My fifteen year-old self is lying on his bed. In front of him, spread out across the duvet, a collection of binders and barely legible hand-written history notes. My mum pops her head through the door: “Are you revising? Your exams are only a week away.” She’s a teacher, so this kind of behaviour is not unexpected. Fifteen year-old me sighs as dramatically as he can, before assuring the retreating face that, yes, I’m getting stuck in.
As the door closes behind her, he reaches under the canopy of school work, and extracts a dog-eared copy of The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole. It’s been read so many times that the binding has all but given up. The pages have been carelessly jammed back between the covers, like a half-written manuscript in an Oxford Don’s leather satchel. Young me looks at his watch. “I’ve got a good half-hour before dinner; I can probably finish this and start Secret Diary again,” the conspiratorial voice whispers inside his head. Revision will have to wait. Adrian’s on his way to Skegness, and I can’t wait to rediscover the singular joys of Bernard Porke and the Rio Grande Guest House.
Although there are other books that may have moved me more; some have even changed my life; none have maintained as constant a presence as the Adrian Mole diaries. I first met Adrian when I was about nine. My Grandma had taken the first volume out of the library, and enjoyed it so much, she allowed me to read it before returning it. And although I was a few years younger than Adrian, I felt he was a kindred spirit. Sure, he was pompous and laughably naïve, but we shared a love of the written word, and a general air of confusion about the way that grown-ups behaved.
Whereas an older reader might have picked up on the foreshadowing of future events, a standard device in most epistolary novels, I shared Adrian’s innocence - although even I could spot Mr Lucas’ intentions before Adrian did. Of course, each time I revisited Adrian’s diaries, which was a lot in those days since there were only two volumes to choose from, I’d pick up on more of the detail. The politics of the time, the complex familial relationships, and the coruscating social satire, all added fresh layers to every rereading. Adrian was the ideal commentator on society – all seeing, if not exactly all-knowing.
Aged just 14, he diligently reported the outcry that occurred when he accidentally delivered tabloids to the tree-lined middle class avenues, and broadsheets to the council estate, but expressed surprise at their response: “I don’t know why everybody went so mad. You’d think they would enjoy reading a different paper for a change.” Neither did it escape his notice, in True Confessions, that on the day of Andrew and Fergie’s wedding: “I passed the Co-op where the Union Jack hung upside down, and the Sikh temple where it was hung correctly.” Tiny moments, that spoke loudly about the tensions of modern British life.
As the years passed, Adrian and I both grew up, but never apart. I kept track of his first, ill-fated move to London. I shared his heartbreak as his beloved Bianca left him for his stepfather, Martin Muffet. And I delighted in his, albeit short-lived, success as a TV chef. Crippling debt, appearances on reality TV talkshows and a particularly threatening swan, all played vital roles in Adrian’s tragicomic existence.
But, once a diarist, always a diarist. With his maturity came a newfound awareness of politics, not least when his fearsomely ambitious old flame Pandora Braithwaite became one of Blair’s Babes. Even so, his unerring ability to miss the point never seemed to fail him. Most of the time, his lack of prescience was mined for ironic humour, but things took a dark turn in Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction. Having tirelessly campaigned in support of Blair’s war, putting his unwavering trust in the Labour leader’s integrity, he’s shocked out of his ignorance when Robbie Stainforth, his son’s best friend, is killed in a bomb explosion in Iraq. Adrian’s grief is palpable, reflecting a raw anger that we hadn’t encountered before. Gone were the playful jabs at British politics; in their place, a profound sense of betrayal.
The last time I saw Adrian, he seemed to be on the road to recovery, following a gruelling battle with prostate cancer. Middle-aged and once again separated from another wife, he seemed to have finally made peace with his life. Able to set aside three decades of unrealistic aspirations and underwhelming accomplishments, he was looking forward to life as a grandfather, perhaps alongside Pandora – the one that never quite got away. And that’s how I’ll chose to remember him, even though I know he’s gone forever.
He and I were more alike than I’d perhaps care to admit. But then, wasn’t that always the secret of his enduring appeal? Adrian Mole truly was an everyman. Reflecting the frustrations, obsessions and idiosyncrasies of this weird and wonderful nation. Cataloguing its foibles with alarming precision, and yet managing to spectacularly miss the point, more often than not. Adrian Mole; a hero in idiot’s clothing.