Sue Townsend: 'I often write about my faults'
The tortuous life of Adrian Mole reflects the feelings and doubts of his creator, Sue Townsend. She talks to Christina Patterson
Friday 28 November 2008
I've got this big fear," says Sue Townsend, "of being boring." Ah yes, well, you would have, wouldn't you? If you had created a character which became a book which became a bestseller 26 years ago and which, eight books later, was still a bestseller now. If your books had sold more than eight million copies and been translated into more than 40 languages. If you were widely hailed as Britain's leading comic novelist, and had the supernatural ability to wrench even the famous Paxman sneer into a smile. Yes, of course you'd worry about being boring.
"I'm not a very good friend," she explains. "I'm always convinced that if I ring people, it's going to be in the middle of some important row, or piece of work, so I withdraw before I get boring." She is sitting on a purple velvet chair in front of a giant wooden giraffe. Behind her, in the garden, a squirrel is playing on the grass. Behind the squirrel, there are chickens. A daughter, Lizzie, wanders in with a cup of tea, and so, later, does a schoolfriend, to get a book signed for an auction for a hospice, and so, later, does a giant dog called Bill. There are books everywhere, and computers, and radios. If boredom was an occasional affliction for Adrian Mole, 13 3/4, I doubt it is much of one for Sue Townsend, 62 3/4 – or, indeed, for anyone who knows her.
In place of the wizened creature in a wheelchair I'd been half-expecting, wearing dark glasses and tapping, perhaps, with a stick, I find a sprightly middle-aged woman in a stripy dress and jaunty boots, with red nails and matching lipstick. If Townsend – who was registered blind in 2001 as a result of complications from her diabetes – has to hold on to the furniture to navigate her way across a room, she's hardly immobile, and if she can't look you in the eye when she's talking, she can certainly look you in the face. The only sign of the dialysis she receives three times a week is a big plaster poking out behind the neckline on her dress. There is a wheelchair in the hall, but she doesn't, she says, use it in the house.
"Jeffrey Bernard was a big friend," she says. "Well, obviously, until he died. We both had diabetes. We used to joke about who'd have their leg off first. It was him. I don't really know what we had in common. I think he saw Adrian Mole as the kind of bookish boy he was, because that's what Mole is, he's bookish and observant. He did love the Adrian Mole books and he could quote from them." Well, if Jeffrey Bernard, bastion of the boho, Soho, anti-establishment is one of your biggest fans, and Richard Ingrams, prince of the Private Eye curmudgeons, calls your character "a true hero of our time", and Jeremy Paxman, Newsnight's resident Rottweiler, described your last Adrian Mole outing as "the funniest book of the year", then you can probably be pretty sure that you've hit a nerve or, to put it more cynically, created a formula that works.
The trouble with formulas is that they can get tired. Richmal Crompton, creator of the Just William books, which were the inspiration for Adrian Mole, kept his boy hero at 11 and, as Townsend says, "there's only so much you can write about a boy of 11. I've kept Adrian going in real time," she explains. "I'm somebody who's fantastically interested in just about everything, and I'm interested in the year we live in now, and the year after that, and Adrian is going to be my barometer, I suppose."
Townsend certainly is interested in everything. When Adrian Mole first burst into the beds and buses and coffee breaks of the nation, in 1982, he was, like many 13-year-olds, concerned with his spots, his passion for a girl at school, and his disappointingly banal parents. As he lurched through adolescence, nursing a secret desire to be a writer and resentment at the indifference of the girl, his parents, and the world to his talents, he offered a window to Thatcher's Britain, its inanities, quirks and aspirations. In "the cappuccino years" of the Nineties, he had a brief glimpse of minor celebritydom as an offal chef in a Soho restaurant before a spell of unemployment and then, in the Noughties, a job in a bookshop that served as a kind of redemption.
Throughout it all, Adrian's Candide-like innocence was the perfect vehicle for a clear-eyed view of a culture and its mores, often touching, sometimes bathetic and nearly always funny. At times, the joke did wear thin, as the pendulum swung from satire to social comedy to what can only be described as caricature. But Paxman wasn't wrong about Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction. It's not just an entertaining glimpse into the psyche and struggles of a sensitive thirtysomething whose aspirations exceed his grasp, it's also a searing indictment of New Labour and its terrible, failed war.
The new book, The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole 1999-2001, ostensibly precedes it, and is actually a collection of columns that Townsend wrote in The Guardian. "It wasn't ever meant to be a book," says Townsend. "It's exactly as it was. I haven't re-read it. It's different in that I usually start with an overall metaphor and work towards it, and I obviously couldn't do that." And how does she think it compares to the others? "I don't," she says a bit nervously, "think I'm the right person to say."
Reviews so far have been favourable, and there is, as always, plenty to enjoy. Now an unemployed single father, Adrian is immobilised by the surfeit of choice in the supermarket, alarmed by Tony Blair's "feminisation" ("his face has softened, his expression is girly, his hands move as gracefully as a geisha's"), envious of Alastair Campbell's full head of hair and humiliated by his inability to assemble Billy bookcases. He wonders whether "the psychological medical establishment" formally recognises "Ikea rage" (and, as the friend of someone who served three months for GBH for punching a man in an Ikea carpark, so do I).
It isn't as funny as the others, actually, and some of it feels more like parody than satire. But as all of us who lurch towards our weekly deadlines with a feeling of sick failure know, it's a lot to expect that the words you vomit out as the clock ticks should be assembled, untouched, and magically cohere into that structurally challenging form, a novel. "My problem is losing focus," says Townsend. "I will often pursue a minor character and lose sight of the main one. It doesn't matter what form I'm pursuing, I've done that for screenplays as well."
On the issue of satire versus caricature, she winces. "It's my weakness," she admits. "I sometimes don't say to myself, 'That's too cheap.' I've got a weakness for comedy names, though I'm fascinated by English surnames. Personally, I don't know how people can go round being called Pigg [one of the characters in the new novel is called Pamela Pigg], but perhaps I shouldn't do it."
Apart from Townsend's extraordinary sensitivity to the zeitgeist and finely attuned ear for the nuances of spoken language across the classes (a talent used to hilarious effect in her royals-move-to-sink-estate novels, The Queen and I and Queen Camilla), perhaps the vital secret ingredient in the lucrative Adrian Mole formula is that most English of qualities, beloved of princes, paupers and newspapers: failure. Poor Adrian tries, and hopes, and aches, and fails. He aspires to a loft apartment (in a credit-crunched conflagration of circumstances, that now seems prophetic) but ends up in a converted piggery. He wants to be John Updike, but stacks his books instead. And we love him. How we love him!
Does she think of herself as an English writer? "Oh, totally. English, as well, not Welsh or Scots. It's to do with a kind of decency, a slight gormlessness." Adrian, she has said in the past, started off as a version of her adolescent self, but where Adrian, from a lower middle-class background, set out to be a writer and failed, Townsend, from a working-class background (her father was a postman) not only succeeded, she became the bestselling writer of the Eighties and, not to put too fine a point on it, extremely rich. So what part of her relates to him now?
"I don't get very much criticism from people," she says. "There are people who have written stuff that I've found really hurtful, but on the whole I feel like a golden Labrador or something, so I often write about my faults. I use Adrian Mole for that. It's a sort of public criticism. I suffer from all the faults. Need for attention, greed, a kind of myopia, really." And does she ever find the criticism of others helpful? There's a pause. "I would from an editor, someone who had my best interests at heart. But the people who have criticised my work in a hurtful way have been people who I've thought, 'God, they hate me, they really hate me.'" What, even people who've loved some of the books and liked others less? People like Paxman? There's another pause. "Yeah, you're right. OK, you're right."
And what of money, success, the thing that took her away from the council estate where she grew up, the estate where many of her friends and relatives still live? At first, Townsend gave the money away, to pretty much anyone who asked. After a while, she stopped. "I realised," she says, "that if you give it away, people resent it, and if you don't give it away, people resent it, so it's an impossible position to be in." And how did she deal with that? Townsend literally wriggles in her chair. "I'm not comfortable with talking about it," she says eventually. "It's not a no-go area, but I just don't know what to say about it."
Her heart, it's clear from her books and a few hours in her company, is still with the people she left behind, the people who go largely unchronicled in literature, the people who are still her friends and of whom she would still be one, if she hadn't, after a series of unskilled jobs as a single mother, joined a writers' group at the Phoenix Art Centre in Leicester and started a new life as a playwright, novelist and literary Frankenstein to a British national treasure. And how, I wonder, does this champion of the loser feel about her own portrayal of the working classes? Is she satisfied?
Townsend, soft-hearted multimillionaire, thin-skinned satirist, now-blind writer who can see much, much more than most, strokes her cheek and looks away. "No," she says, "because I haven't done them justice. I've made them comical characters, which kind of takes the edge away. I would really like to write a book about what it's really like to live on those estates."
So what stops her? Townsend pauses again. "Finding the tone," she says. "I haven't got the characters yet, though God knows," she adds, with a flash of the spirit that crackled a certain adolescent into life, "there's enough to choose from."
'The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole 1999-2001' is published by Michael Joseph, priced £10.99
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