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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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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder