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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

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist