Sue Townsend dead: Her hero has aged, her books haven’t - the Adrian Mole generation remembers author


Click to follow
The Independent Online

His was a life of torment, albeit more imagined than real, that of a suburban warrior – the Harry Potter for the Dream Topping generation - fighting for love, fame and spot-free skin on the mean streets of Leicester.

It was a battle joined by millions of devoted followers from the gloomy doldrums of the Thatcher recession and stuck with through the hope and let down of a New Labour dawn.

Sue Townsend Dies, Aged 58

If his creator had lived only a few months longer, it was a saga set to enjoy at least one more hurrah with a now 40-something Adrian Mole featuring as a destitute and disenchanted Liberal Democrat still yearning for the unobtainable beauty of Pandora Braithwaite.

The death of writer Sue Townsend, aged 68, after a short illness, was marked yesterday by a huge outpouring of warmth and sympathy for a writer who created one of the great tragicomic characters of the modern age. She sold 20 million copies of her breakthrough novel, written whilst juggling part time work and child care, which went on to be translated into more than 30 languages.

Among those paying tribute was JK Rowling, another onetime cash-strapped single mother and wannabe author, whose boy star similarly brought celebrity, riches and joy to the reading public.


“She gave me so many laughs,” Rowling recalled on Twitter joining thousands of others to use the social networking to proclaim the immortality of Mole.

Ms Townsend’s publisher revealed yesterday that a new book preliminarily entitled Pandora’s Box had not just been in the pipeline but in the actual process of being written.

“The book was planned for publication in autumn, but we have only seen a few wonderful pages,” a spokesman for Penguin confirmed.

In her last interviews the author had described herself as “in the thinking phase” of producing a 10th instalment of the series to be set against a backdrop of post-financial meltdown austerity

She told the Hay Festival in 2012 it would be about “how people are managing to cope with a huge loss of normal income”.

Beneath the comic genius of her work and the guileless Mole’s endless ability for unwitting and hilarious self-parody, politics and the lives of ordinary working class people were ever-present.

In the preface to The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾, first published in 1982, she signals her ambition.

Quoting another great writer of the English east midlands – DH Lawrence – she invites us to compare the impending travails of adolescent hero to those of Paul Morel, the chief protagonist from Sons and Lovers, one of the towering figures of English literature who, like the bespectacled teenager, walks “with something screwed up tight inside him”.

Fellow writers acknowledged Townsend’s unique gift. A lifelong socialist, she had escaped grinding poverty but never lost touch with or affection for her background.  

Author Linda Grant said: “Sue Townsend did social satire without contempt and cruelty. She always felt to the reader like one of us", whilst poet Ian McMillan said she “understood the rhythms of 'ordinary' speech and how magnificent and life-affirming they are”.

Crime writer Ian Rankin described her death as “a real loss” whilst Caitlin Moran said she was “one of the funniest women who ever lived”.

Townsend continued to write despite her well publicised health problems. She suffered from diabetes resulting in blindness and had to undergo a kidney transplant.

Her agent Jonathan Lloyd of Curtis Brown described her as a “living miracle”. “The sadness is we won’t have any more new Sue Townsend books, but we will have so many memories. And new fans will discover her work too,” he said.

Actor Stephen Mangan, who played Adrian Mole in a 2001 television adaptation, said like many he had grown up with Mole.

“There was something really special about Sue. She was a hero of mine when I read the books as an adolescent - I was pretty much the same age as Adrian - but when I met her I just fell in love with her really,” he said.

As well as proving the biggest selling comedy book of the 1980s – and paving the way for the similarly angsty Bridget Jones’s Diary – Adrian Mole made a seamless transfer to the screen having received its first airing as a radio play.

The 1985 Thames Television adaptation perfectly captured the censorious, self-righteousness of youth – complete with an Ian Dury sung title track and Julie Walters as his dysfunctional mother Pauline.

Townsend was later to say that Mole embodied the worst of her characteristics. She was also to suggest that the books were written for the enjoyment of parents (modelled on the experience of bringing up four children) rather than sebum-oozing teens.

It was unclear whether the pages of Pandora’s Box would ever be published.