Squawks are heard all over London these days from newly-fledged birds being pushed off the twig. The reasons for not leaving home multiply: no money, no job, rents high, flats scarce. With the decay of the old custom of not fornicating under the parental roof the strongest reason for having a place of your own has gone. Forced contiguity is exacerbated by the New Frankness. The children of the Sixties (the ones born then) have a view of the infantile passions, the neurotic insecurity, and the vulnerability, of their parents which might accompany a severe scepticism about all human relationships. Have age and experience done nothing for these parents? they ask. Their younger brothers and sisters, born in the Seventies, have even worse cases to manage. But at least they now have a laureate.
The immense success of the two Mole books and their spin-offs is a tribute to self-awareness.The public, like a man who finds his symptoms are no mere concatenation but a syndrome, need no longer suspect itself of hypochondria. Sue Townsend’s descriptions ring true, the word is out: kids, parents, pets and geriatrics are all in this mess together.
Children take to the books partly, I gather, because the disgusting details of Adrian’s spots, the mention of his wet dreams and of his regular measuring of his ‘thing’, break taboos. But more because – despite his hypochondria, his naff intellectual ambitions, his deeply untrendy tastes – he is a hero who suffers as they suffer. Just at the moment when it has, to an unparalleled degree, become open to inspection, the adult world turns out to have nothing to offer but pain, betrayal and embarrassment. The epigraph to The Secret Diary is taken 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.’ The worst insults, the ones which start fights and feuds, are still slights on your family – above all, on your mother’s virtue. For boys who have to keep fatally embarrassing facts about home and parents secret, Adrian’s torments are cathartic.
These are children’s books in which the real characters are adults. It showed up in the television adaptation. Julie Walters, as Adrian’s mother, Beryl Reid as his Granny, his father, Bert (the pensioner Adrian is issued with to practice good samaritanism on): they are the round characters. Adrian and Pandora, his priggish girlfriend, the cardboard foils. It is the situation of Just William reversed. The children strive for an appearance of competence, the adults achieve anarchy. Because there are jokes on every page the bleak facts take a little time to emerge; and the very excellence of the television acting tended to make one miss them. Consider Adrian’s lot: his father is made redundant, and gets a job from the Manpower Services Commission cleaning a canal bank which every morning is strewn again with garbage. His mother runs off with, and back from, Mr Lucas (‘rat fink Lucas’). Mrs Mole’s unexpected pregnancy (she is 37 – much too old in Adrian’s eyes even to be thinking of having children) may have been caused by George Mole or by Lucas. Doreen Slater (‘Stick Insect’) is certainly pregnant by George Mole. By the end of the second book Adrian has witnessed his sister’s – half sister’s? – birth, a death and a cremation. He has taken his mother to the National Insurance office to fight officials. He has witnessed, or guessed at, the scenes of verbal violence and sexual reconciliation which mark the progress of his parents’ marriage. Near the end of Growing Pains he retires to bed with nervous exhaustion.
Adrian may not shape up perfectly to life’s problems, but put a few heroes of the received canon of children’s literature in his place, and how do they get on? E. Nesbit’s children would sympathise with his poverty, and do at least as well as he does in looking after Bert, but they would find the feckless self-indulgence of the Mole parents beyond comprehension. Their world recognises the bottomless pit of poverty, but never admits there might be no moral bottom to life. Others would be too good-mannered to notice things which embarrass Adrian. In the world of Arthur Ransome’s children parents hardly figure as characters. Their role is to establish the absolute security outside the plot which can make the adventures within it seem both realistic and safe. No possible turn of a Ransome story would allow John, Roger, Susan and Titty to be embarrassed by their mother’s breasts showing through a tight sweat shirt. Many heroes are a cut above Adrian in talent. K.M. Peyton’s Pennington is a rough diamond and gets into trouble with the police, but he is also a concert pianist. None of these characters would be any help to Adrian.
Contemporaneity of this kind comes in more than one sort of literary package. The Catcher in the Rye and Lucky Jim both seemed to have it when we read them in the Fifties, and it’s what makes song-writers sound like sages – Ian Dury has, appropriately, done a song to back the television credits for The Secret Diary. It is a quality which seems to be anti-authoritarian, but only because it notices how things have changed before the rules about what can be said, and assumptions about how people behave, have had a chance to adapt themselves to those changes. It isn’t often found in books written for children, which almost invariably aim at asserting values, not observing them. This sort of contemporaneity has very little to do with literary merit, and it has nothing at all to say about things which do not change. Doubtless there are still schools where choristers find William Mayne’s sensitive introspectives like brothers, and families which stoically accept their lot, and find their truth in Robert Westall’s novels of the Second World War.
Alison Lurie, claiming that the best children’s books are ‘on the subversive side’, has said that ‘most of the lasting works of juvenile literature express feelings not generally approved of or even recognised by grownups.’ That applies to Huckleberry Finn, perhaps, which, like The Catcher in the Rye and What Maisie Knew, is a book about – rather than for – children. But there aren’t many children’s books where subversion is allowed to go unchecked. Picture books pay particularly strict tribute to the infantile need for reassurance and justice. The Cat in the Hat cleans up the mess he has made; Max, back from where the Wild Things are, finds his dinner is still hot. Even Ferdinand the pacifist bull retires after his first non-violent sit-down.
The genuinely subversive book – the one parents used to snatch from under pillows – has few defenders, although faced with bans on James Bond, or Forever Amber, or Ouida or Micky Spillane, children, intuitively doing the subversive thing, have on the whole managed to find a way of getting to read what they believed would most please them. The unending duels of the cartoon films – where Tom for ever fails to catch Jerry – are better analogues of the fantasies of children than the manipulative tales of the child-improvers. Jonathan Cott, who makes more extravagant claims for good children’s books than most, also sees more danger in bad ones. What kind of world is it, he asks, in which a boy’s alternative to television might be ‘a “young adult” novel like Dinky Hocker shoots smack’, and his sister’s a ‘ “Teen Romance” like Superflirt’? Adults who read children’s books are often saddened when children don’t share their pleasure in them. There is no more palpable evidence of the cultural chasm between generations than the books which pleased the fathers proving to be plain dull to the children.
More mystifying is the appeal which characters of stultifying banality exercise for generation after generation of children. Take Rupert Bear. George Perry, with the assistance of Alfred Bestall who carried on the feature after its creator Mary Tourtel retired, has produced a fanzine, an anthology and bibliography all in one.Criticism is beside the point: if Paul McCartney likes Rupert Bear enough to make a cartoon feature (it is due out in a few years), if Perry can be believed when he writes that ‘the odds are on a recognisable Rupert Bear being present in the first issue of the Daily Express to appear in the 21st century,’ one is in the presence of a popularity which defeats analysis. Perhaps the stories are so simple, so unstructured, that children’s fantasies can grow on them, like bacteria on a slab of gel.
Adrian Mole is immensely popular: most library copies are nicked – in those that aren’t over-use and poor binding make the pages drop out as fast as autumn leaves. His observation that Pandora’s chest bounces, read in class or out of it, causes explicable glee. But removing a taboo on description gives no larger appreciation of the thing described or how you use it in real life. A teacher I talked to compared the writing a class did in Mole mode, which was imitative and not very good, to what they wrote about the characters in Stan Barstow’s novel Joby. This book, set in the late 1930s, tells of a bad year: Joby’s mother goes to hospital with cancer and has a breast removed, his best friend goes to a different school, he is thrown out of the cinema (and misses the last episode of Flash Gordon) because of someone else’s misbehaviour, and his father becomes infatuated with another woman. Along the way he learns about sex and sees its consequences in a forced marriage. The book ends with Joby on a canal bank, persuading his father (who Joby thinks is suicidal though he probably only wants some time to himself) to come home. A large proportion of the boys, asked to describe what life might be like in Joby’s family after all this, wrote of the wounded feelings, doubt and uneasiness of families in which trust has been abused. Only one boy tacked on a fairy-tale ending of reconciliation.
Those teachers who loathe Mole and all his works do so because they encourage ribaldry in the face of problems which are far from funny. But books like Joby, which look with more feeling at the same kinds of problem, are rare: the best hope for anyone worried about Mole’s nihilism is that his contemporaries will copy out his library list: Eliot, Amis and Waugh should reawaken any moral parts the Diary has anaesthetised.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.