Stephen Mangan as Adrian Mole in a 2001 BBC TV adaptation.
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The best moments from Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole

The author, who has died at the age of 68, created in Adrian Mole a character who spoke to a generation of teenagers growing up in suburban Britain. Here, we recall a few of his finest moments.

Aged only thirteen and three-quarters when he started his diary, Adrian Mole always had a knack for a turn of phrase, as this early entry from Easter demonstrates:

Poor Jesus, it must have been dead awful for him. I wouldn't have the guts to do it myself.

Part of the reason Townsend’s work spoke to so many nerdy, lonely teenagers was because they identified with Adrian (to a greater or lesser extent):

Now I know I am an intellectual. I saw Malcolm Muggeridge on the television last night, and I understood nearly every word. It all adds up. A bad home, poor diet, not liking punk. I think I will join the library and see what happens.

The sense of isolation, of being cut off from culture, was profound:

I just realised I have never seen a dead body or a real female nipple. This is what comes of living in a cul-de-sac.

We grew up with Adrian. As he progressed, so did we:

I used to be the sort of boy who had sand kicked in his face, now I'm the sort of boy who watches somebody else have it kicked in their face.

His thoughts on sex were always so awkward, yet still compelling:

Read the whole of Sex and Reproduction in bed last night. Woke up to find that a few hundred million sperm had leaked out. Still, it will give the remaining sperm room to wag their tails about a bit.

Pandora was Adrian’s one true love. Not only was she a girl, she was a beautiful girl from an upper middle class family, and he aspired to the book-filled life she lead. Her indifference never ceased to mortify him, as this note after one of her many breaks with him reveals:

Dear Pan,

The sun came out on Wednesday, but it didn't reach into the black despair caused by your separation. It is a cultural desert here. Thank God I have brought my Nevil Shute books.

Yours unto infinity, Adrian X

It’s arguably Adrian’s poetry that is best of all. Here’s a Valentine’s effort for Pandora:

I adore ya.
I implore ye
Don't ignore me.

And when she left him behind to go on a posh holiday with her family:

Oh! My love,
My heart is yearning,
My mouth is dry,
My soul is burning.
You're in Tunisia,
I am here.
Remember me and shed a tear.
Come back tanned and brown and healthy.
You're lucky that your dad is wealthy.

Like many a budding poet, autumn was an inspiration to him:

The trees are stark naked.
Their autumnal clothes
Litter the pavements.
Council sweepers apply fire
Thus creating municipal pyres.
I, Adrian Mole,
Kick them
And burn my Hush Puppies.

Perhaps his best work, though, was this:

Norway! Land of difficult spelling.
Hiding your beauty behind strange vowels.
Land of long nights, short days, and dots over 'O's.
Ruminating majestic reindeers
Tread wearily on ice floes
Ever aware of what happened to the Titanic
One day I will sojourn to your shores
I live in the middle of England
Norway! My soul resides in your watery fiords fyords fiiords

RIP, Sue Townsend.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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The Sellout makes us question how far equality has come – and still has to go

American author Paul Beatty’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel shows how “equal justice under law” remains an abstract concept for much of black America.

At the start of The Sellout, one of two American novels shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, a man is called before the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, charged with “abject violation” of “the Civil Rights Acts . . . the Equal Rights Act of 1963, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, and at least six of the goddamn Ten Commandments”. The defendant, the son of “the esteemed African-American psychologist F K Me”, shows his contempt for the highest court in the land by stuffing a pipe full of home-grown weed and getting thoroughly, brazenly, blazed. The police officer beside him offers up her lighter as the man tells us that he has “been charged with a crime so heinous that busting [him] for possession of marijuana on federal property would be like charging Hitler with loitering and a multinational oil company like British Petroleum with littering”.

“N****r, are you crazy?” blurts out the lone black judge on the bench, unsure how to interject formally, never having done it before. The fulminating justice wants to know “how it is that in this day and age a black man can violate the hallowed principles of the Thirteenth Amendment by owning a slave” and how that same man could “wilfully ignore the Fourteenth Amendment and argue that sometimes segregation brings people together”.

Over the course of his fourth novel, Beatty – who teaches creative writing at Columbia University in New York – deconstructs this surreal tableau to show the many ways in which “equal justice under law” remains an abstract concept for much of black America, making a return to the bad old ways seem somehow pragmatic, perhaps even humane. “It’s illegal to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre, right?” the defendant notes, on his first appearance in court. “Well, I’ve whispered ‘racism’ in a post-racial world.”

This takes us to the book’s central dilemma: schooled in “liberation psychology” and “the plight of the black race” by his eccentric father in Dickens, a ghetto community on the outskirts of southern LA, our narrator is deemed a “sellout” by his girlfriend, Marpessa, and by Foy Cheshire, the leader of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, the “local think tank” and the “closest thing the city had to a representative government”. He is a sellout because despite “countless California cruelties and slights against the blacks . . .
like Propositions 8 and 187, the disappearance of social welfare, David Cronenberg’s Crash, and Dave Eggers’s do-gooder condescension”, he hasn’t uttered “a single word” in opposition. In an age when “social activists have television shows and millions of dollars”, and to argue that “it isn’t race that’s the problem but class” is to acquiesce – this is just not acceptable.

The removal of the “Welcome to Dickens” sign from the roadside is apparently all that is required for the city to be forgotten altogether. After the Sellout’s father is gunned down while fleeing two LAPD officers – “Just because racism is dead don’t mean they still don’t shoot n****rs on sight,” the son imagines him saying, half expecting his father to stand up, dust himself off and offer up his death as a lesson to “inspire” him – our narrator is forced to ask some difficult questions. Specifically: “Who am I? And how can I become myself?”

This is the emotional core of Beatty’s powerful, poignant book. While the courtroom drama may boil down to the question of “whether a violation of civil rights law . . . results in the very same achievement these heretofore statutes were meant to promote” (as one smart justice finally seems to twig), the Sellout’s journey is better understood as a personal journey, a welcome reminder that identity is forged amid overlapping private and communal experiences and cannot be uniformly enforced.

How else to explain the view espoused by Hominy Jenkins, a Sancho Panza to the Sellout’s Don Quixote, that “true freedom is having the right to be a slave”? (Hominy is a former child actor-turned-“race reactionary”, who hopes to repay his “massa” for saving his life by literally owing him his life through indentured servitude.) How else to explain the counterintuitive pride taken when the duo tour Dickens handing out “No whites allowed” signs to local restaurants and beauty shops, in part attracting the attention that finally gets the city reinstated on the map? “The customers love it,” the proprietors explain. “It’s like they belong to a private club that’s public!”

The Sellout is a compelling act of demonstrative rhetoric, a masterful show of verbal energy that questions just how far equality has come and where it hopes to go. 

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood