Obituary: Sue Townsend, author

Sue Townsend, comic author who invented  Adrian Mole, a character who defined a generation. Picture: PA
Sue Townsend, comic author who invented Adrian Mole, a character who defined a generation. Picture: PA
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BORN: 2 April, 1946, in Leicester. Died: 10 April 2014, in Leicester, aged 68.

It’s rare but it happens occasionally: a fictional everyman comes to define a generation. Almost all of us who grew up in Britain in the Thatcher years have shades of the teenage Adrian Mole about us. His creator, Sue Townsend, a writer of great cleverness, good humour and observational powers, has left an enduring imprint on the British imagination.

Through seven more best-selling books, our hero has encompassed a much broader tranche of human experience: marriage, kids, divorce, a brief flirtation with celebrity, a move to the country. Well-meaning, introverted, never as successful as he would like, Adrian Mole remains a 21st-century man for all seasons.

Sue Townsend, who was also the author of highly acclaimed stand-alone books such as The Queen and I and The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year, has been called Britain’s leading comic novelist. For 30 years, she enjoyed enviable levels of critical and popular acclaim, while remaining a person of down-to-earth good humour and a writer of unassuming skill.

Hers was a life shaped by hardship. By the age of 23, she was a single parent in a council house in Leicester with three children under the age of five and three part-time jobs (“One for each child!” she would quip, later). In more recent years, she struggled with a catalogue of health problems caused by complications relating to diabetes, losing her sight and needing to use a wheelchair.

She appeared less in public in the last few years, saying that shyness had come with age, but when she did talk about her work and life, never ceased to be funny, self-deprecating, and completely without self-pity. She described herself as “a militant optimist”.

Townsend was born in Leicester; her father was a postman, her mother a bus conductor. She failed to learn to read at school, living in fear of a violent teacher, but was taught by her mother when she was at home ill at the age of eight, using Richmal Crompton’s Just William books.

Describing herself as a “secret writer” since her teens, she left school at 15 to work in a shoe factory and married her first husband, Keith, a sheet-metal worker, when she was 18. By the time she was 23, the marriage had ended, she was a single parent to Sean, Daniel and Victoria, and life was a constant struggle to make ends meet.

Yet, she continued to write, scribbling at midnight after the children were asleep, writing fragments of the journal of a teenage boy inspired by the depressive pout she glimpsed on the face of her ten-year-old son.

When she divulged her secret writing habits to her second husband, Colin Broadway, in 1979, he offered to look after their baby, Elizabeth, and the other children so that she could attend a writers’ group at Leicester’s Phoenix Arts Centre.

Within six months she had written Womberang, a half-hour play set in a gynaecological waiting room, which was staged, made a lot of people laugh and won its author a Thames Television Playwright Award.

Adrian Mole made his first appearance in a one-off play on Radio 4 which quickly spawned a six-part series. Stories abounded of listeners being late for work as they waited in their cars to catch the end of the programme which was broadcast at 8:45am.

The publication of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 and 3/4 in 1982, and The Growing Up Pains of Adrian Mole two years later, ended Townsend’s financial worries for life.

To date, the eight Adrian Mole books have sold more than 8 million copies worldwide and have been translated into 48 languages.

Two series were made for television, scripted by Townsend. Mole spawned a following far beyond the British suburbs and across a broad range of ages, from children to adults. Townsend’s books were “crossover” long before the term was invented.

Townsend’s hero grew with the decades, from a brief period as a TV chef (The Capuccino Years) to a brush with cancer (The Prostate Years). Townsend had spoken of two more books, saying she hoped to write about Mole’s woefully inept grasp of social media.

The next volume was scheduled for publication in 2013, but delayed after she suffered a stroke at the end of 2012. She once said: “The only way I’ll kill Adrian is when I die myself.”

Townsend wrote both comedy and satire. While the first two Adrian Mole books gave an astute insight into growing up mediocre in Thatcher’s Britain, later novels reflected on the disappointment of New Labour and its feckless wars.

Townsend described her novels as state-of-the-nation books. A lifelong socialist, she always wrote with an awareness of what was happening to the poor.

While her energy and optimism seem a long way from Adrian’s downbeat attitude, she admitted that they had much in common.

Asked about her success in one recent interview, she said: “I can register [the success] in my brain but I don’t feel it. I don’t feel emotionally involved with it. I take life very seriously. I can laugh at it, because what else can you do?

“But it’s a hard daily battle. And that goes for people with 100 per cent health too.”

After her sight failed she wrote her last three novels by dictating them to her eldest son, Sean, himself a science writer. She praised his patience with her exacting practice, writing and rewriting a sentence to get the rhythm just right.

She and Sean share a further bond: when she suffered kidney failure, he donated a kidney which she received in a transplant in 2009.

In later life, honours flowed. She was made a Distinguished Honorary Fellow of the University of Leicester, an Honorary Doctor of Letters at Loughborough University and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and she was granted the Freedon of the City of Leicester, where she had lived all her life.

Regardless of her prediction, her greatest creation will outlive her.

Among those tweeting their tributes on the day after her death was one Adrian Mole. It seems that he learned to use Twitter after all.

Sue Townsend is survived by her husband Colin Broadway, her four children, Sean, Daniel, Victoria and Elizabeth and ten grandchildren.