INTERVIEW / Secret passions of a republican mole: Sue Townsend explains why she killed off the Queen Mother in a council house

'I was angry when I was a child and I realised there was no God. It was in Assembly; we were all singing away and suddenly I absolutely knew for certain that it was all lies and people were deceiving themselves. As God went together with the Royal Family, I was frightened that people believed in it all, the whole package, and I must be the only one with these feelings. It was a moment of revelation, but at the same time it would have been wicked ever to mention it.

'It also had to do with being taught about infinity, which I found mind-boggling. It made me feel we were all tiny, tiny specks: and if I was, then they - the Royal Family - were, too. When you hear the word 'subjects' and find out what 'to subject' yourself means, it diminishes us all. It means you're nothing. It's so demeaning. But in those days it was unthinkable ever to criticise the Royal Family.'

Those precocious revelations (in the late Fifties, she thinks, so she would have been about 12) were the germ of Sue Townsend's new book, The Queen and I, an angry and astonishingly timely satire. It relates what happens when a Republican Party comes to power and the Queen and her family are rehoused on a council estate in the Midlands. Their attempts to adjust to a savagely diminished standard of living are related in cool, controlled prose, both witty and merciless. Here is the Queen's first morning in Hell Close:

'There was no hot water in the icy bathroom, so she washed in cold . . . How very awkward it was to dress oneself, how fiddly buttons were] Why did zips stick so? How on earth did one choose what went with what? She thought of the corridors lined with closets where her clothes used to hang in colour-co- ordinated rows. She missed the deft fingers of her dresser fastening her brassiere. How did other women cope with those hooks and eyes? One needed to be a contortionist to bring the two together without assistance. When the Queen was dressed, she had a terrific sense of achievement. She wanted to tell somebody . . .'

Sue Townsend is the eldest of three daughters. Her parents were bus conductors in Leicester, where she still lives. She left school aged 15 with no qualifications ('In most of my lessons I felt worthless and stupid'). She married at 18. By the time she was 25 she had three children, and her husband had left her. At 40 she was a multi-millionairess.

Let us try to do the sums. Adrian Mole, in his various manifestations, has sold - she reckons - seven million copies. His Diary was the top-selling book of the Eighties, outperforming Hips and Thighs and Kane and Abel. Say she makes an average of 40p on each paperback copy (she will have earned less on the first 10,000 hardbacks, and probably rather more on every paperback copy after the first 50,000). To round it all up, assume seven million 40ps, which comes to pounds 2.8m. Add another pounds 2m for foreign rights and sales (it has been translated into Japanese and Serbo-Croat and all languages between) plus all the usual spin-offs such as serialisation and follow-ups. Take away 10 per cent agent's fee, plus appropriate taxation, and Sue Townsend has still cleared at least pounds 2.5m, probably a good deal more.

She is modest, direct and unassuming, but it would be a mistake to imagine that she struck lucky, found the right formula, and lo] millions dropped into her lap. It would be a mistake to underestimate her in any way. Her success was no fluke. She had worked in secret for many years, writing and discarding tens of thousands of words. ('The stuff wasn't good enough. I wanted to write like Dostoevsky.')

The Queen and I shows evidence of meticulous research, without being overloaded with detail. 'I read lots of cringingly horrible sycophantic books about the Royal Family, especially old books from car boot sales. I read all about her clothes and her jewellery, even though I used hardly any of it. That fact that Britannia costs pounds 30,000 a day to maintain shocked me most, so I did keep that in, but very little else. And Philip's sisters married serving German officers but it was never spoken of. He bored me, so I made him a bed-ridden depressive in the book. He strikes me as a very one-dimensional man who doesn't like to admit that he's supported by his wife. There's so much to come out about Philip.' She looks wistful. 'But I just dropped a few hints. Kitty Kelley's doing his biography. That'll tell it all. Up till now he's been too close to the Queen, but I think even that taboo is cracking.

'I know I'm going to have to defend myself against people who think the book is disrespectful. The sky's going to fall in on me because I'm the person who killed off the Queen Mum.'

'The vicar stood at the Queen Mother's bedside and muttered inaudibly about heaven and hell and sin and love. The Queen Mother opened her eyes and said, 'I didn't want to marry him, you know. He had to ask me three times, I was in love with somebody else]' She closed her eyes again.

Margaret said, 'She doesn't know what she's saying; she adored Daddy.' '

If diligent research enables Sue Townsend to write convincingly about the Royal Family, it is from personal experience that she draws details of life on the council estate. She has been so broke that she had to walk to the offices of the DSS and beg for money to feed her children over the weekend - and was denied it, an experience she recounted with rage in a 1989 Chatto CounterBlast about the Welfare State called Mr Bevan's Dream. She knows the compromises, the accommodations, the lies and pride and shame and squalor at the bottom of the social pile.

'I've worked on estates like Hell Close as an adventure playground worker and as a community worker on a tower block estate, and the most important thing I learnt is that people can be both good and wicked at the same time. On the very worst estates there are people who are . . .' she pauses and searches for a word, lighting yet another cigarette as she does so, '. . . central characters. They can lay out a body or deliver a baby. They don't get honoured by anybody, but they're unofficial saints. They are usually women, though sometimes men, and they lift the community.

'Yet nowadays, even some of the most central rules - like, you don't shit on your own patch - have broken down. The young have started to steal from their neighbours. A lot of them aren't working, and it's not possible to live on pounds 30 a week and look presentable and keep yourself open to the possibility of getting a job. So there's a huge underground economy in which people clean windows for cash and flog stuff in pubs. Society is being massively criminalised. People in work do it too: the builder who wants to be paid cash-in-hand so as to avoid VAT. But the poor are more visible, so they're easier to find. You read of women on family support who clean a few evenings a week to make extra quid, and get prosecuted for earning illegally. I really am angry with the Conservatives for criminalising the country. It's so easy to pontificate, so hard to live life at the bottom.'

Townsend has always crossed the class divide by being impossible to pigeonhole. 'People I've known for ever always considered that I spoke differently. None of our family used Leicester dialect, though the accent is always there - I say 'buth' and 'coop' for bath and cup - but I've always loved using words, just as I love writing words, making the shapes. I love to use an inky pen and nice smooth paper. I think in sentences, and did so as a child, but I learnt to keep it to myself because it used to alarm people, especially my friends. Books always were, and still are, my passion.'

This is obvious the moment one enters her house. Every room is piled high with books: not, on the whole, new, but second-hand books, jumble sale books, grubby- paged and random books. She reads for two or three hours every day. My eye lights upon John Updike's Rabbit at Rest and I ask what she thought of it. 'It's a great, great book. He's the most incredibly truthful writer, and he makes the domestic grand and full of majesty.' What an amazing way to describe Updike: tender and accurate and original.

Her house in a leafy Leicester suburb is Edwardian; larger than it looks from the road, with four spacious downstairs rooms including a vast kitchen piled with the debris of the family's holiday washing; homely and ramshackle and welcoming. Every room is a temple to bric-a-brac, as though she had bought everything from every Oxfam catalogue. There are hand-made wall hangings and indeterminate pottery containers; miniature Easter Island statues and china ladies in crinolines, painted Russian wine glasses and olde worlde cottages; children's drawings and messages and photographs and reproductions of paintings by Crivelli and Raphael. The furniture is old without being antique. The floors are covered with astounding rugs. In her study is a Bakhtiari garden carpet worth several thousand pounds.

Unprompted, she offers me lunch, and presses gooey pastries on me afterwards, insisting that since she was diagnosed diabetic all her visitors eat the cakes she is now forbidden. I squelch through a chocolate eclair, and she averts her eyes. She smokes, guiltily. From her study the noise of children shrieking in a nearby playground can clearly be heard. She lives in comfort, but it isn't luxury and it certainly isn't seclusion. Nor has she bought a house in some foreign countryside. Sue Townsend has stayed very close to her Leicester roots.

Her clothes are classless, too. She wears a white (brand-new) T- shirt and jeans (very well cut) and pretty lavender suede flat shoes with gilt teddies dancing across the front. Her hair is a bit too careful and her figure a bit too trim for the average Leicester mum in her mid-forties, but other than that she would probably still pass unnoticed in the launderette. She shows less evidence of enormous riches than I would have thought possible. One drawback of fame is the number of letters she receives from strangers. With the help of her sister, Kate, who acts as her secretary, she answers them all.

'When the first Mole book was published in 1982, nobody thought it would sell. When I found they were going to print 3,000 copies in hardback I rang up my editor and asked him not to do so many. I could see my friends laughing at it in the remaindered bins. But Methuen are very good on humour and my editor likes dealing with rank outsiders and he thought it would make a lot of people laugh - but not seven million.

'When I started the first Mole I was divorced and responsible for three children. After I left school I'd worked in a garage serving petrol - I loved that because I could read between customers; in a dress shop; I'd even sold encyclopaedias, to my great shame. I did anything that was unskilled - selling hot dogs - anything. It was all so free then] You could walk out of a job at lunchtime and into another that same afternoon.'

She went on a playwriting course in her spare time from being a playgroup organiser, and started to write plays at the end of the Seventies. Her first was picked up by an agent called Janet Fillingham. 'She used to make a progress round the British Isles looking for new writers. She wrote to me and said, 'I would like to represent you.' That was such a thrilling moment] Mole began as a play on Radio 4 and after that the publishers asked me to write it as a book.'

Was that the decisive moment in her life? 'The most decisive thing I've ever done I think was not to do with work, but falling in love. I was convinced I was right, against all the odds; absolutely convinced that I wanted to live with him for the rest of my life. I wasn't married but he was, so I resisted it, in the sense that I kept away from him. I thought it might fade. I didn't do anything at all to engineer a meeting or have any contact with him. I had never spoken to him, but I'd been in love with him for a year before he asked me to go out on a date.

'I was working on the adventure playground at the time and he hadn't thought about me or particularly noticed me, and he still doesn't know why he drove across Leicester to the other side of town to ask me for a drink. It was extraordinary, and I still think it's extraordinary: to have one date, and to know this is it. That was 17 years ago, and we've been together ever since. I'm very pleased to say that his wife is now extremely happily remarried.

'He and I are very different people. I can only think there was something in him that I responded to on an extremely primitive level. To me he's good-looking, but he isn't conventionally good-looking. He builds canoes. But there's just something in him that I immediately fell for. He 'fits his skin', as the French say; he appears totally at ease with himself. He's incapable of artifice.'

Their daughter, Elizabeth, was born in 1977 but Sue and Colin did not marry until 1986, after Sue had suffered, and recovered from, a heart attack. That brought her face to face with mortality. 'It's quite a good thing to come close to your own death; you think, 'My God, that was a near thing]' So we decided not to hang about, but to get married.

'Of course, with four children and now three grandchildren, we have our ups and downs, but I have managed to detach myself a bit from the children and I think when that process is finished we'll be even happier. You never stop caring about them and thinking about them, but I force myself to accept that they are grown up and must make their own decisions. It's so tempting to say, for God's sake pay your car tax before you buy that leather coat or whatever, but I try not to.

'If I come home and Colin's car isn't outside it's like a blow. I just long to see him. I do think this is extremely rare - I wish it weren't. I make a point of saying to myself, 'I'm happy'. I think you should recognise it while it's actually happening, not just in retrospect.'

So what word would she use to describe her relationship with Colin now? She searches for the exact word. 'Passion,' she says.

(Photograph omitted)

Voices
voices
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
arts + ents
Sport
Laura Trott with her gold
Commonwealth GamesJust 48 hours earlier cyclist was under the care of a doctor
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
arts + entsFilmmaker posted a picture of Israeli actress Gal Gadot on Twitter
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel
arts + entsPrince Oberyn nearly sets himself on fire with a flaming torch
News
Danny Nickerson, 6, has received 15,000 cards and presents from well-wishers around the world
newsDanny loves to see his name on paper, so his mother put out a request for cards - it went viral
Sport
France striker Loic Remy
sportThe QPR striker flew to Boston earlier in the week to complete deal
News
Orville and Keith Harris. He covered up his condition by getting people to read out scripts to him
People
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana stars in this summer's big hope Guardians of the Galaxy
filmHollywood's summer blockbusters are no longer money-spinners
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Life and Style
Workers in Seattle are paid 100 times as much as workers in Bangladesh
fashionSeattle company lets customers create their own clothes, then click 'buy' and wait for delivery
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Data Analyst

    £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable software house is looking ...

    Application Support Analyst / Junior SQL Server DBA

    £40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established professional services...

    Commercial Litigation

    Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - SENIOR COMMERCIAL LITIGATION SO...

    BI Developer - Sheffield - £35,000 ~ £40,000 DOE

    £35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

    Day In a Page

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried