Tuesday, 3 July 2012

A very modern hero

In Adrian Mole’s own words, “I am over the moon with joy and rapture.” After years of waiting, the Secret Diary and Growing Pains of everyone’s favourite teenaged intellectual are being released on DVD. Now, it’s a good 25 years since I last watched them, so I’m not expecting to be blown away by Hollywood-quality production values or BAFTA-worthy performances. For me, it’s enough to have one of the defining shows of my youth available for reappraisal.

Years may have passed since we saw Gian Sammarco struggling with his sebaceous glands, but the books on which the TV series was based have never been too far from my hands. Over the last thirty years, Sue Townsend has published eight books featuring the eponymous diarist, using the epistolary format to skewer the foibles of contemporary society. And I’ve devoured every one of them.

Unlike, say, The Simpsons, which uses a family frozen in time to satirise the world around it, Sue Townsend’s decidedly un-heroic hero has aged along with his audience. In the same way that J.K. Rowling planned the Harry Potter series to mature with its readership, Townsend has spent the last 30 years using Adrian as a one-man Greek chorus to reflect on the changing times. Readers like me, who first discovered Adrian as adolescents, have grown up with him, so his forty-something disillusion is a fair match for our own.

Thankfully, although the world has changed immeasurably in the three decades since he first put pen to diary paper, Adrian is still as frustratingly naïve as ever. He may be the father of three children, by three different women, but he’s no more self-aware than he ever was. We’re all familiar with the  concept of the ‘unfamiliar narrator’, and Adrian is an exceptional example of this, particularly the Naif – described by William Riggan as someone “whose perception is immature or limited through their point of view.” As a teenager, he was unaware that his mother was being hammered like a chippie’s thumb by Mr Lucas from next door, instead happily accepting their excuse that the two were attempting to fix the washing machine. Fast forward twenty-odd years and he’s just as incredulous about the fact that his wife Daisy is having an affair with her boss.

Adrian’s always been unlucky where romance is concerned, having spent most of his life mooning after the deeply unlikeable overachiever Pandora Braithwaite. As a consequence, all his other relationships seemed doomed to failure, no matter how effectively he might have papered over the cracks. It would be easy to mischaracterize him as a loveable loser, but to do so would be wrong on two counts. Selfish, immature and tactless, Adrian is a cold fish. For instance, it’s pretty hard to love a character that haughtily dismisses popular books by saying “Myself, I never read best-sellers on principle. It's a good rule of thumb. If the masses like it then I'm sure that I won't.

At best, we empathise with him, because his foibles are entirely believable. It also helps that, even in the depths of despair, he still manages to make us laugh: “I went back to Soho and paid two pounds to watch a fat girl with spots remove her bra and knickers through a peephole. I watched her through a peephole. She didn’t remove her underclothes through a peephole.  Query: Are there night classes in syntax?

Similarly, he’s not actually a loser. But in a world where whole generations are aspiring to X-Factor-style fame or a life of mindless WAG-ery, Adrian is struggling to reconcile himself to his own crushing ordinariness. By way of contrast, the success of his rich, handsome half-brother Brett drives him apoplectic with envy - as Morrissey once sang, We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful. It remains to be seen whether Adrian will ever find peace with his run-of-the-mill existence, especially when it’s easier to blame his academic shortcomings on his mother’s refusal to buy him the complete Encyclopedia Britannica.

So what’s the secret of Adrian’s enduring appeal? In spite of the exaggerated misfortune he’s endured over the years, his world is close enough to our own for us to remain engaged. After all, everyone knew a girl in school like Sharon Bott, who was prepared to  “show everything for 50p and a pound of grapes.” 

Conversely, even Townsend’s occasional indulgence in meta-storytelling, such as the novel-within-a-novel-within-a-novel of Sparg From Kronk’s ‘book without words’, or Barry Kent’s best-selling ‘Dork’s Diary,’ always came second to her primary goal. Which was simply to make us laugh: “Went to the Job Centre, but the queue was too long, so returned to find Cassandra in the kitchen, examining the children’s books, pen in hand. She picked one up and changed Winnie the Pooh to Winnie the Shit. “I hate ambiguity,” she explained, as she snapped the cap back on her magic marker.

Thatcherism, broken homes, New Labour, reality TV and the war in Iraq. Modern Britain has given her plenty of issues to throw at her pretentious protagonist. And with the promise of one more novel still to come, it’s safe to assume that the recession and Cameron’s coalition will likely be featured heavily. But we can at least take comfort in the fact that, the more things change, the more Adrian stays the same.  

No comments:

Post a Comment