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“Mr Blair, You have nice hair”: the mighty pen of Adrian Mole, poet

Adrian Mole remains a beloved part of British life but, without Sue Townsend to write him, he ran out of future some years ago – a fate he perhaps shares with the Labour Party. 

It is the fate of great poets to be unappreciated in their lifetime. If Adrian Mole is not exactly dead, nor is he exactly a great poet. In any case, there are no more volumes of his life to be written. Sue Townsend, the author of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ and its sequels, sadly died in 2014. The last Mole missive appeared in 2011 in the Observer – a short piece to commemorate the royal wedding. Typically for Adrian, whose biography has always closely paralleled the fate of the Labour Party, the diary records him having an anxiety dream about Ed Miliband.

Now, to mark the character’s 50th birthday, the new Penguin imprint Mole Press has published a slim volume of his collected poems. The point of Adrian’s poems, of course, is that they are very bad. The more seriously he takes them, the funnier they are – and, as an adolescent left-wing polemicist, he takes them very seriously indeed.

So we have the joy of his accusatory 1980s poem “Mrs Thatcher”, with the irresistibly bathetic couplet: “Do you weep like a sad willow?/On your Marks and Spencer’s pillow?” Then there is “The Future”, which resolves in the immortal rhyme: “They give us Job Creation Schemes./When what we want are hopes and dreams.”

The Collected Poems is filled out with “the John Tydeman Letters”, in which an increasingly exasperated head of BBC Radio 4 drama attempts to get Adrian to accept rejection: “You must remember that before you can break the rules of rhyme and rhythm you do have to know what those rules are about.” But what Adrian doesn’t know, Townsend does. The poems are bad in the same way as Tommy Cooper’s magic or Les Dawson’s piano-playing was bad.

Some of the poems, extracted from the diaries and separated from their punchlines, are even rather good. Take “Waiting for the Giro”, in which a house and all within it are held in dingy suspense by the imminent arrival of a benefits cheque. The pay-off in the original entry comes when Adrian tells us he has been reading Philip Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings”, which his poem clumsily pastiches. But though he might not be able to pull off a rhyme scheme like Larkin’s, a line such as “The freezer echoes with mournful electrical whirrings” is stealthily evocative of a specifically working-class, hand-to-mouth anxiety.

Townsend used Adrian to produce acute observations on parliamentary politics, as well as social satire. When a Labour candidate canvassed the house during the 1983 election in The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, his mother “harangued him about nuclear disarmament and criticised the Labour Party’s record on housing, education and trade union co-operation”, until the candidate accused her of being a Tory. “Certainly not, I have voted Labour all my life!” she snapped, capturing the peculiarly antagonistic relationship that Labour enjoys with its base.

By The Cappuccino Years (1999), Adrian is an exemplar of social mobility and easy credit, working in a Soho restaurant and watching his beloved Pandora enter parliament as one of “Blair’s babes”. He retains his Labour faith into Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction (2004), writing a breathless encomium to the prime minister during the run-up to the Iraq War:

 

Mr Blair,

You have nice hair.

You blink a lot

To show you care.

 

But come The Prostrate Years (2009), disillusion has taken hold and political torpor is matched by Adrian’s literal impotence. “Oh staunchèd rod of old,/Why art thou now so limp and cold?” he asks in the poem “To My Organ”.

Had Townsend written the planned tenth book of Mole diaries, it would have surely shown Adrian grappling with “austerity angst”, but we’ll never know what he makes of Jeremy Corbyn. A left-winger who ultimately feels betrayed by New Labour, he could have been caught up in the Corbyn moment, at least initially. Perhaps he would have recaptured the political ardour of juvenilia such as “Ode to Engels: or, Hymn to the Modern Poor”:

 

Oh Engels that you were still amongst us pen in hand

Your indignation a-quiver

Your fine nose tuned to the bad smells of 1983.

 

Maybe Adrian, as the son of a Greenham Common protester, would be sympathetic to Corbyn’s anti-nuclear position; but as the proud father of a soldier (Glenn Bott, the issue of a fling, “Half of Sharon, half of me./Fully himself”), he might be repulsed by Corbyn’s hesitancy on military matters. And by 2007, in the radio play Adrian Mole and the Blair-Mole Project, Adrian has been selected to give a lecture on Blair as a “representative voice of Middle England”, suggesting he is closer to the voter Labour needs to win back than the ones still clinging to the flag.

For Tom Watson, writing after Townsend’s death, Adrian is “the embodiment of working-class pragmatism. In the end, his story is one of hope and optimism. No matter what the setback, you can find contentment.” But Labour’s setbacks might be too much for even the resilient Adrian, who in any case finds himself, in The Prostrate Years, “turning into one of those middle-aged men who think the whole country has gone to the dogs and that there has been no decent music since Abba”.

Adrian remains a beloved part of British life but, without Townsend to write him, he ran out of future some years ago. The fear is that this state of limbo is one last tragic thing he shares with the Labour Party. 

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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