Cappuccino class (Part 1)

 

Seventeen years after Adrian Mole insinuated himself into our collective unconscious with the publication of his Secret Diaries, Sue Townsend returns to the fray with Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years. The disconsolate acne-ed youth we met aged 13 and three quarters has become a disconsolate, pock-marked single parent of thirty and a quarter, still obsessed by his bowel movements and Pandora Braithwaite, now a Chanel-suited Blair Babe.

Mole's own dreams of literary fame, however, have come to nought and the would-be existential sage of Leicester has moved to Soho, where a career as a celebrity chef appears to beckon when the restaurant where he works achieves cult status through the sheer awfulness of its food, its elitist clientele having long since lost the ability to differentiate between cost and value.

Like all great social satirists, Sue Townsend uses the particular to illustrate the general. In The Cappuccino Years her target is the disintegration of society's value structure, and the Blair years offer rich pickings in both political and family arenas which she clearly relishes. One of Mole's most endearing and enduring traits has been his total lack of any sense of irony.

However, even he cannot fail to see the chasm between his own teenage concerns and those of his new-found son, Glenn (the result of a one-night stand 13 years before), who, he writes, "does not lie awake pondering the nature of existence. He lies awake wondering who Hoddle will field in the World Cup." We perch at the minimalist bar at the brand new St Martin's Hotel in London's theatreland. Designed by Philip Stark, it is the ultimate in postmodern chic, though in Townsend's irreverent company it appears the ultimate in self-parody, complete with luminous gnome stools. As she fumbles in her bag for a lighter, a young man, chisel-chinned and convict-cropped, materialises from nowhere, flame at the ready. Only beautiful people can get a job here, she tells me sotto voce, and we cackle, agreeing that there are times when PC values can go on hold, and sip our cappuccinos as nonchalantly as is possible for ladies of a certain age who feel totally out of place in a temple dedicated to flawless youth.

The Cappuccino Years begins with the Labour victory in the British general election of 1997, and takes its title from the nature of the government that it ushered in. "It's nothing. It's spin, it's lies," she says, jabbing a cigaretted hand at the 1960s-style Pyrex cup and saucer in front of her. "A lot of froth and very little coffee. Socialism is very deeply at the very bottom of the cup."

Sue Townsend makes no apologies for being Old Labour. Now 53 and a half, she still lives within a couple of miles of the pre-fab council estate in Leicester where she was born and brought up and where her children's in-laws still live. Before she'd had her first birthday she had pneumonia, and serious illness has continued to dog her life. Not little illnesses, she explains; she is really very well most of the time. But "every five or seven years" something comes along to floor her: diabetes, TB, a heart attack in 1985. The diabetes has led to diabetic retinitis and she's registered blind, but she can still see enough to read with an enormous magnifying glass, though the whole process is painfully slow.

She puts it down to the great freeze of 1947 and everyday post-war poverty, "fetching the coal in the pram when I was a little kid and the army greatcoats on the bed instead of blankets".

Her parents both worked as bus conductors, and were avid readers in their spare time. At primary school she had Mr Moles, who read The Pickwick Papers to his class of 10-year-olds and had them glued to their seats. ("Yes, Mole's name does come from that, but it is a very good name: it means spy and furry creature that we all love and linking lines, so it's a name that works. And I like names that work for you, like Dickens in fact.") Then there was the library, "the meeting place where everybody in our little community went because it was free".

First came the Just William books by Richmal Crompton. Later, P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh, and - naturally - The Diary Of A No- body. Then she discovered the Russians, particularly Dostoyevski. "I read The Gambler first. I bought it on Leicester market, a Penguin copy, about 6d, and just fell into that world. I just knew that world. Because the main character, whose name I've forgotten now, was good and evil at the same time. Which was how I felt. Still feel. That's why books are so wonderful. Because they inform you; they're lessons in living, lessons in experience. And they make you a citizen of the world."

And then we're back to politics again. And the horror of the public library closures. When it comes to education, dismay turns to distress. "I feel as if I'm walking on sand," she sighs. "I mean, what's real? We know we're being lied to. And Tony is so sanctimonious. And you long for a bit of grit. John Prescott is turning himself inside out. He's in agony, that man; you can see it. He's negating his own principles, and he's so angry because he knows he's doing it. They all know it. They know they're lying, they know they're spinning, they know they're dissembling. Day after day after day after day. Years and years. It does something terrible to you."

The working-class girl turned bestselling author has not abandoned her socialist principles, in spite of all the money. And there is a lot of it. Eight million copies of The Secret Diaries of Adrian Mole for starters (more than Jeffrey Archer). Then there were the Adrian Mole sequels (this is the fifth) both in book form and as television plays. Townsend's royal family spoof, The Queen And I, with the post-republic Windsors living in a council estate, transferred from hard covers to the West End stage. She admits that staying true to her roots hasn't been made easy.

"One of the things that happens if you are a successful working-class person is that people try to promote you out of your class. So you disappear. So there aren't any working-class heroes, no working-class role models any more because people want to push you somewhere else. But I don't see why you can't be working-class and successful and be rich."

And she appears to have succeeded. As well as the various charities - some acknowledged, some anonymous - she has bought houses for her children. ("It means you just don't have to worry about them any more, even though they still keep coming back.") She's also given a lot away, she says, as if she were talking about a glut of apples. "You have to. You just cannot spend it on yourself. There's no pleasure in it. It's empty. To just have to spread it about a bit. And it does help people. We have various things happening in Leicester and we can see the benefits already. I mean, we have a small recording studio which my son runs and one of the girls that he discovered signed a contract with Warners recently for a huge amount of money and she's just come back from the States." Will this girl do the same, I wonder. "Oh I think she will. I mean, I've certainly talked to her about it. Of course she bought herself a lovely car. I mean, you would at 19."

At 19, Sue Townsend was already a mother. She had left school at 15 for a job in the local shoe factory and at 18 married a sheet metal worker. The memory of Sunday lunch with his family still makes her shudder. The women - mother and two daughters-in-law - were not allowed to speak at the table. "His father was a despot, and he turned into one." She marvels that she stuck with it. ("But you did, you just did.") And does she use these characters in her writing? Townsend shakes her head. "No," she says. "I don't use real people. I can't help but feel that's cheating. I'd rather construct a character from scratch. Naturally, they inform you, like everything does. But it was too painful. God, what a marriage. And I loved him. I loved him. It took me three years to get over him and his bullying. He's a paranoid schizophrenic. My children look after him now."

There were three of them and when she was 25 he left them. What followed was a hand-to-mouth existence of part-time work and social security payments. Then she got a job running an adventure playground for maladjusted boys and met Colin Broadway, four years her junior, who ran the urban farm. That was nearly 25 years ago and they have been together ever since.