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

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones