Human Boys

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole, Margaret Hilda Roberts and Robert and Susan Lilian Townsend by Sue Townsend
    Methuen, 117 pp, £5.99, August 1989, ISBN 0 413 62450 1
  • CounterBlasts No 9: Mr Bevan’s Dream by Sue Townsend
    Chatto, 74 pp, £2.99, November 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3468 2

Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13¾ came out at much the same time as John Pocock’s The Diary of a London Schoolboy 1826-30, published by the Camden Society. John Pocock, 12¾, decisively a real person, was a builder’s son who lived on the edge of Kilburn, two miles out of London. In his journal, written on the empty pages of an old bankbook, he notes that on 23 May 1826 he walked to school: ‘Old Monk drinks like a fish.’ At 14 he feels it is ‘high time for me to be learning some trade or profession’, and at 15 he is alone at his father’s deathbed, holding ‘the cold clammy hand’. At 16 he ships for Australia as an apprentice surgeon. His experiences were hard enough. But although his diary was so private that he had to write part of it (particularly when his father was arrested for debt) in cipher, he makes no mention of his adolescent spots, his wet dreams, or the anxieties of measuring his Thing. Adrian Mole’s diary, which does, made an instant appeal to six million readers as being truer to life.

The Diary and the Growing Pains are catalogued by the publishers under Teens and Humour, but their genre is really that of the ironic-innocent child’s confession. Probably the first of these to appear was The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes in 1554. Lazarillo is an orphan boy who faces starvation in the hard streets of Salamanca. His first master, a blind man, beats him and wrenches open his jaws to smell whether he has eaten the last piece of turnip. But Lazarillo holds fast, he tells us, to his dying mother’s advice: ‘keep close to good people, in order to become one of them.’ The irony of his struggle to do this lies, of course, in the word ‘good’. A more orderly world, but not so very much gentler, is the Late Victorian private school of Eden Philpotts’ s classic, The Human Boy. There is ‘an element of autobiography’ in it, Philpotts said, and the speaker was to be ‘a fair specimen of the commonplace, idiotic, eager, human boy’ – not, like Adrian Mole, an intellectual. That sort of thing is left to the school poet, who makes the surprisingly high charge of twopence a line. The editors begged for a Human Girl, but Philpotts replied that ‘all that the human boy knows of the human girl will be found in my stories concerning him; it is not very much.’

All these three – Lazarillo, the Human Boy and Mole – have compassionate hearts, the priceless gift of nature. Lazarillo weeps for his second master, a penniless knight, too shabby for the town’s prostitutes. Three centuries later, the Human Boy has been trained to show as little emotion as possible, and puts up his own safeguards against it. Still, he does his best to understand adults, as well as pet rats and other boys. Of Dr Dunston, the formidable flogging headmaster, he says that ‘of course, from our point of view his life must always be deadly, but I suppose he gets a certain amount of feeble excitement into it, in ways not known to us.’ When the Doctor makes a disastrous mistake, as headmasters in fiction tend to do, the Human Boy is shocked to see him for a moment looking ‘old and haggard and queer’. Adrian Mole, in his turn, notes that when the electricity is cut off for nonpayment his feckless father looks ‘sad and old’. Later in life Adrian has a narrow escape from the Sunshine People, who guarantee World peace for a £20 subscription. ‘I will get the money somehow. Nothing is too expensive where peace is concerned.’ In spite of his overwhelming anxieties, he has sympathy to spare for Jesus on the Cross, for a horse standing alone in a field – it must be ‘dead bored’ – for his dog, for his wayward mother, for the maverick old age pensioner allocated to him by the Samaritans. As to the anxieties themselves, they are intensely comic, but Sue Townsend’s epigraph is from Sons and Lovers: ‘Paul walked with something screwed up tight inside him ... yet he chatted away with his mother. He would never have confessed to her how he suffered over these things and she only partly guessed.’ Sue Townsend is the mother who wholly guessed.

What is to become of Mole? In The Growing Pains he widens his political and literary horizons (‘Tuesday, April 6th. The nation has been told that Britain and Argentina are not at war, we are at conflict ... I am reading Scoop by a woman called Evelyn Waugh’). There are steps forward, too, into adult experience. He runs away from home, getting as far as Manchester, although his disappearance seems to cause no stir – nothing about him on the Six O’Clock News – and he has to write a card addressed to himself: ‘Come home, son. Without you the house is devoid of love and laughter.’ He goes to a cremation. He visits his mother in the pre-natal ward and is allowed (rather improbably) to watch the birth of his baby sister. He knows, too, that the baby’s father is the next-door neighbour, Mr Lucas. At school he has his own girlfriend, a little older and a good deal cleverer and better-off than himself, the feminist with treacle-coloured hair, Pandora. Pandora is at one with him as an intellectual, but will not let him see her nipples, and Mole’s situation, at the age of 16, is in perilous balance. Sue Townsend had the alternative of abandoning him altogether, or letting him grow up. Adrian could not, in any case, stay unchanged, since time and adolescence are at the heart of the situation. By 1988 he is 20. He could become corrupt – as Lazarillo does, marrying the archpriest’s daughter in exchange for a job as town crier – or he could, against all expectations, succeed.

The True Confessions never quite find their direction. Gone, of course, are the days when Mole dreamed of being an intellectual road-sweeper who would amaze the litter-louts by quoting Kafka. Still living dismally at home, he has been fired from his job at the library for shelving Jane Austen in the Light Romances section. Sex is no longer an urgent problem, since he is on close terms with Sharon Botts, ‘a provincial dullard working in a laundry’. But alas, they bore one another, and there is a distressing feeling that Mole has been defeated in his gallant struggle against a cultureless, boil-in-a-bag society.

More spirited are the diaries of Margaret Hilda Roberts, a grocer’s daughter, who spends her evenings studying chemistry and helping her father to water down the dandelion and burdock, while by day she relentlessly organises everyone about her. The diaries are thought to date from the 1930s, but unfortunately, we are told, nothing is known as to what became of the writer. Sue Townsend also includes some of her own travel notes from Majorca and Russia, where she went as a guest of the GB-USSR Association. These are written with great good nature, but confirm the facts that it is not much fun to be on your own in Spain, and that writers are at their very worst in an organised group. She is frankly not sorry to be back again, although ‘the England I love best is, of course, the England of childhood, where children could play in the streets without the neighbours getting up a petition.’ Given the choice between death and exile, she says: ‘I’d choose exile every time, but I’d be very, very unhappy to leave the club.’

Sue Townsend’s playground in the Forties was the pavements of Leicester, and she was born (and rescued from pneumonia) by courtesy of the Welfare State. In Mr Bevan’s Dream she takes as a starting-point the first principle of the Beveridge Report: ‘that the wishes of any one section of the community are not given undue weight against any other section.’ She can’t and won’t, she says, present a formal argument (‘I have fallen back on the traditional working-class method for expressing ideas – the anecdote’) and these stories, from high-rise blocks and DHSS queues and understaffed hospitals, give her all the force she needs to protest against the dream’s ten-year decline. Her case might have been even stronger if she had left out her colourful characters – an insane headmaster who shadow-boxes with all comers, a drunken pork-butcher. She is speaking, after all, on behalf of the overlooked and uncolourful.