When I was about nine or so years old, I went book shopping with my mum and grandmother, a ten pound gift voucher in my hand. I’d already discovered Harry Potter and considered myself too mature and sophisticated for the books aimed at my age range, so off to the teen section I trotted to see what I could get for my money. My mum picked up a book and told me it was one of her favourites when she was younger and my grandmother agreed that I should read this one. It also helped greatly that the chunky paperback contained three books in one for £9.99, so I couldn’t turn down a bargain like that.
The omnibus contained the first three books in the Adrian Mole series by Sue Townsend, who died this week aged 68. I immediately fell in love with them. It didn’t matter that as a nineties child I had absolutely no knowledge or connection to the Thatcher era that shapes Adrian’s adolescence, or that the entire cultural context went over my head. What mattered to me was just how damn relatable Adrian was, even though I was a nine year old girl. He was painfully awkward, covered in spots, often deeply pretentious and just couldn’t catch a break. He exaggerated the torments of his teen years, like we all did, and even when we were laughing at his absurdity, there was a raw element of common ground that permeated each book, even as he aged far quicker than I did while reading them.
I stopped reading sometime around The Cappuccino Years, although I struggle to remember why. That book also made me laugh hard, although my reading was tinged more with pity for the now 30 something Adrian and the disappointing mess his life had become. One of the real strengths of Townsend’s writing, aside from how true to life it all felt, was how you didn’t need to get the cultural context or smaller details to enjoy the story. Even if, like me, you knew nothing about the miners’ strikes or the ‘Blair Babes’ or the Falklands, you could still gain an understanding of how those events shaped society and individual people. Few writers from my childhood captured an era as effectively as Townsend, not to mention the balance between comic and tragic.
I look at the books that sit lumped together in the boxes in my cupboard, a timeline of my literary life, and wonder where my Adrian Mole books have disappeared to. They’re in dire need of a reread, if only so I can get all the jokes that bypassed my pre-adolescent brain. Another idol of my adolescence is gone, one that shaped me more than I’m willing to admit even now, and I know I’m not the only person whose heart is broken over this. I mourn Townsend and the books we’ll never get to read, but I’m also eternally grateful for the timeless passion and pathos she created with her work. If you haven’t read Adrian Mole, I urge you to do so.
Ceilidh, aged 23 and 5/6th.