Now Penguin have issued an anniversary edition of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13¾, the book that started it all, with a foreword by David Walliams, who remembers the impact it had on him as a teenager: ‘Even boys who were proud to say they had never read a book in their lives read this one. They had to. There was no choice. This was our bible.’ Yet The Secret Diary… was first published as an adult book and, contributing to its massive success, simultaneously serialised on that most adult of radio stations, Radio 4. Long before the term ‘cross-over book’ was coined, The Secret Diary… and its immediate successor The Growing Pains… shot to the top of the bestseller lists courtesy of both adult and teen editions.
It’s a book that, in a quiet way, has had a remarkable impact on publishing for young people. Here was the revelation that teenage angst could be funny, wildly funny. Adrian’s rapidly collapsing world of bullying at school, burgeoning sexuality (measured in part in centimetres) and parental unemployment, infidelity and separation, had fed previously into either po-faced social problem novels or tales of rebellious alienation. Here was an invitation for young people to laugh not only at the craziness of the adult world but also at themselves. Sue Townsend may not have intended the book for young people, but they saw themselves there and she tapped into a previously unrecognised teenage survival strategy: humour.
An emerging awareness of self
Without Adrian, perhaps we would not have Ros Asquith’s The Teenage Worrier’s Guide to Lurve, Louise Rennison’s Georgia Nicholson novels or maybe even Diary of a Wimpy Kid. After Adrian, humour even became the favoured way of smuggling all kinds of useful survival advice to young people. The Diary of a Teenage Health Freak, more obviously a manual of sexual and emotional health than The Secret Diary…, was almost as successful in the ‘90s as Adrian had been in the ‘80s.
The habit (or at least the aspiration) of keeping a diary is one of the signs of an emerging awareness of self and individuality in adolescence. It has a sense of immediacy and intimacy, of speaking with an individual voice, that continuous narrative perhaps lacks. And, after Adrian, the diary format began to crop up everywhere in children’s publishing as a way of engaging young people’s interest. In keeping with new ways of teaching history, it was even adopted in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, sometimes anachronistically, as a means of promoting children’s empathy with the lives of ordinary people in the past.
Not that all of this should be laid at Sue Townsend’s door. To return to The Secret Diary… itself is to rediscover, as David Walliams does, a comic masterpiece, equally accessible to both adults and teens. In its satire of suburban adult life and manners, it owes something to the classic Victorian Diary of a Nobody (1892). And Townsend’s accounts of Adrian’s later life cut deeper into British political and social life. But, in this first book, the comedy comes mainly from character, situation, and from the state of adolescence itself, the strange process of child becoming adult. Sometimes, beginning in every day, it becomes surreal: like the disastrous revisionist nativity play in which Adrian plays Joseph as Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire; or the hilariously apocalyptic school trip, which ends with Barry Kent arrested in a sex shop, Ms Fossington-Gore tendering her resignation as a teacher, and Pandora, the object of Adrian’s lust and love, keeping the class in order.
There is barely a diary entry that is not funny: like the brief ‘Finished War and Peace’, which comes two days after Adrian started the book. And the warm centre of it is Adrian himself. Yes, the book pokes fun at his pretension, his misunderstanding and his apparently uncritical acceptance of the latest social panics and panaceas, but his heart is in the right place. He holds his dad together when his mum leaves. He befriends lonely pensioner Bert. He endures the brutal attentions of Barry Kent and the heartache (and other ache) of his love and lust for Pandora. And he seldom gives way to bitterness or despair. He has a kind of weary sang-froid, as the frog writers would have it (thanks Adrian) and he survives it all unbowed, and with an enviably large library, mostly unread or partially understood. When I was 14 I’d have been glad to have someone like him as a friend, and perhaps I did. He is, to most of us, in his well-meaning foolishness at least, reassuringly familiar.
Clive Barnes, formerly Principal Children’s Librarian, Southampton City, is a freelance researcher and writer.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13¾ (978 0 1410 4642 6) by Sue Townsend is published by Penguin at £7.99 pbk.