As a disaffected teenage diarist, Adrian Mole doesn’t seem to have much interest in the family pet. In fact, the dog in Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 133/4 is a mongrel that doesn’t have a name or gender assigned to it, being referred to simply as ‘the dog’. But for all that, the dog features surprisingly often throughout Adrian’s diary, providing a witty and honest and quite touching picture of the impact that dogs have on our lives, whether we like it or not.
The dog belongs to Adrian’s family, not specifically to him, so it’s perhaps not surprising that he often thinks of it more as a liability than as a beloved pet. Nevertheless, it features in his list of New Year’s resolutions: ‘I will be kind to the dog’ in the first instance and, a year later, ‘I will try to be more kind to the dog.’
With all the various teenage and adult crises in the Mole household, the dog seems to be rather neglected, so I’m not surprised it misbehaves. It destroys the model ship, complete with plastic pirates, that Adrian’s father has spent three months building. It runs off because Adrian’s mother forgets to close the gate. It throws up all over the house after ingesting ‘a lump of coal, the fir tree from the Christmas cake, and the model pirates from my father’s ship’, all of which have to be extracted by the vet.
For a teenage boy who is trying to fit in while his family breaks down, the dog is an added embarrassment to Adrian. It prompts outrage when it tramples on the neighbour’s wet concrete: ‘Sometimes I really hate that dog!’ It treads black paint all over the stairs. And it follows Adrian to school, where it joins in the games lesson and Adrian discovers that ‘the dog is dead good at football’ – until it punctures the ball, of course. But it is also a companion and a fellow sufferer throughout the traumatic events of Adrian’s year, and the two spend a lot of time together in Adrian’s room.
Adrian’s observations are unwittingly revealing about both himself and his canine companion. ‘The dog has mauled the hot-cross buns; it doesn’t respect any traditions,’ he writes at Easter. And when Adrian is agonising over his theft of a Kevin Keegan key-ring from the shop, he is envious of the canine code of conduct: ‘I wish I was a dog; they haven’t got any ethics or morals.’
In fact, on some level, Adrian finds compassion for the dog, which brings a haphazard kind of stability and routine to his chaotic family life. When the dog goes missing, it’s Adrian who worries about it and walks the cul-de-sacs of his neighbourhood looking for it (it has wandered to his grandma’s house). In fact, with his parents split up and living with a father who is unemployed and depressed, the dog seems to embody Adrian’s sense of normal family life. A fellow victim of the parental split, the dog’s emotions mirror those of its teenage companion. When Adrian’s mother returns, he tells us that the dog is very happy and ‘has been going about smiling all day.’
Adrian buys it dog chocolates for Christmas, and he disapproves when his mother laughs at her own bodged attempt at cutting its hair because ‘dogs can’t answer back, just like the Royal Family’. When his parents are arguing, Adrian lets the dog sleep in his room because ‘it doesn’t like quarrelling.’ Perhaps most tellingly, when Adrian is looking after Sabre the Alsatian while his owner, Bert Baxter, is in hospital, ‘the dog’ becomes ‘our dog’, which has to stay with his grandma because it’s frightened of Alsatians – although it reverts to its traditional title of ‘the dog’ once more on its return home.
While seeming to be a minor part of the book, the Moles’ dog is actually a major influence in Adrian’s life. It may often frustrate and annoy him, but it also gives him companionship and a sense of responsibility, and unlike many of the other characters in the book, it doesn’t criticise him.
I love the Moles’ dog. I think it’s the creation of a real dog-lover who sees the humour, the chaos and the sense of belonging that, among other things, dogs give to their families.
*Pictures by Caroline Holden, from The Illustrated Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 133/4 (London: Methuen, 1994).