The Secret Academic Diary of Emma Rees

Emma Rees on the self-absorbed musings of Adrian Mole, the much-loved creation of the late Sue Townsend

April 24, 2014

Source: Corbis

I felt real sadness on learning of the death of Sue Townsend on 10 April, aged just 68. Her most famous fictional creation, Adrian Mole, wrote secret diaries that spoke not only to men (most of whom had surely, at one point or another, identified with Mole’s wounded introspection), but also to women (who had secretly always wondered about, and then shuddered at, what went on in the minds of spotty adolescent boys). He was a brilliantly portrayed character whose boundless self-obsession continues to be the defining characteristic of any adolescent who has ever but slenderly known him or herself. There was a charm to Mole’s solipsistic musings and naivety – it’s a brooding mien that’s also familiar to anyone who’s raised a teenager “IRL” (in real life), as the young people say. That first book, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾, has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide since its publication in 1982. Townsend was a shrewd commentator whose satire had foundations of empathy and kindness in a British society fragmented in the 1980s by a government intent on crushing the unions and feeding the fat cats. More than 30 years may have passed since that first book in the Adrian Mole series, but the universality found there isn’t only because we were (almost) all once insecure adolescents – it’s also because Townsend was writing about a depressingly still all-too-familiar philistinic sociocultural landscape. “I think I’m turning into an intellectual,” ponders Adrian at one point. “It must be all the worry.” Above all, the messy, muddled, frustrated young teenager serves to remind adults (perhaps, especially, academics) that most of us don’t altogether grow up, but merely age. “I still haven’t heard from Malcolm Muggeridge,” writes our protagonist, despondently. “Perhaps he is in a bad mood. Intellectuals like him and me often have bad moods. Ordinary people don’t understand us and say we are sulking, but we’re not.”

The Secret Academic Diary of ER, aged 40174

Monday 14 April 2014
First day of Easter Holidays. Wonder when word “holiday” became so utterly detached from its common collocations (“fun”, “relaxing”, “refreshing”). Decide it must have been around about 1989, when I decided to become an academic. Sit at desk and make list. Fly to Vienna for conference in just six days’ time. List gets very long. Number of people who have said “Isn’t Easter unusually late this year?” to me today: 5.

Tuesday 15 April 2014
List seems to be getting longer and longer. Decide to subdivide list into smaller lists. Obviously, need new stationery to do this. Walk to campus bookshop and buy ridiculously expensive notebook. (Not one of the 15 pristine notebooks in study at home would have been appropriate for my Lists List.) Measure Thing: 985 words.

Wednesday 16 April 2014
Glad this is a secret diary: frankly, my family are being remarkably unsupportive of my current dilemmas. Daughter wandered off, mid-conversation, muttering something about “First World Problems” as I tried to explain how am only allowed 32kg hold luggage but, having never been to Austria, don’t know whether to take four pairs of shoes, or just three. Husband pointedly reminded me that he’d like to pack “at least a toothbrush and clean pants”. Sharing one suitcase is clearly going to be a Big Deal for him. As an only child, I know how to share nicely. Shall leave him plenty of room. Number of people who have said “It’s unseasonably chilly for April, isn’t it?” to me today: 4.

Thursday 17 April 2014
Have resolved luggage dilemma! Made more room by packing only six books; just one box of Earl Grey teabags; and restricting self to three notebooks (and a ringbinder). Jubilantly cross “sort luggage dilemma” off my “dilemma” list subsection of lists. Remember that conference paper won’t have written itself. Glare at the dog, who, selfishly, I think, has not helped. Measure Thing: 633 words. It is shrinking! Disaster!

Friday 18 April 2014
This is not a Good Friday. It is a very, very Bad Friday. Worked on conference paper for eight hours solidly (apart from: walking dog; hanging out washing; comforting daughter who will “never leave room again” because her fringe is wonky; replying to 33 emails; dropping daughter off in town to meet her friends; walking dog again because she’s being reproachful; telling husband off for procrastinating when he says he’s popping out; working on remarkably witty Facebook status update; realising Facebook must be broken because no one’s commented on my remarkably witty status update; contacting Facebook to ask if it’s broken). Measure Thing: 636 words. Am devastated.

Saturday 19 April 2014
No words can adequately capture the agonising angst of my anxiety. We fly tomorrow, but Thing: 713 words.

Sunday 20 April 2014
Scowl at orange woman at orange check-in desk when she happily chirps: “Happy Easter! Isn’t it unusually late this year?” It is 7am. There is simply no excuse for orange. Or for chirping. Learn that “check-in” is now “baggage drop”. How very casual. Symptomatic of creeping linguistic laxity. Suitcase weighs in at just 29.5kg. Scowl at husband. Husband asks to be seated apart from me on plane, “for the extra legroom”. Luckily, Orange Airlines has two adjacent extra legroom seats, so we can sit together.

Monday 21 April 2014
A Good Day! Woke to exciting sounds and smells of new city. Three Facebook friends have “liked” my witty “Off to Vienna: ‘It means nothing to me! Oh, Vienna!’” status. Austria: milk is odd, and there’s cheese (cheese!) for breakfast, but Thing is respectable 1,913 words and have located handy Schreibwarengeschäft. Headed off to first session at what is surely going to be a Good Conference. Number of people in conference registration queue who said “Wasn’t Easter unusually late this year?”: 6.

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