When I first picked up an Adrian Mole book, I didn’t understand that it was fiction. I was a bookish, self-serious 13-year-old, reading a book about a bookish, self-serious 17-year-old, and I treated the whole thing as though it were The Diary Of Anne Frank. It’s a mistake that Mole himself might have made, and frequently did, thinking Evelyn Waugh was a woman, for example, or thinking Jane Austen was still alive and “should write something a bit more modern”.
After I realised they were fiction, I went back and read the earlier books, but I still didn’t get it. I thought Adrian Mole really was an intellectual and, because I didn’t know what made a poem good or bad, I just assumed he was correct when he told me his poetry was good. I was in my mid-teens before I found out what satire was.
To celebrate his 50th birthday on April 2, Penguin is releasing a book of Mole’s, erm, “celebrated” poetry in time for World Poetry Day on March 21. Mole’s poetry ranged from the domestic (“The tap drips and keeps me awake, In the morning there will be a lake”) to the blisteringly political (“Do you weep, Mrs Thatcher, do you weep?”).
The newly acquired cynicism that you wear uncertainly, like a bad hat (“They give us Job Creation Schemes. When what we want are hopes and dreams”)
Every bit of Sue Townsend’s creation was masterful and you could open the books on any page to find an incredible joke, sitting there like a ripe plum. Adrian’s poems played a huge role, in that they summarised so much of what it’s like to be an over-confident yet incredibly naive teenager. The desperation to communicate what you’ve only just learnt five seconds ago as if it were age-old wisdom of yours (see Adrian’s obsession with the Norwegian leather industry). The newly acquired cynicism that you wear uncertainly, like a bad hat (“They give us Job Creation Schemes. When what we want are hopes and dreams”). And, of course – perhaps most crucially of all – our insane sexual obsessions about people who clearly despise us (“Pandora! I adore ya. I implore ye, don’t ignore me.”)
The thing is, though, while 95 per cent of Adrian Mole’s poetry was as objectively terrible as he was, Townsend occasionally gave him a pass. She would give him a decent line, here or there, to prove not only that Adrian had a vague talent for language, but that he was capable of small victories. He did, after all, have a girlfriend and he did, after all, get invited to speak on Radio 4. The Adrian Mole books weren’t Curb Your Enthusiasm – you weren’t just watching a flawed person fail over and over again – and, while the books were cruel to Adrian, they could equally be very tender. Townsend made Adrian observe the world with compassion as well as frustration, leading to countless genuinely heartbreaking scenes in the books. “I used to be the sort of boy who had sand kicked in his face,” says Mole. “Now I'm the sort of boy who watches somebody else have it kicked in their face.”
It’s important, I think, near his 50th birthday, that we talk about his triumphs as well as his many, many cock-ups. With that in mind, here are three poems from Adrian Albert Mole that aren’t even all that terrible. Actually, I think they’re rather good.
Queenie's Death Announcement (Wednesday, 8 December: Growing Pains)
White face, red cheeks.
Eyes like crocus buds.
Hands deft and sure, yet worked to gnarled rots.
A practical comfortable body, dressed in young colours.
Feet twisted, but planted firmly on the ground.
A sure soft voice, with a crackly sudden laugh.
Her body is lifeless and cold,
But the memory of her is joyful and as warm as a rockpool in August.
Inscription from a false Victorian card for Pandora, from Adrian (Sunday, 14 February: Secret Diary)
My young love,
Treacle hair and knee-socks
Give my system deep shocks
You've a magic figure:
I'm Roy Rogers, you are Trigger.
Untitled (Monday, 28 September -- Secret Diary)
Bert, you are dead old.
Fond of Sabre, beetroot and Woodbines.
We have nothing in common,
I am fourteen and a half,
You are eighty-nine.
You smell, I don't.
Why we are friends
Is a mystery to me.
Adrian Mole: The Collected Poems is available for pre-order now.