Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight. Sue Townsend and the Christmas Exploits of Adrian Mole.

Maybe Adrian Mole isn’t the first thought most readers might have when thinking about Christmas books. For me they are right up there with the funniest and most realistic Christmas Days in literature. Every diary, starting with The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4, contains a Christmas and each one is disastrous, but also laugh out loud funny. We’ve all had such Christmas disasters, perhaps not with such alarming regularity, and while a lot of us run ourselves ragged in December to ensure everyone has the perfect day, it’s good to read something like this to remind us that Christmas still happens whether your napkins match your tree decorations or not. The true joy of the Moles is that they are a (fairly) normal family, but their Christmas Days are always fraught. When they’re all together, Grandma Mole can always find fault with something her daughter-in-law has done, usually there’s something wrong with the food or her darling son George is being hen-pecked. In the later years, as his parent’s complicated sex life can mean some extra bodies at the table, there is a tug of war over the gravy. The Mole family gravy is made with stock from giblets and was his grandmother’s recipe. His mum Pauline would fight to the death over her right to make the gravy. Here, if anything can go wrong, it will, whether it’s a culinary mishap, an ill thought out present, or natural disaster. Christmas 1981 was our first with the Moles, but it sets a precedent.

Friday December 25th (1981)

‘I went up to the bathroom and found my mother crying and running the turkey under the hot tap. She said, “The bloody thing won’t thaw out, Adrian. What am I going to do?” I said, “Just bung it in the oven.” So she did.

‘We went down to eat Christmas dinner four hours late. By then my father was too drunk to eat anything.’

Adrian is one of life’s innocents, even in adulthood, and it’s delightful to read his completely oblivious observations of others. His friend Nigel receives presents that might indicate to most people that he’s thinking about his sexuality. He’s also oblivious during the years that both his father and mother are pursuing affairs, most notably with ‘Stick Insect’ Doreen Slater. His head is often so full of his attempts to be an intellectual, his love for Pandora Braithwaite and his various anxieties that he misses what’s going on under his nose. One year Adrian invites Bert Baxter and his girlfriend Queenie for Christmas but hasn’t informed his Mum and Dad. It’s Christmas morning when he wakes his hungover parents to say they have to pick them up. Bert usually spends the day in his bungalow with Alsatian Sabre, eating pickled beetroot in his underpants, so this is definitely a step up.

Whoever the guests are, they bring their own drama with them. His parents seem inclined to come on the same day, but bring a new lover whether it’s ‘Rat-Faced Lucas’, Pandora’s father Ivan or ‘Stick Insect’ with Adrian’s step-brother in tow. I find Adrian’s maternal grandparents hilarious. Used to living in a potato field in Norfolk, and not used to company, the pair are very Biblical and disapprove of drinking and fornicating. Their glum faces at the dinner table make everyone feel guilty for having a good time. At Christmas 1982 it’s the turn of Adrian’s Aunty Susan. She is a prison warden and has leave to join them for Christmas Day, along with her glamorous friend Gloria. Adrian is so flustered by Gloria’s impressive cleavage he can’t even tell his Dad what part of the turkey he wants.

Saturday December 25th (1982)

‘When my mother asked me which part of the turkey I wanted, I said, ‘A wing please!” I really wanted breast, leg or thigh. But wing was the only part of the bird without sexual connotations.

‘I was given a glass of Bull’s Blood wine and felt dead sensual I talked brilliantly and with consummate wit for an hour, but then my mother told me to leave the table saying, “One whiff of the barmaid’s apron and his mouth runs away with him.”

1982 is the first year that Adrian has to think about gifts for his family. With typical tact he buys his mother a cookery book, but Pandora’s gift is more difficult. As outsiders we know what Pandora will think of her Woolworth’s locket (2 days later it has turned her neck green) but Adrian has a budget. I loved this description of Christmas Eve panic because we’ve all done it. Sucked in by the Christmas music and the knowledge it’s his last chance to buy before the big day, he goes ‘off list’ convinced he needs something extra.

Friday December 24th 1982

‘At 5.25 I had a panic attack and left the queue and rushed into Marks and Spencer’s to buy something. I was temporarily deranged. A voice inside my head kept saying: “Only five minutes before the shops shut. Buy! Buy!

As the years go by and Christmas becomes Adrian’s responsibility, he has to face providing for his expectant and excited son with very little cash coming in. As we tip into the 21st Century, I found this poignant note. Trying to lower his son’s expectations while desperately trying to keep the magic of Christmas intact he writes the following note from Santa.

Thursday December 14th 2000

I had to forge the following note from Santa tonight. I laid it on William’s pillow before I put him to bed.

Dear William Mole

I have been watching you all year, and have been pleased with your behaviour. However, I’m sorry to have to tell you that my elves have failed to manufacture enough PlayStation 2s, therefore you will not find this item on the sofa on December 25th.

P.S. 2000 elves have received redundancy notices


Santa Claus, Greenland

These later Christmas entries are full of drama. Two years later, joining his parents in their new country abode, the Mole Christmas is overshadowed by the events of the previous year. The weather is bleak, the fields are muddy and they are in the middle of nowhere, not to mention that Adrian killed the ‘new dog.’

Wednesday December 25th 2002

‘The atmosphere in my parent’s living room was more Pinter than Dickens. There was a Christmas tree in the corner of the room but it was a scraggy affair and looked as though it was apologising for it’s almost bare branches. My mother had done her best with three sets of Christmas lights, baubles and tinsel. My mother said ‘it’s the anniversary of the new dog’s death. ‘Christmas Day will never be the same again. I will never forget the sight of that poor dog choking to death on a turkey bone.’

My original copy of Adrian Moles first diary.

Our final Christmas with Adrian takes us up to 2007, where we find Adrian and his family are living next door to his parents at ‘The Piggeries’. It’s a pretty bleak outlook for Adrian, whose kindness means he is overloaded with worries, at a time when he needs some support. Adrian is having treatment for prostate cancer daily and feels unwell, but he’s looking after daughter Gracie, while his wife Daisy is working as PA at Fairfax Hall for the new heir, Hugh Fairfax-Lycett. Adrian’s usual inability to see the elephant in the room means he hasn’t noticed her weight loss, her Gucci dress or the fact that she works late several times a week. Their Christmas is hijacked by the accident prone Bernard, Adrian’s colleague at the bookshop where he’s been working till it’s recent closure. Wonder son Brett Mole is back, having lost all of his money, his home and his car. On Christmas Eve Adrian and Daisy are having a problem familiar to most parents.

Christmas Eve 2007

Gracie’s main present was a mini trampoline. When we opened the box from Toys ‘R’ Us we discovered that it contained eighty separate components and that it lacked the special tool with which to build the soddin’ thing and which was vital to the trampoline’s successful self-assembly. So the boast on the outside of the box that ‘Within minutes your child will be having healthy, happy, bouncy fun!’ was a lie. At one thirty in the morning, when we were practically weeping with tiredness and realized that we had connected the springs upside down, Daisy gave me a look of pure hatred and said, ‘A proper man would have realized that the springs were on upside down,’ and stomped off to bed.

It’s clear to the reader what’s going on between Daisy and her boss, but the ever sharp and blunt Pandora – now their local MP – picks up on it straight away. She asks if Daisy is still buying matching underwear and draws her own conclusion. This could be really bleak, but in Townsend’s hands this Christmas is both funny and poignant. I loved Bernard’s nocturnal disaster as he gets up to visit the toilet, steps on the trampoline, bounces off the ceiling light and is found naked except for a strategically placed cushion with his ankle still trapped between the springs of the trampoline. The New Year party at Fairfax Hall is a turning point. Adrian finally notices his wife’s dress, is puzzled that all Hugh’s London friends seem to have met her and sees Daisy and Hugh photographed together in a society magazine. Then Pandora walks in, sees everything in a glance and is the first person to notice that Adrian looks very unwell. After a call from his Dad to collect Gracie, Adrian is forced to walk home, but Pandora leaves with him and her kindness is touching.

When we went next door, Pandora ordered me to put some dry clothes on. While I was changing into my pyjamas and dressing gown she cooked bacon and eggs and made a pot of coffee.

I won’t ruin the ending of the book because some people might be tempted to go and read these later books that they might have missed. You won’t be disappointed if you do. I felt it was a fitting end to the series, even if Townsend didn’t know it was to be her last. It was sad to leave behind such a human, intelligent and loveable character. Adrian is the embodiment of that quote attributed to John Lennon, from his song Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy); ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans’. We’re just happy he allows us to come along for the ride:

The Mole Family

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Festive Throwback Thursday! Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women is one of my all time favourite books and the films, whether the old version Katherine Hepburn or the latest one with Saiorse Ronan, are essential viewing for me and my girls at Christmas. For my throwback posts this month I’m focusing on older books that truly give me those Christmas ‘feels’. That could be because they’re set at Christmas or they might have a special meaning associated with Christmas, such as something we would watch as a family or that I just happened to read at that time of year. As soon as it gets close to Christmas I think of Little Women, and it’s not just that first line of Jo’s; ‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents’. The book begins and ends at Christmas and it highlights the way the family has changed in that time, who is lost and who has joined the March family. I think the fact that most of the film adaptations have that snowy New England appeal and the contrasting warmth of the March family’s home with it’s handmade decorations and open fire. It’s also the way the family celebrate and their values that really shine out to me. They have traditions, like the play they all prepare for in the evening, having so much fun that the lonely boy living next door with only an old Uncle for company yearns to join them. I see so many parallels with my own family in the Marches, even the love and support they offer to people who are struggling reminds me of the values my parents have instilled in me and my brother.

The recent adaptation of Little Women starring Saoirse Ronan and Timothy Chalumet.

Our family traditions are smaller, but important and poignant to us, especially as the years pass and people are missing from those celebrations or new members of the family have come along. Back in the late 1970’s when I was around seven years old, my Mum had a beautiful set of nativity figures and my dad made her a tiny stable complete with wood shavings for straw and a single light over the roof to represent the star. Every year we loved to put the crib up and it was the tradition that the youngest member of the family would place baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas Eve. That was my younger brother Terry and I remember him having to be lifted to reach the crib and my mum would steady his small hand to place him in safely. Now my brother is in his forties and is a grandad too, so his grandson Harvey places Jesus in the crib and soon it might be his younger brother Oakley who helps him. To have so many generations in one family is so lucky, but it’s also poignant when I notice that my dad can’t pick up his great-grandson and his hand isn’t so steady. Similarly, for the Marches there’s that bittersweet feeling within the celebration, the acknowledgement that someone is missing from the table. It’s a feeling I share when we have our Polish Christmas Eve tradition that remembers my late husband’s family, something we do alongside my sister-in-law and nephews over in New Zealand, now that she too is a widow. It gives us an opportunity to raise a glass and talk about our loved ones, to have that Christmas phone call and remember them together.

The March girl’s Christmas Supper from Mr Lawrence.

Charles Dickens set the standard for the typical Victorian Christmas, setting in stone some of the traditions we still keep today. In the same way, Louisa May Alcott defines the ideal New England Christmas of the 1800’s. The Civil War rumbles on quietly in the background, but Marmee and Hannah keep the home fires burning despite having little money, but what little they have they are willing to share. There is a glow of nostalgia around their plans that makes me feel welcomed into their world, but also inspires me to have a more simple Christmas where we make the presents and the emphasis is on time together, rather than money spent. In the end it’s the feelings that make the Christmases of the Little Women so appealing. It’s their simplicity when we look at them against the current onslaught of adverts, consumption and pressure to have the perfect Christmas- especially this year, when we had such a quiet one in 2020. There’s an urge to really overspend that’s all about rescuing the economy rather than true Christmas spirit. We could really learn from the March girls’s generosity in using the one dollar they each receive from Aunt March to make Marmee’s Christmas better. There’s a thoughtfulness in the gifts they give, even Amy who has a last minute change of heart and uses her whole dollar for Marmee’s cologne rather than buying the smaller bottle to save money for some drawing pencils. I like to think about the gifts I send, and I do make when I’m able – I’ve made my step-daughters zombie dolls in the past and this year I’m embroidering denim jackets. I also make Christmas Cakes and biscuits for neighbours, sloe gin and jams, because it feels good to put myself into he gifts and it’s lovely to make them with a friend, listening to Christmas music and enjoying the moment. This year we’re having a biscuit and truffle making day together with my carer’s children. It’s this effort to spend time with people that makes Christmas, because it creates memories. This is no different from the March girls practicing their Christmas play together or singing carols at Beth’s piano. My immediate family are not buying presents this year, because we can’t all afford to do it, so instead we’re having a meal together which we’ll enjoy so much more than stuff. To have a March Christmas we need to adopt a simpler approach, guided by values of generosity, kindness, thankfulness and love.

The March girls listen to a letter from their Father on Christmas Eve.

A poor, bare, miserable room it was, with broken windows, no fire, ragged bedclothes, a sick mother, wailing baby, and a group of pale, hungry children cuddled under one old quilt, trying to keep warm. How the big eyes stared and the blue lips smiled as the girls went in. “Ach, mein Gott! It is good angels come to us!” said the poor woman, crying for joy. “Funny angels in hoods and mittens,” said Jo, and set them to laughing. In a few minutes it really did seem as if kind spirits had been at work there. Hannah, who had carried wood, made a fire, and stopped up the broken panes with old hats and her own cloak. Mrs. March gave the mother the children round the fire, and fed them like so many hungry birds, laughing, talking, and trying to understand the funny broken English. “Das ist gut!” “Die Engel-kinder!” cried the poor things as they ate and warmed their purple hands at the comfortable blaze. The girls had never been called angel children before, and thought it very agreeable, especially Jo, who had been considered a “Sancho” ever since she was born. That was a very happy breakfast, though they didn’t get any of it. And when they went away, leaving comfort behind, I think there were not in all the city four merrier people than the hungry little girls who gave away their breakfasts and contented themselves with bread and milk on Christmas morning. “That’s loving our neighbor better than ourselves, and I like it,” said Meg, as they set out their presents while their mother was upstairs collecting clothes for the poor Hummels. Not a very splendid show, but there was a great deal of love done up in the few little bundles, and the tall vase of red roses, white chrysanthemums, and trailing vines, which stood in the middle, gave quite an elegant air to the table. “She’s coming! Strike up, Beth! Open the door, Amy! Three cheers for Marmee!” cried Jo, prancing about while Meg went to conduct Mother to the seat of honor.

Beth played her gayest march, Amy threw open the door, and Meg enacted escort with great dignity. Mrs. March was both surprised and touched, and smiled with her eyes full as she examined her presents and read the little notes which accompanied them. The slippers went on at once, a new handkerchief was slipped into her pocket, well scented with Amy’s cologne, the rose was fastened in her bosom, and the nice gloves were pronounced a perfect fit. There was a good deal of laughing and kissing and explaining, in the simple, loving fashion which makes these home festivals so pleasant at the time, so sweet to remember long afterward.

Little Women. Louisa May Alcott. Amazon Classics. 29th August 2017.

Posted in Monthly Wrap Up

Books of the Month! November 2021

This has been a difficult reading month and I haven’t read as much as usual, but these were my favourite reads. Two members of the family have had surgery this month so a lot of the usual routine has been a bit upside down. The last week, while winter has started to bite a little, I’ve had a lot more pain and stiffness, as well as being plagued by MS symptoms of vertigo and fatigue. Some days I’ve felt like I only open my eyes when someone wakes me to have a meal. The countdown to Christmas also started in earnest, so I’ve been ordering early to avoid disappointment. I do the majority of my shopping online these days so it’s really a pleasure rather than feeling sweaty and unwell in a shop packed with other people. I did venture out with my stepdaughter last weekend to buy new decorations for our Christmas tree. It’s a tradition I set up to get to know them better and now it’s annual mission. Since it’s our first Christmas in the new house and our living room colour scheme has changed we decided to go pink and blue. We did well and how have an eccentric collection of tigers, monkeys, tiny pink Minis and VW Beetles with Christmas trees on the roof, slices of cake and topless unicorns wearing just a tutu! Mainly though, with my lowered immune system I’m trying to avoid large groups of people. Thankfully my booster is now booked, but it’s not until the end of December so I’m keeping to my strict bubble again until we know more about the new variant. So, that’s me. Out of the books I’ve read there have been some brilliant reads and don’t forget to check last Sunday’s Spotlight post which featured the books I’m buying as gifts this year.

The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers

We open in Kerrigan Falls with Lara on the eve of her wedding as she starts to enchant her wedding dress to make it perfect. However, in the morning the groom has disappeared, mysteriously leaving his car behind at the scene where another young man disappeared thirty years before. Both men have links to Lara and her family. In her search for answers, Lara finds her great- grandmother’s diaries and reads the tale of a circus so secret it can’t be seen. The circus is the perfect antidote to the sweetness of Kerrigan Falls. I won’t ruin your discovery of this world, but it is truly fascinating, macabre, beautiful, magical and horrifying all at the same time. I was hooked by the scene the author was describing and fascinated by Lara’s family history. The small details, such as the circus only appearing to those with a personal invitation which bled if it was torn, were quite disturbing. The magic practiced there had parallels with Lara’s skills – simple tabby cats turned into ferocious big cats. There were surprises I hadn’t expected and Cecile’s final diaries are the vital first hand account of the circus’s history, as well as her own love story. I was immersed in this magical tale and didn’t really want it to end.

Before My Actual Heart Breaks by Tish Delaney

Oh my goodness, my heart did break for the intelligent, spirited and strangely beautiful Mary Rattigan. She is a character who will stay with me, especially the childhood Mary and her battles with Mammy – a woman who I hated so strongly it was as if she was a real person! The Rattigan’s life on her parent’s farm is at odds with her romantic and wild nature. She wants to fly. She will not be satisfied until she flies out of her dirty and dangerous surroundings, leaving ‘The Troubles’ behind her. She doesn’t care where she goes, as long as she’s free and lives happily ever after. However, life has a way of grounding us and Mary is no exception. In a life punctuated by marriage, five children, bombings, a long peace process and endless cups of tea Mary learns that a ten minute decision can change a whole life. These lessons are hard won and she’s missed a hundred chances to make a change. Can she ever find the courage to ask for the love she deserves, but has never had? I am probably a similar age to Delaney so I felt an affinity with Mary and understood her. Mary’s need to be loved is so raw she can’t even articulate it. How can she understand or recognise love when she’s never felt it? She has been told she’s nothing, so nothing is what she deserves. Delaney writes about love and the realities of marriage with such wisdom and tenderness that I was rooting for Mary Rattigan till the very last page.

Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult

Diana and her boyfriend Finn live in New York City, he is a doctor and she works at an auction house for fine art, on the verge of promotion to become an Art Specialist at Sotheby’s. She’s trying to acquire a Toulouse Lautrec painting that hangs in the bedroom of a Japanese artist -loosely based on Yoko Ono. Then, everything changes. Finn and Diana have a very set life plan and part of that was an upcoming visit to the Galápagos Islands. However there are rumours flying around in the medical community of a strange new virus in Wuhan, China. It seems like SARS in that it affects breathing, because it causes pneumonia and requires huge amounts of resources to keep patients alive. Diana’s boyfriend feels torn, as a doctor he’s worried and thinks they should be preparing but the president is on TV telling everyone it’s no worse than flu. What’s the truth? When Finn’s hospital announces all leave is cancelled they know the virus is coming. Diana asks what they should do with the Galapagos holiday and he tells her to go without him. So she arrives on the last boat just as everything shuts down and she has to take the kind offer of an apartment from a cleaner at the hotel called Abuela. This is just the start of an amazing and uplifting adventure for Diana, in a paradise separate from the COVID-19 nightmare happening in New York. The joy of this book is that it takes the reader in several different directions, some of them very surprising indeed. This is my first full on pandemic novel and it was tough but surprisingly uplifting too. A real return to form from Picoult who I absolutely love.

On the Edge by Jane Jesmond

I was thoroughly gripped by this tense thriller set in Cornwall and concerning Jenifry Shaw – an experienced free climber who is in rehabilitation at the start of the novel. She hasn’t finished her voluntary fortnight stay when she’s itching for an excuse to get away and she finds one when her brother Kit calls and asks her to go home. Sure that she has the addiction under control, she drives her Aston down to her home village and since she isn’t expected, chooses to stay at the hotel rather than go straight to her family home. Feeling restless, she decides to try one of her distraction activities and go for a bracing walk along the cliffs. Much later she wakes to darkness. She’s being lashed by wind and rain, seemingly hanging from somewhere on the cliff by a very fragile rope. Every gust of wind buffets her against the surface causing cuts and grazes. She gets her bearings and realises she’s hanging from the viewing platform of the lighthouse. Normally she could climb herself out of this, most natural surfaces have small imperfections and places to grab onto, but this man made structure is completely smooth. Her only chance is to use the rapidly fraying rope to climb back to the platform and pull herself over. She’s only got one go at this though, one jerk and her weight will probably snap the rope – the only thing keeping her from a certain death dashed on the rocks below. She has no choice. She has to try. I was already breathless and this was just the opening! What follows is a thrilling debut that is so incredibly addictive you’ll want to read it in one go.

The Watchers by A.M. Shine

This is a disturbing and beautifully written horror novel about Mina, a young woman living alone in urban Ireland. She is largely a loner, except for her friend Peter who is a collectibles dealer and often pays Mina cash to travel and deliver his client’s purchases. On this occasion she’s to take a golden parrot to a remote part of Galway, but the day trip becomes something she lives to regret. Having broken down on the edge of a forest, Mina realises that the likelihood of anyone passing by and helping are probably minimal. So, with the parrot in tow, she sets off walking in the hope of finding a remote farmhouse. She feels unnerved, although she can’t say why, then she hears a scream that isn’t human, but isn’t like any animal she’s ever heard either. As the shadows gather she is beginning to panic, but sees a woman with a lamp standing by a concrete bunker and although that seems odd they hurry inside. As the door slams behind them, the screams grow in intensity and volume, almost as if they were right on her heels. As her eyes adjust to the light she finds herself in a room with a bright overhead light. One wall is made entirely of glass, but Mina can’t see beyond it and into the forest because it is now pitch dark. Yet she has the creeping sensation of being watched through the glass, almost like she is the parrot in a glass cage. A younger man and woman are huddled together in one space, so there are now four people in this room, captive and watched by many eyes. Their keepers are the Watchers, dreadful creatures that live in burrows by day, but come out at night to hunt and to watch these captive humans. If caught out after dark, the door will be locked, and you will be the Watcher’s unlucky prey. Who are these creatures and why do they keep watching? This really is terrifying and you won’t be able to stop reading until the very unnerving end.

Insomnia by Sarah Pinborough

This is a sneak preview of a release for next year and one I couldn’t resist reading on NetGalley as soon as I was approved. This book hooked me straight away, which isn’t surprising considering this author’s talent in creating nerve-tingling domestic noir. Emma has survived childhood trauma to make a success of her life and is now a well-respected solicitor with a lovely family and beautiful home. The only thing is she can’t sleep. As her fortieth approaches her insomnia gets worse and she is terrified, what if this is just the start of the breakdown her mother suffered at the same age? She always said that Emma had the ‘bad blood’ and as her symptoms increase Emma is coming apart. I read this in two sittings, engrossed by Emma’s story and trying to work out whether she is being set up and if so, who by? Look out for this one at the end of March 2022.