Like so many children on the former fringes of empire, much of my imaginative life was spent abroad: the England of The Railway Children, The Secret Garden, I Capture the Castle, and, later, Jane Eyre, Sense and Sensibility, and Woolf. I discovered Australia through My Brilliant Career, Canada in Margaret Atwood’s novels, and America in Little Women.
During a period when nearly every one of Austen’s novels was being made and re-made for film and television, I think I spent most of the mid-nineties somewhere in 1811. But at the same time as reading the nineteenth century, I was consumed with enthusiasm for Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books: a series set in Thatcher and then Blair’s Britain, which chart not only Adrian’s agonisingly hilarious development from the age of 13¾ to middle age, but the politics, preoccupations, and often, injustices of the period.
In some ways, Jane Eyre – mad wife in the attic and all – was, initially, easier to understand than The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾: I had never heard of The Archers, the dole, the Co-Op, The Morning Star, or Melvyn Bragg. Sue Townsend died this week, and I’ve been reminded over and over again how much my knowledge of ordinary life – in council estates, in unfashionable parts of the midlands – in 1980s and 1990s Britain comes from Adrian’s secret diaries. She made ‘the little world’ of Adrian’s England – and he is supremely parochial – open up to a reader very far away.
Townsend had an eye for telling detail: the object or event that somehow managed to sum up a particular moment in time. Often, she did this through food. At the beginning of the Mole series, we come across Adrian learning to cook. As his mother embraces feminism – his first diary is written in the early 1980s – the family relies increasingly on boil-in-the-bag instant meals, then a relatively new convenience food. Bert Baxter, the communist-sympathising, irascible pensioner for whom Adrian cares periodically, will only eat Vesta curries, the first commercially available Indian food in Britain.
As the books move closer to the present, so food plays an ever more important role – mirroring, to some extent, middle-class Britain’s embrace of foodie-ism. In The Cappuccino Years – in which Adrian drinks at least three cappuccinos, that drink so emblematic of Blair’s Cool Britannia, per day – he works as a chef at the coolest restaurant in London: Hoi Polloi. The point of the restaurant is that it serves up the cheap instant food slowly being rejected as Britain rediscovers (or reinvents) its culinary heritage: he makes lumpy Bird’s Eye custard, heats up Fray Bentos pies, and serves instant coffee. Despite the fact that the food is – by Adrian’s admission – appalling and vastly overpriced, it is the place to be seen, particularly by New Labour politicians.
After its closure, Adrian becomes an early celebrity chef on a show called Offally Good! It also receives terrible ratings, and it’s only because his mother steps in at the last minute that he’s able to write a book – which sells next to nothing – based on the series.
Despite the fact that the Mole books are so deeply embedded in their social and political contexts, they are, I think, unlikely to date, and partly because they are informed by Townsend’s politics: her outrage at Thatcher’s attempts to roll back the welfare state; her disgust at the cynicism and duplicity of Labour under Blair and Brown. She is particularly good at depicting the slow slide into financial trouble, and then poverty: when bureaucratic bungling prevents Adrian’s mother – on her own and with two children to support – from collecting her welfare payment, the family reduces how much it eats.
Although this section of The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole is very funny – the situation is only resolved after his mother calls a local radio station and a stand-off ensues at the social security office – it was based on Townsend’s own experiences of poverty in Britain in the early 1980s: of having to cook her children a soup made of an Oxo cube and tinned peas when her welfare money was delayed.
She wasn’t the only writer of books for children and young people who describes hunger and poverty: I Capture the Castle notes, carefully, how the Mortmain family’s diet shrinks to bread, margarine, and the occasional egg during their worst period of hardship. The March sisters gladly give up their Christmas feast so that a poor immigrant family may eat. Jane Eyre’s depiction of pupils’ slow starvation in a sadistically run school is one of the most shocking passages in nineteenth-century fiction.
The difference, I think, with Townsend is that, despite some of her characters being able to pull themselves out of poverty, all the Mole books hint at the precariousness of prosperity: while we know that Cassandra Mortmain will never really starve, that all will be well when Mr March returns, and that Jane will eventually leave the school, Townsend’s politics never really allow her to make her readers feel that comfortable about her characters’ prospects.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.