Adrian Mole chronicler Sue Townsend, sold encyclopedias door-to-door

Who could possibly point the finger of scorn at Sue Townsend, creator of everyone's favourite teenager? Who casts the first stone at the satirical author of The Queen and I, a staunch republican but still compassionate about a deposed Royal Family? Sue Townsend, that's who.

"It was so awful, a job I'm always ashamed of having done," she says. "In 1963, I was 17 and living on my own. I used to hang around with Leicester's bohemians - there were 10 of us - and one of my friends used to work for a man called Tosh, who looked like Leslie Phillips, with a moustache and a mock-posh accent. Tosh claimed to represent an educational package called the Parents-Pupils Development Plan. You had to sell this door-to-door; I was really scared by how good I was."

Down the mean streets of Leicester Sue would go, knocking on doors of less well-off citizens and asking: "Do you want your children to do better than you've done?" After the inevitable "yes", she would unfurl a vast chart, packed with happy-looking children and parents, many sporting mortarboards. With her foot in the door, she would enthuse about the Development Plan, which consisted largely of a set of bottom-of-the-range encyclopedias.

"Sometimes they already had encyclopedias; you could tell they were untouched." Sue's job was to get them to agree to see another rep, who'd hand over a free taster book and try to sign them up for payments for the (un-needed) volumes. Incredibly, the poor - in both senses - parents were charged for this dubious privilege. "That's what shocked me: that people were so easy to fool. Tears prick my eyes as I speak," she says. "They would go to the tin on the mantelpiece, take out a one-pound note and hand it over to this teenager. Most of them couldn't keep up the payments.

"A pound was quite a lot then. When I had about £3, I would go and buy some food. I was desperate. I did it during the winter, in the cold and dark; I didn't have an adequate coat."

She lasted less than a month and went to work in a shop. The bogus Development Plan was later exposed by the News of the World. The con man in charge - Tosh by name and tosh by nature - might have inspired unsavoury characters in her fiction. Also, she learnt that "that people would do almost anything for their children". Adrian Mole gives off about his parents but they have his interests at heart. "And it taught me always to have a warm coat."

The experience made Townsend dubious about all sales techniques - even her own in promoting her latest novel, Queen Camilla: "I'm unrolling my wares, not through doors but through radios."

jonty@jonathansale.com

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