Adrian Mole – The Collected Poems review: Unless you know Adrian, the poems can’t stand alone
Sue Townsend’s genius was knowing how much of this doggerel to include – and how to position it within her memorable prose
Sue Townsend (1946-2014): “I ruthlessly exploited Adrian. But he can’t afford to sue me.” Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images
Adrian Mole: The Collected Poems
Penguin Books mark the 50th birthday of Adrian Mole with a double edition containing the first two books from Sue Townsend’s much loved and hilariously witty collection of the diaries of Adrian Mole. And for the first time, they have issued his poems in a stand-alone volume, Adrian Mole: The Collected Poems.
Opening this collector’s item in its bright turquoise and white classic Penguin jacket, issued from the new imprint, “Mole Press”, we are immediately presented with a quote from the diaries, “My brother has just published a volume of poetry, called Blow Out the Candle. The reviews were ecstatic. I hate him already.”
The gap between Adrian’s ambitions and the quality of the actual poems is a good part of the fun and we need Townsend’s pitch-perfect observant prose to complete the joke.
The small, super-slim volume is bulked out with a selection of Mole’s rejection letters. I’ve never been the kind of reader to laugh hysterically with tears pouring from my eyes like reviewers quoted on book blurbs are wont to do, but I did issue an audible laugh at this irate response from the fictional John Tydeman, Adrian Mole’s chief rejecter at BBC Radio 4:
“What exactly is a ‘coffee break’? I’ve never had a ‘coffee break’ during the whole of my long career at the BBC. I drink coffee at my desk. I do not go to a ‘coffee break’ lounge where I loll about on a sofa and read handwritten manuscripts, 473 pages long.”
This is Adrian’s creator, Sue Townsend, speaking without a doubt from her experience of unreasonable requests from the literary ambitious. The gap between Adrian’s ambitions and the quality of the actual poems is a good part of the fun and we need Townsend’s pitch-perfect observant prose to complete the joke. There is only so much one can take of poems like The Discontented Tuna, “I am a tuna fish? Swimming in the sea of discontent./ Oh when, when,/ Will I find the spawning ground?” Townsend’s genius was knowing how much of this should be included and how to position it within her memorable prose.
The poems are markers for a whole era, “Do you weep, Mrs Thatcher, Do you weep . . . Do you weep like a sad willow?/ On your Marks and Spencer’s pillow?”
This isn’t to say that the Collected Poems can’t be enjoyed if you are familiar with the diaries, “Pandora!/ I adore ya./ I implore ye/ Don’t ignore me.” will bring a smile to any reader familiar with Adrian’s tortured love for the brainy, treacle-haired Pandora.
The poems are markers for a whole era, “Do you weep, Mrs Thatcher, Do you weep . . . Do you weep like a sad willow?/ On your Marks and Spencer’s pillow?” and “The pantry door creaks showing empty Fablon shelves” in the perfectly poignantly named Waiting for the Giro. But deadly light verse with a political edge is fiendishly difficult to create. Adrian Mole on his own is definitely not John Cooper Clarke.
If a reader is not familiar with the diaries, she could find herself sympathising with Townsend’s fictional John Tydeman from Radio 4. Without the benefit of Adrian’s endearing personality, one can’t help getting impatient with poems about Pandora’s Little Pussy or Untitled IX, which gets a whole page to itself, “Mystery guest/ That’s the test?/ Play the game/ If you know the name.” To My Organ is funny because it is an example of the kind of terrible poetry written in great quantities and inflicted on other writers, editors and publishers.
When Townsend said, “I ruthlessly exploited Adrian. But he can’t afford to sue me.” – and this quote ostentatiously fills one page of this tiny volume – she wasn’t joking. Perhaps the publishers shouldn’t draw our attention to word “exploitation” too much. Unless you know Adrian Mole, these poems can’t stand alone. We need Townsend’s witty prose, which is tighter, sharper and more poetic in its own right:
“I have never seen a dead body or a female nipple. This is what comes from living in a cul de sac.”
Martina Evans is a poet and novelist. The Windows of Graceland: New and Selected Poems is published by Carcanet Press.