She became a comic writer beloved the world over while battling illness and adversity.
Sue Townsend, who died last Thursday aged 68 after suffering from a stroke, was one of Britain’s most celebrated comic writers as well as novelist, playwright and journalist.
She was best known for the fictional diaries of Adrian Mole, a character who, unlike Peter Pan, is allowed to grow up, evolving from the penis-measuring adolescent who confides “I was racked with sexuality but it wore off when I helped my father put manure on our rose bed” in The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 (1982) to the middle-aged and, Townsend liked to insist, more evolved and better-dressed bloke who survives prostate cancer in Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years (2009).
The glory of Mole is his inability to see the funny side, his self-importance, and the way in which his diaries unwittingly accommodate his creator’s social commentary. The first book, which in the 1980s made Townsend the decade’s bestselling novelist, took a shrewd look at former prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.
In Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years (1999) she took on Britain’s New Labour party with equivalent relish. Mole was a hapless supporter of the former Labour party prime minister, Tony Blair, in love with Pandora Braithwaite, on-message MP. By the time of his last sighting he was living with his dissatisfied wife, Daisy, in a converted pigsty.
The Mole books have been translated into 48 languages and sold more than 10 million copies. Adrian’s career has extended to radio and television adaptations and he has been a smash hit in London’s West End. “Adrian Mole, c’est moi,” Townsend said when I interviewed her in 2010.
Unlike Adrian, though, Townsend could spot a joke a mile off. Her ability to entertain without compromising her integrity was a gift that defined her and her writing. And she was not in the least self-important.
Townsend was born in Leicester, in England’s East Midlands, the eldest of five sisters. Her father worked in a jet-engine factory and became a postman when it closed. Her mother worked in the factory canteen. At primary school, Townsend was terrorised by a teacher who, when children had failed to master their lessons, would slap their legs and make them do handstands.
She could not read until she was eight. It was her mother who taught her, with Richmal Crompton’s William books – the inspiration for Adrian. She left school at 15 but kept reading. She devoured Woolworth’s Classics (Jane Eyre, Heidi and co) and moved on to Russian and American literature. As a chain-smoking teenager, dressed in black, she was fired from a job in a clothes shop for reading Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad Of Reading Gaol in the changing rooms. From the age of 14 she was also writing in secret.
By the time she was 18, she had married a sheet-metal worker and, by 22, had three children under five: Sean, Daniel and Victoria. When, after seven years, her marriage ended, she worked in assorted part-time jobs: at a petrol station, as a receptionist and for a frozen food brand.
The toughness of that time was something she never underplayed. She remembered making pea soup for her children out of one seasoning cube and a tin of garden peas. Although her books later made her fortune, she said that no amount of balsamic vinegar or Prada handbags would make her forget what it was like to be poor.
It was Colin Broadway, Townsend’s second husband (and father of her fourth child, Elizabeth) who encouraged her, in 1975, to join a local writers’ group at the Phoenix arts theatre in Leicester. There she wrote her first play, Womberang, set in a gynaecology clinic, which won the 1979 Thames Television Playwright award and gave her a bursary at the theatre.
Soon afterwards she dug out Adrian – or Nigel, as he was in his earliest incarnation – from the cupboard in which he had, for years, been snoozing. She showed the script to the actor Nigel Bennett, who recommended it to John Tydeman, then deputy head of radio drama at the BBC. It was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and its success as a radio drama led Methuen to offer to publish the novel, insisting that Nigel be renamed Adrian (to avoid clashing with Ronald Searle and Geoffrey Willans’s Nigel Molesworth).
In addition to the Mole books, Townsend wrote half a dozen novels, most notably Ghost Children (1997) about the psychological effects of abortion, The Queen And I (1992) in which Queen Elizabeth II, after a revolution, is compelled to live on benefits (the novel became a play in 1994, starring Pam Ferris and directed by Max Stafford-Clark) and its sequel, Queen Camilla (2006), in which Britain is run by Jack Barker’s Cromwell party and talking corgis provide the commentary.
She wrote a dozen plays and two works of non-fiction, and was a prolific journalist, writing for The Observer, The Sunday Times and The Daily Mail, and contributing an Adrian Mole column to The Guardian, The Secret Diary Of A Provincial Man (1999-2001).
Townsend’s last novel, The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year (2012), was her darkest. It is about a middle-aged librarian who, when her children leave for university, climbs between the sheets and stays there. She has her bedroom painted white (in contrast to Adrian’s all-black teenage bolt hole) and decides to shed all her possessions. It is a fresh start – of sorts. And as Townsend had done in the Mole books, she made an invisible character visible.
Townsend suffered from ill health from a young age: She had TB peritonitis at 23, a heart attack in her 30s, and Charcot joint degenerative arthritis, which meant she had to use a wheelchair. She described herself as the “world’s worst diabetic” – finding the disease hard to manage.
In the 1990s, she started to lose her sight. In 2001, she was registered blind and although, characteristically, she made jokes about it, she also wrote about the sense of loss, the disappearance of detail, the misery of suddenly finding she could no longer distinguish between a daffodil and a tulip.
She talked about what it felt like to “throw words into the dark”. She dictated all her later books – usually to her son Sean. In 2007, she suffered kidney failure (also diabetes-related) and was put on dialysis. In 2009, after a two-year wait for a donor, she had a transplant when Sean donated a kidney. In 2013, she suffered a stroke.
She is survived by Colin, her four children and 10 grandchildren. – Guardian News & Media