The sad death of Sue Townsend, aged 68 and eight days
My books would not have existed without the creator of Adrian Mole, writes an Irish author of preteen fiction
Late lamented: Sue Townsend. Photograph: Penguin
Some books work their way into our consciousness, affecting the way we see the world forever. They can be religious or political, but for many of us who grew up in the 1980s they are the diaries of Adrian Mole, whose creator, Sue Townsend, has died at the age of 68. Her birthday was April 2nd.
Lovelorn, surrounded by adults who don’t understand him and convinced he’s an unappreciated intellectual, Adrian is one of the great comic creations of the last century. I discovered him in the mid 1980s, when I was about 11 and finally deemed mature enough to read my sister’s already battered paperback of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ .
I have no idea how many times I read it and its sequel, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole , over my teens, but nearly 30 years later many things, from beetroot sandwiches to Malcolm Muggeridge, from red socks to the word “giro”, are inextricably linked in my mind with the Mole books.
My first thought last year on hearing of Margaret Thatcher’s death was Adrian’s poem about her. “Do you weep, Mrs Thatcher, do you weep? Do you wake, Mrs Thatcher, in your sleep?” I wasn’t the only one.
There was more to the Mole books than comedy: there was heart, too. As a young teen I identified with Adrian and took his concerns seriously while still finding him hilarious, but many things went over both his head and mine. Every subsequent reading deepened my understanding and made me realise what a superb and complex writer Townsend was.
Born in 1946, she grew up outside Leicester in a working-class family. She married at 18 and had three children before she turned 23; “I used to fantasise about being sent to prison, where I could lie on my bunk and read,” she said.
She wrote when her children were asleep but never thought of doing anything about it until her second husband, Colin Broadway, showed her an advertisement for a local writing group.
Her first play was produced in 1979 to great acclaim, and she dug out an earlier script about an angst-ridden teenage boy. The resulting Radio 4 play was so successful that Townsend was asked to make it a novel.
The first Mole book, published in 1982, was a huge critical and commercial hit. Over the next 30 years Adrian would return in six further books and a collection of Guardian columns.
He grew up in more or less real time, becoming a celebrity offal chef, a bookseller, a father and a cancer survivor, and allowing Townsend to turn her satirical eye on everything from celebrity culture to the credit crunch and, particularly in Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction , a British Labour Party that she believed had abandoned its principles.
To my great joy I met her in 1999, when Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years was published. Meeting someone whose work you love is always risky, but she didn’t disappoint, and our conversation remains the most pleasurable interview of my career. She was funny and friendly, and even though by that stage she must have heard a ridiculous number of people in their 20s and 30s go on about growing up with the books, she never showed it.
She told me Adrian’s youthful pretensions were her own, and talked about walking around Leicester as a teenager ostentatiously carrying Dostoevsky in the hope of impressing kindred spirits.
When I asked if she’d sign my ancient copy of The Secret Diary she asked when I was born and then, after a quick mental calculation, wrote, “To Anna, 24 + 1 + ½, It was lovely to meet you in Dublin, love Sue T. (53½).” It’s the best book dedication I will ever receive.
Ten years after that meeting I finally wrote a comic novel of my own about an angsty diary-writing teenager whose parents don’t understand her. That book, The Real Rebecca , and its sequels would never have existed without Townsend.
In Adrian’s early diaries she showed how funny it can be when teenagers take themselves very seriously, but she also showed how to treat those characters with affection and respect.
I’m so glad I got to tell her how much her books meant to me. And I’ll think about her every time I wear red socks.