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:
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.
This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue