Sue Townsend: Writing-off the growing pains
She lost her sight and had to 'borrow' a kidney from her son, but Adrian Mole's creator has managed to keep smiling, and busy. Her latest novel is out this week. Paul Bignell meets Sue Townsend
So, Sue Townsend has had a kidney replaced. Everything hurts and then there's the blindness, inconvenient for a writer: even more so for an international best-seller. She could be forgiven for being a little grumpy at the hand fate has dealt her. But oh no, not her: "Who am I to get angry?" She has only herself to blame: "I'm largely the architect of my own misfortune."
She ticks off a checklist of ailments, almost cheerfully: "I've got the kidneys; sight; my hydraulics system doesn't work properly. I've got neuropathy in my limbs, oh and Charcot joint. They're the main ones." She greets them with admirable sangfroid.
As her brainchild Adrian Mole, aged 13¾, celebrates its 30th anniversary – 10 million copies in 40 languages – her primary concern when we meet seems to be whether my hands have suffered in the perishing cold outside. Aged 64¾ herself, she titters and chortles like a teenage schoolgirl at just about everything.
She ushers me into the study of her grand Edwardian house in central Leicester. This is where she writes. More accurately, this is where she dictates and her eldest son, Sean, does the writing. This, and donating a kidney to her some years ago, puts him among some of the better offspring the world has known, though he insists it is still his kidney.
Next to the writing desk a large stack of boxes, advance copies of her new novel, teeter haphazardly. Prints of her past book covers adorn the walls. It's unmistakably a writer's den: bric-a-brac, detritus and travel souvenirs are there, along with masses of books scattered everywhere.
She pulls on a pair of sunglasses to cut the light which is hurting her eyes and suddenly she looks glamorous: a multimillionaire, literary superstar who mingled with Monty Python and the London literary set in the 1980s. She has taken drink with Jeffrey Bernard and Richard Ingrams. The late John Mortimer was one of her earliest champions. At one time she never left home without her passport, in case an editor were to call up and demand 1,000 words post haste from the beaches of Bermuda.
"I always have this image," she explains "of a woman running across a desert carrying children, trying to find water and food, not knowing when they'll get that. And her feet are slashed up from the dry, hard earth.... Even when I'm uncomfortable, sometimes in pain, or just cold... I think, thank God for what I've got."
Here, perhaps, is the key to her adjustment, her coming to terms with what many would view as devastating loss: she says that being blind means the brain often throws up wonderful vivid images without warning.
"I was talking to my daughter about happiness the other day and I said, 'it's the feeling I got when I was a kid, seeing that first conker come out of its prickly, outer-green shell. I always associate that with happiness. The image of that beautiful brown conker....' There's nothing in the unnatural world that is more beautiful."
That kind of happiness, or its lack, informs the subject of her new book: The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year. Eva, its central character, is in a loveless marriage. She climbs into bed one day not long after her two children have left for university and stays there. She ruminates over her life and gives up on the pressures of modern living.
The book is full of Townsend's trademark observation, acerbic wit and kitchen-sink realism. But, in places, it is so dark it leaves one wondering whether Eva is struggling with mental illness.
The author doesn't think so: "She's just doing what she wants to do. What she's doing looks mad and eccentric to the outside world, but I don't think she's mentally ill. She's probably been slightly depressed and exhausted since her twins were born. She knows she's in the wrong marriage but she's been too timid and too cowardly all her life."
"Her and her husband have probably been saying to themselves 'when the twins leave we'll separate'. A lot of middle-aged couples do that, or fail to do it because the prospect of buying another house and starting again at 50 is too much. This is how politics impacts on our lives: housing is no longer cheap, jobs are being closed."
Townsend often draws politics into the conversation, especially themes of fairness. Wanting rid of the Tories in the 1980s and 1990s, she embraced New Labour, but confesses to not liking Blair early on – "I didn't think he'd last long, actually. I thought he was a very strange man." And like many people, soon to become disillusioned, the Iraq war was too big a division.
The issue of "fairness" derives from her working-class background where, despite going to what she calls a "posh" school, she lived in a prefab on the outskirts of Leicester. The rich kids were told not to hang around with the prefab kids and she was laughed at for being one of the "free lunch" lot, who had to pay with tokens.
Born in Leicester in 1946, she says her generation was one of the last to truly be free. She would often play in abandoned buildings and pick fruit without the concern for today's myriad dangers.
Leaving school at 14 – she was an Easter leaver – she wanted the glamorous life-style of the France of the late Fifties she had once seen in a movie – the dark sunglasses, the cigarette holder, the three-quarter length black leather gloves and the Vesper scooter, not realising you needed a licence before you could ride one.
Leaving home at 15 through a desire to "grow up quickly", she worked in a series of low-skilled jobs. She was a dreamer and her escapism was, of course, played out through literature.
"We had library books in our house, but not our own. So you had 14 days to read them. There would be eight books a fortnight in our house and I'd read as many of those as I could." She later made the best of working on a garage forecourt because they gave her a duffel coat which had pockets the perfect size for a paperback.
She soon began to write herself – mainly plays. Growing up near Joe Orton, who lived on the Saffron estate, she handed a play of hers to his brother, Dougie, to see if the playwright would read it. She never found out whether he did or not.
She was married to her first husband just a week after her 18th birthday, and gave birth to her first child at 19. She was terrified, she admits.
As a busy young mother, she began to write, but always in secret, keeping piles of manuscripts under the stairs. Her husband didn't know. "I was too shy – I didn't think they were any good to show anyone."
She was wrong, of course. Adrian Mole has grown older with his army of readers. He has spawned TV shows, a radio play and seven sequels. It might not have been so: moving to London having secured a publishing deal, Townsend very nearly killed poor Mole off before he'd had a chance to burst his first pimple. "I almost rang the publisher up and asked him not to carry on with it. I didn't think he'd be popular.
"I also tried to take my name off it as I thought it would spoil the whole point of it being a secret diary, and I asked him to use a different name, especially as it had a woman's name on it. But my publisher said: 'My dear, to write a book is a wonderful thing. You will be proud of it one day'."
'The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year' is published on 1 March by Penguin/Michael Joseph (£18.99)
Curriculum Vitae: The story so far
1946 Born in Leicester, the eldest of five sisters. Her father, John, is a postman and Grace, her mother, a bus conductor.
1960 She leaves school at 14 and begins work in a garage forecourt.
1964 Marries first husband, Keith, a sheet-metal worker. Has three children by the time she is 22.
1978 Meets her current husband, Colin Broadway, who encourages her to join a writer's group in Leicester.
1979 Her first short play, Womberang, set in a gynaecological waiting room, is staged at Soho Poly Theatre.
1981 Wins her first award, the Thames Television Playwright Award, for Womberang.
1982 Her first book The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ becomes the best-selling new British fiction book of the 1980s.
1985 The Secret Diaries... is made into an ITV series.
2001 She is registered blind, due to complications arising from her diabetes.
2007 Is given honorary doctorates by the University of Leicester and Loughborough University.
2009 Receives a kidney from her son Sean, 47.
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