25th Jul 2012
In Praise Of: Sue Townsend
Sue Townsend is someone who has altered our national identity for the better and created something that honestly can be described as a national institution, that has changed the shape of our culture while remaining accessible to all.
Townsend’s early life is the typical underdog story; she didn’t learn to read until the age of eight when she was bed-bound with mumps, and began to read the Just William stories.
After leaving school at fifteen with no qualifications she worked numerous unskilled jobs, got married and divorced and had three children, until eventually in 1978 she began work at a youth club.
She revealed at the age of 30 that she had been a secret writer, writing in her spare hours but never daring to show any one her work that would eventually become the foundations of one of the country’s most lasting and successful writing careers.
She became initially recognised for her plays, the first of which, Womberang, was set in a gynaecologist’s waiting room, and which won the Thames Television Playwright Award, and granted her a bursary as Writer in Residence. Throughout the 80s she went on to write further plays, many of which were a huge success.
Of course Townsend is most well known for one particular character: Adrian Mole. Starting the diary at the age of 13 and three quarters, the incredibly simplistic format made Townsend the bestselling author of the 1980s and one of the most loved British authors to have ever graced our bookshelves.
I came across my dear ficitional friend Adrian during college as a found a hard back copy of Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years for three quid in a charity shop. As soon as I’d finished I went right back to the beginning to learn more thoroughly about the child behind the man.
There is something about Adrian that I feel resonates for anyone who considers themselves ‘artistic’, even if they don’t want to admit it. To be a writer you must continually sustain the belief that you have an opinion worth reading about which can lead to some more, ahem, conceited opinions about yourself and your talents.
Adrian’s continued faith that his play “The White Van” (for which he believes Harry Enfield is perfect for the leading role) should be published reflects the viewpoint of many, many writers who genuinely believe they have produced the best piece of work ever written only to be continuously be rejected. Oh, and don’t forget the poetry, the wonderfully awful poetry.
Adrian cannot laugh at himself and that’s what makes him so damn funny. He’s a ridiculous human being, he never emotionally matures, and he is entirely typical of many men and women.
One of my all time favourite elements of any comedic literature is when Adrian’s family apply to be on the Jeremy Kyle show. Of course Adrian could think of nothing worse than his family secrets being aired on TV and his narrative about the entire process is just absolute gold.
I will never, ever tire of dipping in and out of Adrian’s life, whether it’s one of the earlier books aimed at children and young adults, or the newest novels depicting Adrian in the autumn of his life.
Adrian may only become a Z-list celebrity in his world (as an offal TV chef of all things), but he remains to be one of the most iconic literary characters of our times.
Townsend has composed a world which is accessible to everyone; entirely recognisable to anyone who has ever had unrealised ambition and who can’t quite fathom why they are stuck in a continued rut, and to the side of our personalities that steadily maintains that they are the only normal person in this mad world.
Of course Townsend has written more than just the diaries of Mr Mole, with several novels that abandon the diary format for a more traditional story telling mode. My favourite of these is her most recent novel, The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year.
The novel is just as comedic as her famous diaries, and much like Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years she manages to take serious subjects and approach them light-heartedly, yet never reducing the severity of the subject.
Eva, the woman who actually went to bed for a year, simply locks the door, goes to bed, and refuses to come out. She becomes a national icon with a mass fanbase and a husband who is probably the worst example of a human being I’ve read about in a comedy novel.
The line between what is mentally healthy and what is not is continuously blurred, and for a novel that is primarily intended to amuse raises some very interesting questions that resonate long after you have finished reading.
Sue Townsend also isn’t afraid to stir controversy. Not only has she dealt with the ever stigmatised issue of mental illness in The Woman Who…, in The Queen and I she proposed an inverted class system, taking the queen and her family out of the palace and onto a housing estate, where they must mingle with the “common people.”
While maintaining her trademark style of humour, Townsend confronts several sensitive political issues around the British class and welfare system, resulting in a novel which can and has divided audiences.
Sue Townsend is one of Britain’s greatest writers not only due to the characters and worlds that she has created, but for her beautiful and accessible writing style.
Townsend is one of the few writers who manage to take the very ordinary and make it stunningly extraordinary. Her books are testament to the fact that often the simplest of sentences will suffice and that it is the story behind the words that counts.
There’s a reason why Sue Townsend is still topping the best selling lists whenever she brings out a new novel, and why her Adrian Mole diaries are still popular today.
She’s a timeless writer who will be used as an example in literature classes in 100 or 200 years time when studying the works of writers in our times.
She writes about lives that are present for everyone, and because of this she is loved by both those that only read casually, and those that make a living in literature.
Why do you love Sue Townsend? Which of her novels is your favourite?