Interviewing Sue Townsend was as delightful as reading her Adrian Mole books
Published on Apr 11, 2014 8:20 PM
I was 11 when I first read The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend. It was encouraging to read about his agonising over pimples and how to attract the opposite sex, but appalling to discover he thought he could rhyme "Pandora" with "adore ya" in a poem to his girlfriend.
Nevertheless, I devoured both that book and the sequel, The Growing Pains Of Adrian Mole. It would be five years before I realised Sue Townsend was not a pseudonym, another five before I returned to the rest of the series and delighted in Adrian Mole’s continuing adventures. Of course I was not as pessimistic or unlucky as he was, but his worries about career, finding the right partner, then taking on a mortgage for his house, all struck chords.
I grew along with Adrian Mole even as he surpassed me, becoming a parent (Adrian Mole And The Weapons Of Mass Destruction, 2004) and then sending his son off to war (Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years, 2009). When I was lucky enough to be offered a phone interview with Sue Townsend in 2012, I delightedly stayed awake until midnight, counting the hours until I could call her home in Leicester and politely ask when the next Mole outing might be.
I will never forget the half hour that followed. The writer was clearly tired, possibly because it was tea-time for her, possibly because of the diabetes which put her in a wheelchair and eroded her sight. But once she figured out I was not one of her son’s girlfriends, we had a lovely chat about everything from her belief in gender equality at home - as a working single mother, she made her teenage sons do the ironing and cook meals at home - to what the formerly avid reader did for fun since being declared legally blind in 2001.
“I like to watch real people on TV,” she confessed. “There’s real, genuine, human emotion. I like to see people who are below the radar, people who are forgotten about. A lot of people watch it and sneer and laugh at how stupid they are. It’s just because they haven’t been educated. I’m just interested in that whole class of people who’ve been deprived, in a way.”
Education was incredibly important to her, child of a factory canteen worker and a postman who proudly worked on a prototype jet engine until his factory folded. She left school at 15 to earn her own living, married three years later and then did all sorts of jobs including working at a youth centre to keep her three young kids alive.
The idea of a teen diarist was catharsis for her, a way to laugh at the frustrations of her young children who could not understand why they were being denied the vacations and treats their classmates took for granted. She had to laugh or she would cry.
The self-proclaimed “militant optimist” never forgot where she had come from. Her Adrian Mole would always long after but never marry his first love, Pandora, who had money and class. Similarly, he would never acknowledge his working class girlfriend Sharon.
Adrian Mole was how she gently reminded herself and readers of flaws in society. He would continue to help her vent - Adrian’s friend Nigel went blind as she did. At the end of our conversation, she told me that she was working on a new Adrian Mole book, one in which he became a grandfather, just as she delighted in her 10 grandchildren.
“I’ve made him sexier as well. He’s taken Pandora’s advice, he’s not wearing pastels,” she said, refusing to tell me more.
Adrian Mole And The Secret Of Pandora’s Box will be published by the Penguin Group in October 2015. I am looking forward to it not only because I enjoyed the rest of the series. Reading it will remind me of one of the most delightful conversations I have had with an author and remind me that I can continue it any time I pick up one of her books.