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:

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.

Show Hide image

I don't even believe in God – so I was surprised to find myself caring so much about The Young Pope

The Young Pope stars Jude Law as a pious yet sensuous pontiff. Even so, I didn't expect it to matter me whether or not the character believes.

In The Young Pope – made largely in Europe, sold around the world and broadcast here on Sky Atlantic (Thursdays, 9pm) – the chiselled dude in question is not even remotely a moderniser. It’s 2016 or thereabouts and his elevation has come as a surprise (is it the result of skulduggery or a miracle?) even to the cardinals who elected him. Yet contrary to the expectations raised by his relatively tight, fortysomething bum and the Cherry Coke Zero with which he begins each day, this pontiff does not believe that priests should be free to marry or nuns permitted to take Mass; liberation theology is just so much muck on the soles of his red leather slippers.

Such traditionalism might once have flagged a dirty secret – a woman on the side, perhaps, or even a man – but Pius XIII (Jude Law) stinks of cigarette smoke, not hypocrisy (his cigarettes are kept in a velvet pouch, with an ingenious ashtray that resembles a pocket watch). Oh, but he is bloodless. “My only sin is that my conscience does not accuse me of anything,” he says in the confessional, not even bothering to whisper.

What autocratic piety, and how it speaks to our strange and conservative times – the age of Isis, Donald Trump and Narendra Modi – though here it comes with a subversively ambiguous sex appeal. One minute, the Vatican’s female head of marketing is trembling excitedly at the Holy Father’s financially suicidal pronouncement that his image will not appear on any merchandise. The next, we watch as he awaits the arrival of a helicopter, his zucchetto held in place by a wide-brimmed hat so camp that it might have come straight from the wardrobe of Quentin Crisp.

When he rails at the crowds gathered in St Peter’s Square, accusing them in his first homily of having moved too far from God, it’s at once uncomfortable and thrilling. Even as you want to run away, you long to kiss his ring. What to make of all this? In liberal circles, as Tony Blair discovered, Catholicism is deemed beyond the pale. Yet here it is, disguised as an Armani ad, its internal debates played out wittily and compellingly by one fine actor after another.

My feelings about it are strong. The work of the Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty), it couldn’t be more to my taste if I’d written it myself. Theatrically grand to the point of being overblown, it is also clever, witty, mysterious, provocative, surreal and occasionally silly. It looks beautiful, it sounds beautiful, and nothing in it is wholly expected, from the sight of Diane Keaton in a wimple (she plays Sister Mary, the nun who raised the orphan pope and has rushed to Rome to be by his side) to the singular logistics of the Apostolic Palace (beneath Pius’s desk is a green button, there to be pressed whenever he’s had enough of a visitor, at which point a novice rushes in and announces that it’s time for his “snack”). In episode two (aired 27 October), a kangaroo appears, as mesmerised by the Holy Father as any animal ever was by St Francis, and we catch sight of Keaton in her nightwear: a slogan T-shirt that pokes saucy fun at her marriage to God.

Law, putting in his best performance since he starred as Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr Ripley, is magnificent: charming, cruel, unknowable, mannequin-like in his watered-silk vestments. His sheer poise! He uses it like a sacrament. To my surprise, I find that the question of whether or not Pius believes in God – impossible to tell, so far, though he is certainly having trouble hearing Him – matters to me (I’m surprised because I don’t believe in Him).

Law, however, is pretty close to being upstaged by the Italian actor Silvio Orlando, who plays Cardinal Voiello, the Vatican’s shifty, oleaginous and thoroughly institutionalised secretary of state. Voiello’s only confessed sin so far involves his lustful obsession with the tiny but voluptuous statue the Venus of Willendorf – but he may soon have to commit all manner of holy misdeeds if he is to save the Church from what he regards as Pius’s remorseless and ­brutal literalism. Unless, that is, its salvation should lie in such intransigence. And if Sorrentino intends to be truly subversive, this is the daring direction in which he will go. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage