The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3⁄4
Should Adrian's innermost thoughts remain a secret?
With three TV channels and no internet, we were raised by Puffins. For long stretches of our lives reading was the best (and, sometimes, the only) way to pass the time. In X Libris we return to the books that made us and analyse what makes them great.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13¾ (Sue Townsend, Methuen, 1982)
Teenager Adrian Mole writes a tedious and awkward diary about his tedious and awkward life in early ‘80s Leicester. One of the core jokes is that the diary isn’t ‘secret’: it's being broadcast to the world. Another is that the emphasis on secrecy is belied by the tedium of the contents. This is eighteen months in the life of an unremarkable suburban boy, full of quite remarkable jokes and social observations.
Adrian Mole is a direct descendent of Charles Pooter, the anti-hero of George and Weedon Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody (1892), which records the insignificant ups and (mostly) downs of a pompous little clerk living in London suburbia. The small minded, narrow horizoned, petit bourgeois little Englander is one of the key stock characters in British comedy: he is (he is usually a he) the ultimate loser in the class war, mocked for the poverty of his ambition and for having any at all. Townsend’s brilliant trick was to wonder what Pooter, or Captain Mainwaring (Dad’s Army), or Martin Bryce (Ever Decreasing Circles) might have been like as a teenager. If you’re now imagining Captain Mainwaring measuring his penis, I apologise.
It’s a slightly unfair trick to play on Adrian Mole, because teenagers - particularly teenage boys - are somewhat pompous and foolish anyway and tend to make an easy target, like flicking pimples in a school disco. I am a year younger than Adrian; I turned 13 in 1982, around the time the book was published, and as a self-important, self-obsessed, self-abusing teenager myself I rather failed to see the joke.
This was partly because the jokes weren’t meant for me. It may have been a book about a teenage boy, but it was for his parents.
Adrian started out as ‘Nigel’ in a radio play Sue Townsend wrote for Radio 4, these being the extraordinary old days when Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy started as an obscure little project on BBC speech radio. Townsend realised that Nigel Mole was a little too close to that altogether more formidable schoolboy Nigel Molesworth, ‘Goriller of 3B’ (chiz, chiz). She changed his name to the altogether more Gen X-appropriate Adrian, but those origins are important.
There undoubtedly were other pretentious teenage twerps like Adrian and I listening to Radio 4, but the station’s core audience was primarily the parents of pretentious teenage twerps, and they were delighted. Part of Townsend’s joke is Adrian’s obliviousness; wrapped up in his own tiny emergencies, he refers to his parents’ deteriorating marriage and his father’s mid-life crisis only in passing. He even misses the Royal Wedding by going to the loo at the wrong time.
But around him, unnoticed, the adult world is happening. The book slyly commentates on the world-historical context of early ‘80s Britain - economic havoc, the destruction of the welfare state, immigration, women’s lib, class war - by describing events that occur in the corner of Adrian’s eye, noted but not understood. We, the readers, are in on a joke that the protagonist doesn’t get, a joke of which he is the butt. We are included in a chummy little huddle with Townsend, reassured that as small as our worlds are, they are bigger than his.
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Forty years later and that chumminess starts to feel a bit FBPE in parts. (For our American readers: ‘FBPE’ is a Twitter hashtag that began as a pro-EU indicator around the Brexit referendum, but increasingly denotes a kind of political in-group delirium.) Townsend, a lifelong Socialist, makes Adrian a staunch Thatcherite, and surely means us to understand that only an uncomprehending, self-absorbed teenager, or their older equivalents, could ever vote Conservative. We’re not just in on the joke, we’re being inducted into the club of smug petit-bourgeois democratic socialists; we’re laughing not only at Adrian, but at a lot of the world around him as well, safe in political righteousness as well as dramatic irony.
The slight discomfort you feel reading Adrian Mole now - the sympathetic twitch for this boy’s lost privacy, even though it’s all entirely fictional and above-board - has gathered new overtones in the twenty-first century. ‘The Very Public Tiktok of Adrian Mole’ would be an entirely different thing, both less candid and more regrettable. While the social lives of teenagers seem to be as reliably trivial and emotionally overwhelming as they ever were, they now happen in public and the record is indelible. Adrian Mole - all of us who are roughly his age - benefited from the luxury of fucking up and forgetting; our stupidity, dullness and ineptitude (well, the teenage parts of them) occurred largely in view of people who loved us and forgave us for it, or who barely knew us and would never remember. We could figure out who we were and might want to be in relative privacy.
It also, naturally, is a less and less accurate portrait of what it's like to be a 13 year old boy, but then it never was that in the first place. What it is, and was, is a persuasive idea of how that experience appeared from the outside. The limits of Adrian’s conscious world and the smallness of the stakes are the book’s primary charms now. It’s a window into a time when a teenager’s life could be theirs alone, shared with no one but the entire nation’s parents, laughing in despairing solidarity with each other.
Adrian Mole was not the only ‘80s teenager with a less than nuanced appreciation of the politics of the period: