The four of us are sitting on a bench on the outskirts of the playground: me; Christopher, who is a choirboy and devout reader of swashbuckling maritime adventures; Jamie, whose Dad has just died of cancer, and who likes to draw robots; and Miles, who is really only with us because he’s too soft to play with the other boys.
We are the nerdy kids. We don’t like running around or getting muddy. Our main interaction with the other children is to squeal whenever they kick a football too close to us.
I am reading The Adrian Mole Diaries.
‘What’s a W.D.?’ I ask. ‘It keeps coming up in here.’
‘Read me a sentence that contains it,’ says Christopher, who is unspeakably grand.
‘I woke up to find I had had my second W. D. I have to put my pyjamas in the washing machine so my mother doesn’t find out.’
Christopher thinks for a while. ‘I think it might be an injection,’ he says.
‘Yes,’ says Miles, ‘It’s for German Measles.’
‘Definitely an injection,’ says Jamie.
This is why I love the Adrian Mole books: I have picked them up roughly once a year since I was eight years old, and I have understood them differently every time.
It took me years to realise that Adrian was ridiculous, as opposed to an aspirational hero. In my early teens, I wrote a letter to my cousin at university, referring to ‘intellectuals like us.’ I believed in Adrian: his poetry and his strivings to be a thinker. By the time I was old enough to realise that his ambitions were misplaced, I was too far down the line of writing my own terrible poetry, and dreaming my own terrible dreams of becoming an author, to go back.
Even later, I realised that the women were the real heroes of the Adrian Mole books: Pauline, his ever-striving mother; Grandma Mole, a perfect pastiche of my own grandmother, by turns steely and besotted; and even Pandora, the magnificent girl who goes on to become a passionate woman, a little naughty at the edges.
The Adrian Mole books reflected my own world back to me: a chaotic world of warring parents, divorce, reconstituted families, endless, unreciprocated infatuation, and school bullies. They helped me to get the measure of things. At their very roots, they are books about striving to be better than you are; but they’re also infused with a love of those who refuse to reform: Bert Baxter with his Queenie, or Adrian’s father George, who seemed to be eternally ducking for cover.
Inevitably, the real hero of these books is Sue Townsend herself, a writer who came from very little, and who suffered the endless of trials of her poor health, but who wrote about family life in a way that was funny, humane, tragic, and more true than anything else I’ve read.