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.