Magazine article History Today

Pootering About: Peter Morton Reminds Us That, a Century before Adrian Mole, There Was Charles Pooter

Magazine article History Today

Pootering About: Peter Morton Reminds Us That, a Century before Adrian Mole, There Was Charles Pooter

Article excerpt

IN Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction, the latest of her hilarious fictive diaries, Sue Townsend sends her hero to a ceremony. Too late he discovers that the front of his trousers is stained with dried evaporated milk. He spends the occasion slightly crouched, 'with my hands flat against my thighs, like a man who was about to bend down and pat the head of a small child'. It is yet another of Mole's humiliating moments.

Or, one might say, another 'Pooterish' moment (the adjective is in the Oxford English Dictionary). For as Mole ages, and he is now in mid-life, the more he is coming to resemble his great late-Victorian original, Charles Pooter, the hapless suburban clerk of The Diary of a Nobody. Indeed, Pooter experiences an analogous moment at the theatre, when his patent bow-tie falls from the balcony into the stalls below. Fortunately Poorer is bearded; so 'to hide the absence of the tie I had to keep my chin down the rest of the evening, which caused a pain at the back of my neck.'

Originally a serial that appeared in the comic magazine Punch in 1888-89, The Diary of a Nobody was the creation of the brothers George and Weedon Grossmith. George was then a star of the D'Oyly Carte opera company and took the lead role in many of Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas (he was playing in a revival of The Pirales of Penzance when the Diary appeared); Weedon was a comic actor and, later, a playwright and novelist. Today the Diary is their only memorial. Curiously, the first reviews were unenthusiastic--'a photographic representation of middle-class boredom and horseplay' snarled the highbrow journal Athenaeum--which is probably why the Grossmiths avoided any public reference to it afterwards. But it has never been out of print since the book version appeared in 1892, and it has inspired many comic novelists, from Anita Loos and Evelyn Waugh in the 1920s to Keith Waterhouse and Helen Fielding in more recent times.

The months leading up to the Iraq War provide a menacing backdrop to Sue Townsend's account of Adrian Mole's tragi-comic life at Rat Wharf, Leicester. By contrast, in The Diary of a Nobody the months between April 1888 and July 1889 are filled exclusively with the private concorns of the people living at The Laurels, Brickfield Terrace, Holloway. Charles and Carrie Pooter are not given to musing on, say, the Fenian bombings or the lessons of the Bloody Sunday riots; nor does the East End's 'autumn of terror' rate a mention, even though the Jack the Ripper murders occurred while the Diary was running in Punch. Pooter is a man whose breakfast philosophizing focuses on his plate rather than his newspaper: 'I cannot and will not eat cushion of bacon. If I cannot get streaky bacon I will do without anything.'

But that matters little. The Diary works on us in the same paradoxical way as Pepys' real diary: the more humdrum the detail, the more rues merle the effect. The Diary is a grab-bag of all the minutiae of English life at the end of the 1880s. I have noted more than two hundred such allusions: a short list might include the heavy, use of contemporary slang and songs, the social aspects of bicycling, manicuring, spiritualist seances, smocking, ballooning (an allusion to the terrifying leaps, that summer, from high above Alexandra Palace by 'Professor' Thomas Baldwin, using an umbrella-like parachute), hats like coal-scuttles, 'Aesthetic' affectations (writing in white ink), Christmas cards with surprisingly bold sexual jokes, five-foot long parasols ('I told her it was ridiculous. She said: "Mrs James, of Sutton, has one twice as long;" so the matter dropped'), Pooter's disastrous investment in Chlorates (a sly allusion to the activities of John North, the flamboyant Nitrate King), and the vile weather (the summer of 1888 was atrocious, possibly due to the effects of the Krakatoa eruption of 1883).

More substantially, if one reads between the lines, the Diary reveals much about the lower-middle-class English life of that day. …

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