Sue Townsend: Reasons to be cheerful

Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole novels have been bestsellers for nearly 20 years. She tells Robert Hanks why her latest - the sixth in the series - may be her last
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At the end of his great argument against suicide, The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus offered a reason to go on living. Think of Sisyphus eternally rolling his rock up a mountain and watching it roll back down again: we must imagine Sisyphus happy. It sprang to mind when I was reading Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction (Michael Joseph, £16.99), the latest instalment of the diaries that have now been enthralling readers, and hogging a place on the bestseller lists, if not eternally, then for more than 20 years.

At the end of the last book, Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years (1999), Adrian, after a brush with fame as a celebrity chef, ended up losing his house and all his possessions in a fire started by the bunny-boiling schoolteacher of his newly discovered illegitimate teenage son Glenn - whatever the Adrian Mole books lack, it isn't incident. The sixth Mole book opens in autumn 2002, with Adrian back at square one: still ashamed of his parents, baffled at the world's refusal to take him seriously as an intellectual, and sexually frustrated - just as he was at 13 and three-quarters. But by the end, something remarkable has happened: there are signs that Adrian has matured and accepted his lot. Must we now imagine Adrian happy?

It is only after some hesitation that I wheel out my pretentious Camus allusion in conversation with Sue Townsend. To my relief, she crows with pleasure at the thought: "Yes!" Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised: Townsend has written about how, at 16, she was one of only five beatniks in Leicester and a confirmed existentialist. And she has, it turns out, a Sisyphean connection of her own: for years, she taught ("I use the word cautiously") at a summer school on the Greek island of Skyros, "which is perpendicular. It's the island that Sisyphus pushed the rock up to the top of, and it rolled down again. That is how steep it is."

Now, though, she has had to give Skyros up: it is simply too steep. For the last year she has been in a wheelchair, a consequence of a condition called Charcot's joint, in which the bones of the foot crumble. In her case, it is a complication of diabetes (she was diagnosed as diabetic in the mid-1980s, after a heart attack). But she looked it up and "I wasn't surprised to find out that this affliction is shared by lepers and people with syphilis. I kind of toyed with the idea of starting a club and seeing who turned up." She can still get up and down stairs, but "I can't walk with any grace. I can't walk far without swooning around the place."

The diabetes has had another, more distressing side-effect: for the past five years she has been registered blind, the result of diabetic retinopathy. Meeting her at her home, a grand Edwardian house in Leicester, not far from the university, I might not have noticed - she manoeuvres her wheelchair around the furniture, picks things up and puts them down without trouble. But she has not been able to read properly for two years. She showed me a machine that projects a massively magnified image of a page on to a screen: she can read for about a quarter of an hour. "Useless, useless," she says.

Being blind is particularly hard for somebody for whom reading has meant as much as it has for Townsend. As a child, she was a late learner, and reading became a terrible ordeal: "You were actually punished. You had your legs slapped." But when she was eight and a half she was off school for three weeks, and her mother brought some books home from a rummage sale - a collection of Richmal Crompton's Just William stories. Over the course of the three weeks, she learned to read from them: "That was the single most important thing that ever happened in my life." Her own writing, she says, is full of echoes of Crompton, down to the fact that Adrian's first lover, Glenn's mother, was named Sharon Bott in tribute to Violet Elizabeth Bott ("I'll thcream and thcream and thcream until I'm thick"). In fact, I think Townsend does herself a disservice here: Crompton's style is somewhat opaque and elaborate, whereas Townsend's is transparent. What they do have in common is a taste for the comedy that springs from solipsism - like William Brown, Adrian Mole is never fazed by the idea that other people may see things differently.

Once the young Townsend had started reading, she couldn't stop. She went through all the books her mother had bought her, then joined the local library and went through everything they had there. She was spurred on by some outstanding teachers: there was Mr Moles at primary school, who would read aloud to the class every night: Dickens, Pooh, The Wind in the Willows. And at secondary modern there was Miss Morris: "She taught us about the Greeks and the Romans and the gods and symbolism and metaphor." She also took them through Wilde and Milton, getting the class to enact Comus as a masque.

In spite of their encouragement and her own bookish inclinations, Sue left school at 14. She says that to her working-class family there was never any question of staying on; but the books themselves played a part: "I could not wait to grow up. Because I was reading - it just sounds so pretentious, but I was reading the classics. You know, there's a big world out there. If you read Madame Bovary and Dostoevsky, you're not going to be wanting to stay on at school."

She took jobs on the basis of how much reading she would be able to get done. For a while, she was a garage forecourt attendant, sitting in a tiny cubicle and getting through a Penguin a day. She lost a job in an upmarket clothes shop when she was caught reading The Ballad of Reading Gaol in one of the changing rooms. "I had to read," she says. "It was an illness at that time."

Later, married with young children, she took an evening job selling hot-dogs from a van: "The van would be driven to the bus station at eight o'clock, and then I would have usually about two hours, two and a half hours, before the drunks came out of pubs, when I could more or less read, more or less uninterrupted. I've still got the books I read on the hot-dog van. They're all spattered with grease and ketchup." For somebody so devoted to literature, not being able to read must be unbearable. "Unbearable," she agrees: "But the unbearable must be borne."

It is not coincidental that in the new book, Adrian's gay best friend, Nigel, is losing his sight. Some of the sharper jokes revolve around other people's reactions - Adrian is disappointed that Nigel won't be able to help him decorate his new loft-style apartment: "He used to be good with colours." Nigel represents, Townsend says, "the less acceptable face of blindness... He's very bitter." She is herself remarkably stoical: "It didn't seem" - she gropes around for the appropriate word - "unfamiliar. It kind of felt familiar to me. I always felt as if I'd been kind of waiting for it. Because what had happened to me in my life had been so extraordinary, so amazing - I became a professional writer, I mean... I come back to my early training with Miss Morris and the gods: What they give they also take away."

Her blindness has affected her writing in more subtle ways. She now has to dictate to her husband, Colin: "He has to read it back to me, sometimes as many as, I don't know, 12, 15 times, and he has to be endlessly patient. And he is." The result is a new strain of realism. "I've reined myself back, and I think I've done that because I now have to dictate. And when you speak things aloud they reverberate, and you think 'Shit. I can't make him do that.'" He still does some stupid things, and the text is still littered with comedy names like Gary Milksop, but the book has a new seriousness and a thread of genuine pathos, both in Adrian's personal relationships and in the running political commentary. As the title hints, the book is concerned with the Iraq war, and Townsend's views are expressed far too directly to qualify as satire.

What this means for the future of Adrian Mole is hard to say. After the last book, Townsend said in an interview that she'd deliberately left open the possibility of a sequel. But the end of WMD has a valedictory feel, and she admits to finding the prospect of a return less tempting. After all, once we have imagined Adrian happy, what is left?

Biography: Sue Townsend

Sue Townsend was born in Leicester in 1946 and left school at 14. She married at 18, and by 25 was alone with her three children. Work with an adventure playground led her to enrol on a canoeing course. She met Colin Broadway on the first day: they have now been a couple for nearly 30 years, and have a daughter. At the last count, she had six granddaughters and one grandson. In 1978, she joined the Writers Group at Leicester's Phoenix Arts Centre. Out of this came her first play, Womberang, which won her a Thames TV bursary. Her other stage plays include Bazaar and Rummage and The Great Celestial Cow. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 was first broadcast on Radio 4 in 1982: Mole went on to star in a television series and five books, all of which have been translated into numerous languages; more than 10 million Mole books have now been sold. Townsend's other novels include The Queen and I and Ghost Children.