Stephen Mangan as Adrian Mole in a 2001 BBC TV adaptation.
Show Hide image

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:

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
But!
Norway! My soul resides in your watery fiords fyords fiiords
Inlets.

RIP, Sue Townsend.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era