Sue Townsend – and her greatest comic creation – will be hugely missed, says Stephen McGinty
I have spent the morning laughing at the dead. I know, pretty shameful, my name will be engraved on a toasting fork in Hell. But in my defence, surely it is the sign of a remarkable life when news of one’s demise can, at first, lead to a feeling of poignant sadness which is then replaced by great gusty gales of laughter. I’m not talking about a smile, or a polite chuckle but the kind of laughter that ripples the belly and tingles under the ribs. Sue Townsend, whose death was announced yesterday morning, had that effect on me, and millions of others. Or, to be more precise, her comic creation did: Adrian Mole, aged 13¾.
During the 1980s, everyone read The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13¾ and its sequel, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole. Sue Townsend was the decade’s best-selling author in Britain. She was to the 1980s what JK Rowling was to the Noughties, and perhaps the difference between their two characters explains the dissatisfaction of today’s younger generation. We expected disappointment, raised alongside an acne-ridden teenager who was an aspiring, though awful poet, whose love for the treacle-haired Pandora was doomed from the start. The younger generation were accompanied on their journey into adulthood by a boy wizard, – granted, an orphan, but one who was soon saving the world. Harry cast powerful spells with his wand. Adrian measured his with a ruler.
When I read about Sue Townsend’s death, one of the first memories that came to mind was a family visit to friends of my mother who had children the same age as us and everyone sitting around in the living room shouting out the “best bits” from the books. This would have been 1985, when I was 13 and the books, first published three years earlier, had already saturated society. My elder sister Claire was talking about the scene when Adrian comes home to find his unemployed father watching a daytime children’s programme and pretending to be a tree. On paper, it doesn’t sound funny – though it could in fact be read quite tragically in a Yosser Hughes sort of way – but today even the thought can still make me laugh aloud.
There are lines I can still remember almost 30 years after reading them. How Adrian overhears his mother and father talking about a new baby and his father saying that he can’t face all that “3am stuff”, and how Adrian believes this means his mother is making unreasonable sexual demands on him.
Like everyone else, I could relate to Adrian Mole, his pretensions and passions. We both wanted to be writers, though I never quite worked up the courage to tackle The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist as Adrian did.
Looking up quotes from the books, I forget how wonderfully bad his poetry could be. Here is his ode to Pandora, of whom he wrote in his diary: “I saw her playing netball and her chest was wobbling. I felt a bit funny. I think this is it.”
Or how about his impression of Scotland: “Sunday, 30 August:. My thoughts on Scotland written on the M6 at 120 mph: The hallowed mist rolls away leaving Scotland’s majestic peaks revealed in all their majesty. A shape in the translucent sky reveals itself to be an eagle, that majestic bird of prey. Talons clawing, it lands on a loch, rippling the quiet majesty of the turbulent waters. The eagle pauses only to dip its majestic beak into the aqua before spreading its majestic wings and flying away to its magisterial nest high in the barren, arid, grassless hills. The Highland cattle. Majestic horned beast of the glens lowers its brown-eyed shaggy-haired majestic head as it ruminates on the mysteries of Glencoe.”
What is so endearing about Adrian Mole – although it might mean future generations won’t pick up on his popularity – is that his life was so grounded by the politics of his time. His mother discovers women’s liberation, and later moves to Greenham Common, he is bored by the Royal Wedding, exhilarated by the Falklands war and writes a poem about Mrs Thatcher: “Do you weep Mrs Thatcher, do you weep?/Do you wake, Mrs Thatcher, in your sleep?” To those of us who grew up with him, he remains a key part of our childhood and early teenage years.
Over the years, though, I lost touch with Adrian Mole. I never read the six other volumes that saw him grow up to become a chef and Pandora to become a Labour MP and one of “Blair’s Babes”. I did, however, have the pleasure of interviewing Sue Townsend. It was almost 20 years ago and I remember that she had previously published a book, half of which consisted of new Mole diaries, but which had disappointed my younger brother, who had expected a whole book. When I mentioned this in passing she inscribed an apology for him.
The eldest of five girls, Sue Townsend grew up working class and never forgot the poverty of her early adult life. When she was 25, her husband left her with three young children, whom she sometimes fed with soup made from Oxo cubes and a tin of peas. It was her second husband who encouraged her to take seriously the secret scribblings she had been composing since she was 14. Her first play, Womberany, set in a gynaecology clinic, won a Thames Television playwright award, and her second play was for radio. The success of The Secret Diary of Nigel Mole on Radio 4 led the publishers, Methuen, to commission a book but insisted the name be changed as it was deemed too similar to a children’s character decades earlier called Nigel Molesworth, created by Geoffrey Williams and the illustrator Ronald Searle.
By the mid-1980s Townsend was a multi-millionaire. After being told how much money the books had made, she walked out of her publishers in London and down Old Compton Street trying to think of what she could spend it on. A house, of course, but after that, all she could think of was flowers, Chanel perfume (which she already had) and hardback books: “I could not think of a single thing I wanted.”
A life-long socialist, Townsend critiqued British society through her books, including The Queen and I in which Liz is despatched to a council house to live on benefits after a revolution. Yet like many authors of popular novels, her favourite work was not the same as that of the public. Asked about her greatest achievement, she did not reply “Adrian Mole” but, instead, her novel Ghost Children about bereavement and abortion.
Money can rarely secure good health and for much of her life Sue Townsend had too much of the former and too little of the latter. She had a heart attack in her thirties, endured “the world’s worst diabetes” that eventually robbed her of her sight and functioning kidneys. Her son, Sean, donated a kidney but in 2013 she had a stroke. Her experience of ill-health was passed on to Adrian Mole, whose final book was called Adrian Mole: The Prostate Years.
This made a certain kind of sense, because whenever anyone asked who Adrian Mole, with all his insecurities, snobbishness and extravagant hopes, was based on, Townsend replied, with a nod to Gustave Flaubert and Madame Bovary: “Adrian Mole, c’est moi.” So the sad passing of Sue Townsend also means the death of Adrian Mole, aged 45¾. They will both be missed, but the laughter will echo on. “I have just realised I have never seen a dead body or a real female nipple. This is what comes of living in a cul-de-sac.”