Obituary: Sue Townsend, 1946 – 2014

Posted on: June 15, 2014

Previously published in Dawn Books & Authors.

I was 11 or so when I discovered The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 and 3/4s, first published in 1982. It was the first book that made me laugh out loud, even though I didn’t know where the “home counties” were, even though I wasn’t even certain what it meant when one character told another that she’d love him for as long as “Britain has Gibraltar”; my parents weren’t having affairs with the neighbours, they didn’t get the dog drunk and what on earth was Lucozade? It didn’t matter. None of it mattered. All that mattered was that Sue Townsend had created this ridiculous, bumbling, entertaining character with such great affection and skill that it was impossible not to love him too.

I obviously wasn’t the only Pakistani who connected with Townsend’s books, no matter how different the lives she wrote about may have been from mine as a child. At the news of her death on April 10th, my social media feeds flooded with Pakistani friends and colleagues expressing their sadness at the writer’s death, a writer who had given each of them great joy via Adrian Mole, her most famous (he would’ve liked to have been infamous, perhaps) character: Adrian Mole of Ashby de la Zouch, Adrian Mole of the dysfunctional East Midlands working-class English family, Adrian Mole who was every delusional teenager, every underdog, every misunderstood, angst-ridden self-proclaimed intellectual ever. If you were too self-conscious to admit you felt your acne defined you, you needn’t worry — Adrian wasn’t. Too ashamed to admit your parents were yobs, your best friend was better off than you, the love of your life thought you were a newt? Don’t worry, Adrian wasn’t. Too cool to admit you too have the same boring, stinky, rotten, hormonal problems every average teen did? Yeah, Adrian had that covered with aplomb.

The Adrian Mole books have sold 10 million copies worldwide, been translated into 48 languages, and continue to reach people even now — not just because of a spotty, angst-ridden teenager with delusions of grandeur, but because in the Adrian Mole diaries, Townsend found her true voice, one of perfect satire with which she could say everything she wanted about the state, about family life in her part of England, and yet remain absolutely entertaining. She found great joy in the absurd and never failed to create warm, nuanced characters, whether they were the people around Adrian, or the characters in any of her other novels.

“As a writer she had the brilliant and enviable skill of making characters seem ridiculous (which any writer can do) but at the same time making you love them for their faults (which most writers can’t do),” wrote fellow Leicester writer Graham Joyce, soon after Sue Townsend’s death. He described her as a “local hero in Leicester. She was all about helping others and was a champion of the idea of the Welfare State … [and] an enemy of the compassion-free greed that some would like to make the signature of this country.”

Townsend also found success with her stand-alone novels, the last of which, The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year, was published in 2012 and sold over 500,000 copies in the UK alone. And though she wrote over a dozen novels, a dozen plays and a great deal of journalism, she will be remembered best for creating Adrian Mole, whose life she chronicled until his 40s, when Adrian continues to try and resolve the complications in his life, still stressed, still depressed but no less hilarious in 2009’s The Prostrate Years. Townsend used her own illness to create a sweet, evocative and funny story about two of her beloved characters navigating life with cancer and blindness.

Sue Townsend had long suffered multiple health complications, having a heart attack in her 30s, trying to live with diabetes but eventually losing her sight to it in the ’90s and then experiencing diabetes-related kidney failure in 2009. Her eldest son Sean became her typist when she was unable to write and was forced to dictate her work instead. He also donated a kidney to her in 2009, but her health continued to weaken and she suffered a stroke in 2013. Since her death earlier this month after another stroke, reports have come in claiming Townsend had been working on her ninth Adrian Mole novel, tentatively titled Pandora’s Box.

It takes rare talent to create a character who, despite his adolescent misery, is loved by everyone who has read him: such was Sue Townsend’s comic genius. No matter how bad you had it, no matter how much acne marked your face, how many people had made fun of you that day or how insane your parents were being, no matter how sad and miserable you were, Adrian would always be worse off than you. And you loved him for it. “Perhaps when I am famous and my diary is discovered people will understand the torment of being a 13¾-year-old undiscovered intellectual,” wrote Townsend in Adrian’s voice, echoing the thoughts of a million teenagers across the globe.

“Adrian Mole, c’est moi,” as Sue Townsend herself said.