The son who inspired Adrian Mole – and helps me live with blindness
20:42 GMT, 18 April 2012
21:14 GMT, 18 April 2012
Sue Townsend and I find ourselves discussing her great comic creation, Adrian Mole, as if he were a mutual friend.
‘How many times has he been married’ Sue muses. ‘He married Jo-Jo, then Daisy,’ I say. ‘Yes, and he impregnated Sharon Bott. And he did get obsessive about another girl, but I don’t think he ever married her,’ concludes Sue.
It is now 30 years since Sue introduced us to her hapless adolescent and ‘misunderstood intellectual’, whose Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 became the best-selling book of the Eighties.
Dear Diary: Gian Sammarco as Adrian Mole in the 1985 TV series
Since then, she has written seven sequels, each one a deft and brilliantly-observed social comedy. But she is a bit hazy on the chronology of events in her books; even the names of some characters elude her. When she explains why, it seems extraordinary.
‘Once I’ve written them I never read them again,’ she says. ‘Seeing them in print is not that comfortable. Actually, it’s embarrassing. I’ve never watched one of my plays either. I’ll sit behind a baize curtain just noting the volume of the laughter — or the silence — after the jokes.
‘I don’t like to be noticed. The older I’ve got, the more reclusive I’ve become. I’ve got late-onset shyness. People are lovely. When they see me in the street they don’t ask for anything from me. They just say: “I thought it was you and I just wanted to say how much I enjoy your books,” but I can’t seem to cope with it any more. I always feel as if I’m a disappointment; that people want a grand dame in furs like Barbara Taylor Bradford.’
'The older I've got, the more reclusive I've become,' says Sue Townsend
Instead, they get sweet-natured, unassuming Sue, 65 — a happily married mum-of-four and grandmother to ten — who, because of complications caused by her diabetes, is registered blind and confined to a wheelchair.
‘I always write back to people who are kind enough to write to me. Actually, I don’t write — I recline on my red velvet sofa with my feet on the coffee table and dictate the letters to my eldest son.’
The vision she conjures is one of Barbara Cartland-esque indolence, but in truth Sue now dictates her letters, and all her books, to Sean, 47, because her sight is too poor even for her to write in the thick felt pen she used when she was first registered blind ten years ago.
‘Sometimes when I’m dictating a book, I’ll ask Sean to read back a sentence six or seven times. He doesn’t complain — although he could well be mouthing, “die, die!” and I wouldn’t know,’ she laughs. ‘We’ve been through some terrible deadline crises together. He’s never lost his nerve. Never. He continues to believe in me. He says: “I know you’ll do it, Mum,” even when we’re both knackered at three in the morning.’
Sean and Sue share a bond, closer even than the inalienable one that binds all mothers and sons: three years ago, he donated one of his kidneys to her after hers failed, another result of her diabetes. He’s proprietorial about what he still calls “his” kidney,’ she jokes — laughter is never far away when you’re in her company.
Actually, I don’t write – I recline on
my red velvet sofa with my feet on the coffee table and dictate the
letters to my eldest son.
‘I have a slight addiction to Diet Coke and, of course, I absolutely shouldn’t touch it because it makes the kidneys work really hard. Sean knows all about its chemical composition and always swaps mine for water. He never sees me drinking alcohol — although I do have a little celebratory champagne now and then.’
She seems to deal not just stoically but even merrily with the afflictions her diabetes has imposed. She agrees: ‘When my sight started to go I was militantly cheerful about how I’d cope, but I’ve just started to mourn not being able to read.
‘After my husband and children, my biggest pleasure was reading. I miss the whole experience. Anyone who is in the house will read to me — they’re not self-conscious now — and it does bring them a little closer to my world.’ Her absence of self-pity is startling. ‘I’ve never raged about blindness,’ she says. ‘It was my own fault. I was responsible. I didn’t look after my diabetes properly. I didn’t keep my blood sugar at the right level. It’s the simple truth.
‘I’m a good example of how not to deal with diabetes, because I now have all the complications: blindness, nerve damage, kidney damage, a painful back, osteoporosis — oh, and the bones in my feet are crumbling.’ She ticks off the list briskly. ‘Pain-killers are my little friends.’
She has never indulged in maudlin introspection even though her early life would provide scope for a veritable saga of misery memoirs. She was raised in a suburb of Leicester — she has never left the city — the eldest of five sisters. Her dad was a postman, her mum a bus conductor. Some children spurned her because her home was a prefab on a mud road.
The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year is Sue's latest novel
At school, frightened of a violent teacher, she did not learn to read until she was confined to bed with mumps, aged eight, and her mum taught her. Thereafter, she never stopped. Although bright, she left school at 14 to work in a shoe factory, then as a petrol pump attendant. By the age of 18, she was married to Keith, a sheet metal-worker. She had three children, Sean, Daniel and Victoria, in quick succession, but when she was 23 Keith deserted her. Her children’s sense of desolation at their father’s abandonment remains.
‘I know the day his dad left is still very vivid in Sean’s mind,’ she says. ‘You wouldn’t believe how often we all talk about it. The children are still affected by it. Their dad went off with a hippie who smelt of patchouli oil and had all these little tinkling bells. It was 1970, the year when working-class men started wearing purple velvet flares.’ (She says it as if the flares have a lot to answer for.)
Sue decamped to a council house; she had three part-time jobs to keep going. She was skint and permanently exhausted. One Sunday, Sean asked: ‘Why can’t we go to safari parks like other families’ His martyred reproach sparked an idea. ‘It was Mole’s voice. I just heard it. He descended in the space of an afternoon,’ she recalls. In a burst of creative energy, she started writing his diary.
It was three years later, in 1978, that she met Colin Broadway on an outdoor pursuits course — she was a youth worker; he was her canoeing instructor — and it was love ‘at first sight’. After 40 years of marriage, they have a daughter, Lizzie, and it is Colin, a man with an air of solid dependability, who is pushing Sue’s wheelchair when we meet in a London hotel.
Sue continues to write prolifically and her latest novel, The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year has just been published.It tells the story of Eva, 50, a mum-of-two in a loveless marriage beleaguered by life’s pressures, who retreats under her duvet after her twins leave for university. I imagine that Sue, exhausted and broke as a young, single mum with three kids under five, must have felt like doing exactly the same.
‘Yes!’ she exclaims, ‘I even used to dream of going to prison so I could just lie on my bunk and read. I had two toddlers and a tiny baby and I was worn out. One day, the moment came when they were all crying for me at once and I thought: “Who should I go to first” I just stretched my arms out (she gestures a wide embrace) and hugged them all.’
Eva, her latest heroine, is she says, ‘mildly depressed’ when she takes to her bed. Has Sue ever been similarly afflicted ‘Oh yes, on and off. Everyone is occasionally,’ she contends. ‘Sometimes it’s just sadness because a bad thing’s happened. It’s completely normal to be sad, but people medicalise everything these days. Sometimes women just get so exhausted their bodies protest. It’s an alarm call. Your body is saying: “Just go and lie down and sleep.” ’
It does not take a huge leap of imagination to visualise how bone weary Sue must have been in those early days. ‘I felt I had to wait until all the children were asleep before I started to write,’ she says. ‘I wanted them unconscious, so I’d start at midnight.’
Adrian Mole has earned her prodigious wealth. But as for the benefits the money has brought her, she is equivocal. Her extravagances are few. She lives in a rambling former vicarage in Leicester and her sole indulgences are Persian rugs and Chanel perfume. She cannot now wear the Prada shoes she used to love — her crumbling bones have put paid to that — so she’s stashed them in her attic or given them to her family.
I’d read that when she first became wealthy she’d give money away to almost anyone who asked for it. Now she reflects: ‘It’s invidious having to choose between good causes. The blind, children, lepers — how can you make the choice I’d rather have some money than none — I’ve been poor and the worst thing is, it doesn’t give you a future. You’re completely unable to plan to do anything,’ she says. ‘But having money can be awkward. In fact, it can be an embarrassment.’
It’s curious, isn’t it Her books have brought her acclaim, wealth, fame and recognition, yet to a degree she shuns them all. But that is perhaps why we warm to her so much. Sue Townsend is determinedly un-starry. At heart she is still just a kind, ordinary mum and granny from Leicester.
Sue Townsend’s latest novel, The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year, is published by Michael Joseph at 18.99. To order a copy for 16.99 (p&p free), call 0843 382 0000.