gap between the “Cappuccino” & “Weapons” narratives. However, it sticks out like a sore thumb with story plots that are full of contradiction, especially regarding Adrian and Pandora’s parents. Adrian’s mum Pauline falls in love with Pandora’s dad Ivan after the election of 1997 in” The Cappuccino Years”. This results in the even more unlikely get together of George Mole and Tania Braithwaite. Each new couple intend to marry. Sadly in “The Weapons of Mass Destruction” Ivan is said to have drowned on honeymoon, and the second anniversary of his death is mourned on Oct 2nd 2002. So it was with surprise I read the “Lost Diaries” to find Ivan married Pauline on 27th Nov 1999, returned hale and hearty from honeymoon, and worked from home for about a year before suffering a mental breakdown. With his wife Pauline’s knowledge, Ivan returned to Tania’s palatial and less chaotic home to recuperate. Tania’s husband George suffered a back injury putting up a pagoda in the garden and was hospitalised,  only to  succumb to numerous hospital borne infections as well, so is out of the way. Pauline suffers the indignity of jail time for hitting a policeman trying to remove her Beckham nativity scene, and on her release is said to be distraught to find that Ivan is back living with Tania! After fifteen months in the hospital George Mole is discharged on July 2nd 2001, goes on holiday with Pauline and remarries her on August 18th. Their son Adrian had wondered when they went on holiday if their respective partners knew about it. So there is no mention of divorce between Ivan/Pauline and Tania/George and Ivan is most definitely alive at this point. Another story thread that has been altered in the “Lost” book regards Grandma Sugden who is mentioned as having died over twenty years ago. This would have meant she wasn’t around by about 1980, yet throughout Adrian’s teenage years he writes about Grandma Sugden and family celebrating Christmas several times in the Mole household.

The “Cappuccino” book was published in 1999 and “Weapons” in 2004 long before the 2008 “Lost Diaries”, so the dialogue was established. The latter narrative had virtually no co-relation to the others at all, and it’s obvious it was written in a different way. The fact that September 11th 2001 has no distinct diary entry in the “Lost” tome, but is referred to later on speaks volumes. I suspect in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the USA, the Guardian’s Provincial articles were less likely to be published. However, the Sept 11th omission is cunningly dealt with by the suggestion that Adrian’s diary was confiscated by the security forces in late 2001. Could the daily diary entry have been removed?

Adrian’s half siblings Brett Slater and Rosie Mole are born in August and November of 1982. In” The Lost Diaries” Brett’s age of nineteen is actually correct, and Adrian enquires if his father has had any contact with Brett. Yet in “The Cappuccino Years” Adrian finds out that a young teenage Brett has met George several times at Tania’s home. In “The Wilderness Years” Adrian refers to his sister as Rosemary, stating he refuses to bastardise her name to Rosie, despite the fact she was actually given the name Rosie Germaine Mole. Mind you Townsend has form here, as Adrian’s middle initial A is supposed to be Albert after his paternal grandfather, but in “Growing Pains” it becomes Arnold and in “Weapons” it is Arthur. Adrian’s friend Nigel usually has the surname Hetherington but in the “Small Amphibians” text, he is referred to as Nigel Partridge.

With regard to Adrian’s son William, I got the feeling Townsend just wanted to forget the character completely. This was confirmed with an interview narrative from the author printed at the end of the final books. Sue said she regretted Adrian getting married, having William and ending up a single parent. It restricted Adrian as a character, so she packed William off to his mother Jo-Jo in Nigeria and literally forgot him. The narrative in the books from that moment read EXACTLY that way, William out of sight and totally out of mind, for both the author and consequently her main character Adrian. This left an unpleasant taste in my mouth in a similar way to Adrian’s two NEVER changing characteristics.

Throughout the entire Mole series of books Adrian displays pure unbridled jealousy toward anyone with academic success or writing prowess. He rages at Barry Kent becoming a successful writer, is condescending at a writing group member’s poetry success, seethes at hearing Kent’s mother (a toilet cleaner) has gained two degrees, and is baffled & infuriated when Pandora hires Mrs Kent and later Nigel as Parliamentary assistants, when it should be him in such a position. Adrian has difficulty in relationships where his partner has a degree/superior career track record, and almost chokes admitting his own mother wrote the Adrian Mole cookery book. For all the years of diligent writing, Adrian really isn’t that good a wordsmith but remains convinced of his own genius, whilst rubbishing everyone else’s efforts. These disagreeable attributes remain a constant throughout Adrian’s life which is possibly a good thing, when you consider the numerous other details that undergo change without warning or explanation.

Adrian Mole: The Social Commentator

Sue Townsend published her Adrian Mole diary series between 1982 and 2009, and reading them is like being reminded of various aspects of social change within UK society.  The differences are stark in many ways and I thought it would be interesting to document some of them here.

We first met Adrian Mole through his Secret Diary which he began aged 13 ¾ on New Year’s Day 1981. The usual angst of teenage acne, wanting a girlfriend, problems at school, his baby-boomer embarrassing parents are all there. He lives in an owner occupied house in a Leicestershire cul-de-sac, with one TV and one landline-phone. There are only three TV channels, no personal computers (they are only just beginning to appear on the market) and no internet. Adrian joins the library to improve his intellect. His Grandma still cooks a fabulous “proper Sunday roast dinner”, her grandson lamenting about existing on convenience readymade foods at home (boil in the bag, roast dinner trays thrown in the oven and instant desserts like Angel Delight). In the final book The Prostrate Years, Adrian ruefully shakes his head at the delicious Christmas dinner his wife Daisy produces, mainly thanks to multiple “Auntie Bessie” products and the microwave! You can detect the news headline “decline of cooking ability in Britain” through the Mole eating habits. The irony being in “The Cappuccino Years” Adrian becomes a minor celebrity TV chef with a cable TV show “Offally Good” despite the fact he can’t cook!

In a way, this episode mirrors the sad fact that thanks to reality TV shows in Britain; just about anyone with their 15 minutes of fame is now considered a celebrity, regardless of a lack of talent or ability in any area. The fascination with celebrity is emphasised when Adrian’s mum creates a nativity scene in her front garden comprising of Posh, Becks and their baby Brooklyn (Spice Girl Victoria and her footballer husband David Beckham). There is also a celebrity name drop from Pandora Braithwaite MP (in Weapons of Mass Destruction) when she discusses her autobiography “as I said to Bill Clinton my sex life is full of light and shade-we all need Monica’s and Hilary’s in our lives”. At least with the Beckhams’ and Clinton I knew who they were and what they were famous for. But then I found myself reading “you’ll know where you were Glenn when this happened” and wondering what it meant. Then I realised that it was a reference to reality show “Big Brother” evictions, and suddenly understanding how this type of TV content has somehow become part of everyday language and life. Just like “The Jeremy Kyle Show” where a person’s “dirty laundry” is aired to the general public. As Adrian’s mum discovered however, when she went on this particular TV show to solve her daughter’s paternity, Pauline’s fame took a poisonous turn when the studio audience turned against her.

Both of Adrian’s parents over the years have multiple affairs upsetting the stability of the family dynamic. But at the start of our journey with Mole, all his peers seem to come from a two parent household, even Barry Kent the school bully who lives in a “sink-hole” council estate. By the final book divorce is far more common-place as is single parenthood, emphasised by Sharon Bott who has several children all with different fathers. Her eldest, Glenn is Adrian’s son.

In the early books Adrian becomes involved with helping a pensioner called Bert Baxter, through a school volunteer initiative. As the years go by Bert is given constant help and support from both Adrian’s and his girlfriend Pandora’s parents. That sense of community help I’m familiar with, my mammy frequently helped out elderly neighbours and my Granny during the 70s and early 80s. But I feel that it would be highly unlikely to happen much, if at all, these days. One thing the books do seem to mirror is the known fact of today, that grown-up children often can’t afford to leave their parents’ home, or if they do, they usually return because of failed relationships or financial hardship. Adrian “flies the nest” reluctantly when his mother rents out his room to students to get more money. Yet time after time he ends up back at his parents when things go wrong.

Adrian mentions with reasonable regularity big news events over the decades. Historic moments in British history are acknowledged: royal weddings (Charles & Diana, Andrew & Sarah); Prince William’s birth; various conflicts-Falklands, Gulf War 1, War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan; Channel 4 and Breakfast TV starting; Mad Cow Disease (CJD), 2001 Anthrax scare. Other events like the fall of the Berlin Wall and Communism and the banking crisis/credit crunch/financial markets crash are all alluded to. Economic times of boom and bust are littered throughout the books, with redundancy in the Thatcherite 80s, after the financial downturn, and from closure of businesses through lack of custom, all affecting different Mole generations. Tania Braithwaite’s wealth buying a pagoda and Koi carp for her garden pond, whilst Adrian loses his cash-in-hand pittance wage from a London eatery that turns into an oxygen-bar, starkly highlights the wealth divide of the country. And that divide is still alive and kicking today.

During the boom years I remember the influx of post offering seemingly endless means of credit, sent by companies with little concern in how people could make repayments. I got them and was a housewife with no direct income of my own?  At the same time, many old industrial buildings around the country were turned into executive minimalist apartments, and sold for a fortune. So I wasn’t at all surprised to read about Mole earning a modest wage and succumbing to these unscrupulous offers, buying a flat way beyond his means, and literally ending up bankrupt. The characters naivety which is evident throughout the years is incredibly annoying, because in that sense Adrian never seems to grow up.

Elements of racism and male chauvinism are referred to in a gentle but obvious way, always subtly lying under the surface waiting to come out. Adrian’s thoughts about women/wife roles etc are meant to be funny, and I did laugh at the audacity of the thought being vocalised at all, they were so bad! The occasional racist remarks I sadly recognised as attitudes from my childhood that are still evident today. Peer pressure at school remains a problem, and is highlighted through Adrian’s sons Glenn and William NEEDING to have the right trainers, mobile phones and Pokémon cards. The rule of no photos or video of school productions is fully enforced by the final book, heralding the dominance of a world filled with social media and pushy parents. Civil partnerships give Adrian’s friend Nigel the chance to marry his partner Lance. Another friend Mohammed suffers because of public unease following Sept 11th when he is abruptly taken into custody, only to be later released without charge. Adrian organises a “Free Mohammed” rally and is subsequently arrested under the Blunkett anti-terrorist bill, explaining “The Lost Diaries” tome.

The arrival of hospital superbug infections is touched upon, alongside the difficulty in getting doctor appointments. When the pub and post office close in the village Adrian lives in, the heart of the community is ripped out. Alas, these trends continue unabated ten years after the final book was published. And unfortunately the worst aspect of all from the 2004 “Weapons of Mass Destruction” book fills our 24 hour news channels almost completely today. The division of public opinion regarding the War on Terror was palpable in Townsend’s narrative. Today that divisive political issue is Brexit with parliament members fighting over everything, and citizens literally at each other’s throats whenever the subject is brought up. It does nothing to conjure up a sense of a cohesive society working toward a goal for the common good. Instead I can’t shake off the memory of the miners’ strike in the 80s, where communities/families were literally torn apart by divided opinion. The seismic fracture caused by Brexit is alarmingly stretched throughout the British Isles. With the shambolic opposition/government decision makers we have today, I’m not sure if the country will ever fully recover.

 

How UK Political Turmoil Influenced My Reading

A snap UK general election was called by Prime Minister Theresa May on April 18th 2017, giving less than two months until the polls on June 8th.  Completely fed up with the awful state of British politics, I’d already sought solace/reassurance from my book reading. I’ve come to realise just how much the state of affairs in the country, has directly influenced the type of books I’ve read in the last two years.

During the 80s I adored the British comedy satire Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister TV series, and had the complete works on my bookcase for years, though had never read them. I started “The Complete Yes Minister” at the end of February 2017 inspired by the awful state of British politics today. I was strangely comforted by incidents mirroring events now, and knowing we had got through those tough times and survived. I’m able in my late forties to see through the facade of the face of politics. As a result I found the dialogue even funnier, because it seemed to reflect what I was thinking about government in general today.  I finished Yes Minister just before the election was called, and as the campaigning intensified I read “The Complete Yes Prime Minister”. It was startling to find Jim Hacker had been elevated from Minister to Prime Minister in EXACTLY the same way as Theresa May. No public vote but by party manoeuvres, and like May the fictional PM spoke of having the country’s mandate to govern! I found it fascinating that a TV show from thirty years before, reflected precisely what had happened in the Conservative Party with regard to Theresa May. And at times the scenarios within my book gave uncanny explanations of arguments going on now. You couldn’t help see through the facade of political speak which was very refreshing, and I found my reading material much better than the ghastly party electioneering of the day. I finished it four days before the polls opened. Between these two books I read an original text copy of H G Wells “War of the Worlds”, mainly because I’d seen a staged musical of it and heard a radio play version as well. It was interesting to realise the artistic license used in both. But the irony of the book title and the undoubted artistic license of election promises made, were not lost on me either.

The day after the election I embarked on reading the complete Chronicles of Narnia, finding the idea of inhabiting a fictional land far better than listening about the real one I was in. Take what you want from that statement. I distinctly remember starting The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe as a kid but don’t recall finishing it, the others I had never attempted. So I decided to fill a gap in my childhood reading knowledge, and from 9th June to 30th October 2017 I enjoyed the adventures found in Aslan’s land of Narnia. As I read the seven books of C S Lewis I also studied Michael Ward’s “The Narnia Code C.S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven Heavens”. A very absorbing book that helped me understand the symbolism and dynamics within the stories in a much deeper way. I rounded off my childhood fictional reading with Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows” another book I’d started but never finished as a child.

Since December 2017 I’ve enjoyed some adult fiction from authors Barbara Wilson, Maeve Binchy, Santa Montefiore, and Matt Haig. I’ve also re-read a childhood purchase of Wilson Rawls “Hunters of Cherokee Country” originally titled “Where The Red Fern Grows” an American classic I believe. But the rumbles of news from the United States especially with regard to President Trump’s policies, has focused my eye on the American book purchases on our bookshelves. As a devoted fan of the TV drama The West Wing with a fascination for the Kennedy era, its little wonder there is a distinct political slant to the American section. For several months of 2018 I immersed myself in “Happy Times” by Lee Radziwill; “Thanks For The Memories Mr President by Helen Thomas; “Say Goodbye To America” by Matthew Smith; The Kennedy White House Family Life & Pictures 1961-63” by Carl Sferrazza Anthony and “George & Laura Portrait of An American Marriage” by Christopher Andersen. All offered an interesting take regarding the business of US government and its effect on people, seen from the viewpoint of a family member (Radziwill sister of Jackie Kennedy), the press core (Helen Thomas), historical researchers and a biographer (Christopher Andersen).

In late October I returned to a very British subject matter, the diaries of Adrian Mole! Over three months I’ve followed Adrian from age 13 ¾ to 40, through teenage angst to treatment for prostate cancer, broken marriages, fatherhood, employment/lack of it and insolvency. Once again I’ve read about tough economic times and been reminded that the nation/people somehow managed to survive them. In this dark crazy turbulent world, it’s good to be reminded of that. The books act like a social commentary of the UK since 1981 which in itself is fascinating and deserves a blog of its own.

 

Off The Beaten Track 6

BBC Radio 4 has a morning Book of the Week slot on week days, it’s not my usual listen, but due to intriguing descriptions in the Radio Times I’ve recently tuned in.  I’ve been enthralled by the stories concerning two remarkable women, one trying to escape Nazi occupied France, the other honestly chronicling the effects of living with early onset Alzheimer’s. Both have deeply touched me and I will definitely be buying the books, although I admit that the subject matter are areas I would normally shy away from, finding them upsetting to think about. But the indomitable spirit of both these women shone through the readings, and I found myself eagerly awaiting the next episode, in a kind of “wondering way”. Those ten 15 minute slots taught me more about life, survival, history and compassion than anything I’ve seen on TV.  The books are as follows:

NO PLACE TO LAY ONE’S HEAD Francoise Frenkell (Pushkin Press, £16.99)

My interest was caught when the Radio Times commented the book was initially published in Geneva 1945, and then seemingly forgotten until discovered in a French attic in 2010. A second edition was issued in French and now an English translation has been made. A firsthand account of a Jewish woman’s survival and escape from the Nazi’s in France, printed perhaps in the first few weeks of Europe peacetime in 1945, and then untouched until re-discovered in a modern day world.  Wow!

Frenkell came from a Polish Jewish family, was highly educated to degree level (I believe) having studied in Paris, and ended up opening a French bookshop in Berlin on discovering no such facility existed. Her clientele was illustrious, business brisk and successful and the future looked bright in early 1930s Berlin. Then the rule of Hitler and the effect of his policies kicked in. I listened as her beloved bookshop managed to avoid destruction as it wasn’t on an official destroy list. How she had to leave it behind and flee in the night, traversing through Europe from city to city, always somehow avoiding major crackdowns, or invasion, by a matter of days. Her skirmishes with authority and her escape attempts to reach Switzerland, finally successful. Frenkell’s words seem to be beautifully translated into an eloquent yet matter of fact way, and I listened with my “heart in my mouth” most of the time. I punched the air when her escape was successful and breathed a sigh of relief. My overall feeling was one of admiration for Francoise and her determined nature to survive in an intolerable society. But there was anger as well at the same society for its blinkered rule of law. It seemed to conveniently ignore, no doubt because of her Jewish ethnicity,  the fact Frenkell had all the necessary documentation (residency papers, visa) to live peacefully in France and to travel with ease to Switzerland.  My listening ended with Francoise setting foot in Switzerland where she survived the war to write her memoir, about her life before Nazi rule in Europe and her escape from it. The French publishing company Gallimard discovered Frenkell passed away in Nice in 1975 at the ripe age of 86 but could find no relatives.

SOMEBODY I USED TO KNOW Wendy Mitchell (Bloomsbury £9.99)

My listening journey with Wendy began with her describing a “fog in her head” and inexplicable falls whilst she was out running. Doctors suggested she could have had a stroke, having discovered a heart condition that was fixed through surgery. The fog continued and eventually a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s was made after a seemingly painfully slow series of visits with health clinicians. Her description of looking at online videos of people living with the condition was searing, the initial thought of “but these are old people nearing the end of their lives” before finding one of a man in his late 50s like herself, who described his experiences in a mirror like fashion to her own.

Wendy worked as a NHS administrator known for her powers of recall and organisation skills. Slowly she had become aware that her grasp on things wasn’t the same. When she told management of her diagnosis the only thing offered was early retirement, there was no procedure to try and enable her to work within her remaining mental capabilities, which were still considerable. Her co-workers brilliantly rallied around to make tasks less stressful and more easy to deal with, enabling Wendy to continue in her job as long as possible. With unexpected early retirement foisted upon her Wendy decided to use her time attending conferences, doing speaking engagements and becoming a leading advocate for those living with Alzheimer’s & Dementia. Through this work she hopes to educate people to have a better understanding of the condition. I was certainly educated as I listened to excerpts from Mitchell’s book. Hearing how familiar things can suddenly seem strange and confusing, city living becoming too noisy to deal with, the use of technology to help try and trick her condition, the coping strategies Wendy uses to deal with the sudden onset of panic. It was illuminating to literally “see the world through Wendy’s eyes” and to hear how her condition is slowly taking over her mind. Her articulation is heartfelt, honest and at times perhaps unconsciously funny with a wry humour, like her wonderment at experiencing a gliding session and how quiet the flight was, whilst knowing she wouldn’t remember a thing about the safety video if disaster struck. The realisation “if you don’t use it you will lose it” after taking a three week break from her work and finding the computer keyboard incomprehensible for a few hours. How the person she is today is someone she doesn’t really recognise anymore, yet for the joys she has lost (like TV shows, long novels, cooking) an appreciation for new joys (short stories, poetry, old familiar films). I shared Mitchell’s sadness and resigned acceptance when her extra income from government support was removed, having been deemed fit enough to function on a daily basis.  Much of the “medical tests” used depended on the person remembering how they were before, a ludicrous concept when you consider the nature of an Alzheimer’s condition. Wendy’s resilience and determination to live life to the full for as long as possible was utterly compelling. Once again I had found a woman living in a difficult situation, making the best of it and triumphing in a way against the odds. Somehow both Francoise and Wendy made me feel empowered too.

In closing, I will mention a book that has been on my bookshelf since 2001. It’s called HAPPY TIMES by Lee Radziwill (sister of Jackie Kennedy Onassis). I read about it in a Sunday newspaper supplement, and asked my husband to look for it in America when he visited a few weeks later. There is little dialogue in it and is mainly a gorgeous photo book, rather like a family album. I’ve delved into it many a time, but only really read the dialogue this week. I’ve been happily updating my photo album with recent activity pictures, and from Wendy Mitchell’s book there is a strong element of how important photo’s can be for memories. We live in such uncertain times; I’ve chosen to look for the joy in things as much as possible. Photography is a passion and a joy, and my husband suggested I look at Happy Times again and actually read it. A quote in the introduction says it all for me: “I believe that without memories there is no life, and that our memories should be of happy times. That’s my choice”.