Long before a generation of wannabe writers got hip to Moleskine notepads and pledged to take themselves a bit too seriously, there was Adrian Mole urging us not to go there – way back in 1982. As Adrian reluctantly admits in Sue Townsend’s superlative The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾: ‘I have a problem. I am an intellectual, but at the same time I am not very clever.’
The advice was there for the taking but, like 20 million others, I was too busy laughing my head off to take it to heart. Something I did take seriously was the merits of keeping a diary as a way of recording the stuff of life – from the momentous to the minutiae: marriage, death and crap sitcom ideas – they’re all in there. Even now I find there’s a certain Adrian-ness about some of my diary entries, not all of it affected to commemorate his 50th birthday (e.g. from last week: ‘Future seems uncertain. She’s been offered a job overseas and Trump has started bombing people’.)
This juxtaposing of personal impotence and global importance became a hallmark of Townshend’s rare, edgy and hilarious talent. I was underage when I found The Secret Diary – still a little way off 13¾. On reading it I was frankly terrified. A sheltered child, I had yet to own up to my own puberty; reading Adrian’s diary made the journey into teenhood seem baffling, disturbing, yet – presumably – fairly normal. Once I started to laugh at Adrian, I started to laugh at myself. My heart broke for him, but through him I slowly realised I could no longer assume I was the virgin product of a world geared solely around my needs, wants and moods.
Realising we’re not as clever as we think we are is a work-in-progress for most of us. Recognising how clever, funny and compassionate Sue Townsend was is easy.