It was with great sadness that I heard of the death of Sue Townsend on 10 April 2014.
I’d caught it as a Tweet on Twitter just before going to bed but couldn’t find any confirmation until the next day, when it was all over the newspapers and internet. Tributes were pouring in for a woman who caught the imagination of not just one generation but of many.
I’ve spent the first part of the Easter weekend devouring the book that made her a household name: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4. It’s the 30th anniversary edition and it contains some fascinating information about Townsend’s journey to becoming a bestselling author. I’d had no idea that:
- she had left school aged 15 because she said her parents couldn’t afford the uniform for her to go to the local grammar schools to take exams
- one of the most famous diaries of recent times started off as a secret writing project, and the very John Tydeman, who Adrian writes regularly to with his attempts at poetry, championed it at the BBC
- Adrian was originally called Nigel but Townsend was persuaded, with difficulty, to change it after BBC people pointed out it was too similar to Nigel Molesworth. Before Townsend arrived at Adrian, she experimented with the name ‘Malcolm’ but rejected it, saying that it reminded her of blocked sinuses
- Sue Townsend had originally written the diary as reading material for adults, despite the age of the main protagonist
- she had become a virtual recluse towards the end of her life because of ill health and what she called ‘late-onset shyness’.
I first read The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 when I was around the same age, and certainly in the mid-1980s soon after I moved over here from Canada. The books were a joy to me – pure comedy and so evocative of the times I was growing up in. I felt both sympathy and frustration for the wannabe-intellectual, who pestered Malcolm Muggeridge for information on what it was like to be an intellectual, and who badgered the kind John Tydeman with his dreadful poetry. His teenage angst, heightened by raging hormones, lust over Pandora, acne (which he mistakes for Lassa Fever) and the insecurity that many if not most teens feel, rang true and I was staggered that a middle-aged woman could capture this so well. Townsend did say to her publishers that she didn’t want her name on the book cover precisely for this reason: ‘It was supposed to be written by a 13 3/4-year-old boy. It seemed stupid to have my name on it.’
Returning to the book several decades later, and it still seems fresh to me. I still laugh aloud at Adrian’s ineptitude and his seriousness. This is one of my favourite passages:
Thursday January 22nd
It is a dirty lie about Pandora’s father being a milkman! He is an accountant at the dairy. Pandora says she will duff Nigel up if he goes round committing libel. I am in love with her again.
Nigel has asked me to go to a disco at the youth club tomorrow night; it is being held to raise funds for a new packet of ping pong balls. I don’t know if I will go because Nigel is a punk at weekends. His mother lets him be one, providing he wears a string vest under his bondage T shirt.
My mother has got an interview for a job. She is practising her typing and not doing any cooking. So what will it be like if she gets the job? My father should put his foot down before we are a broken home.’
For all his aspirations to intellectualism, Adrian is still very provincial and narrow-minded and this is what gives the books much of their irony. Take, for example, his comments on his mother’s disillusionment with marriage: ‘… she said that for some women marriage was like being in prison…Marriage is nothing like being in prison! Women are let out every day to go to the shops and stuff…’ Later he gets a worse shock when she cuts her hair off, wears boiler suits (sometimes with sequins) and joins a feminist group.
Similarly, his despair at not being able to do his maths homework drives him to calling the Samaritans for help. ‘The nice man at the end of the phone told me the answer was nine-eighths. He was dead kind to someone in despair…’ only to later lament the help: ‘The stupid Samaritan got the answer wrong! It’s only seven-fifths.’ For all his attempts at intellectual loftiness (reading and not understanding Iris Murdoch, for example), Adrian still remains quite sheltered and, dare I say it, mediocre.
Adrian as a teenager nowadays
In the notes at the back of the 30th anniversary edition, Sue Townsend is asked what Adrian would be like if he were a teen nowadays. She replies: ‘He would be exactly the same, but he wouldn’t be using Twitter … He would keep a secret diary. … He would not use social networking.’ As someone who does use Facebook and Twitter and has a blog, I feel strangely happy about this revelation. Perhaps this is because Adrian Mole represents a certain time in my life when these activities weren’t even dreamt of and teens did other things, like go to Ricky Lemon’s Youth Club and have slide shows on wombs cut in half as a form of sex education (actually, I never experienced anything like that). It’s strange that, despite the lack of social media in the Adrian Mole books, they still feel timeless. Or maybe they do to old-timers like me.
RIP Sue Townsend, and thank you for the memories and the laughs.
image courtesy of i.telegraph.co.uk
Quotes are taken from: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 (30th anniversary edition), published by Puffin in 2012, first published by Townsend in 1982.