Date of Birth: 2 April 1946, Leicester, East Midlands, UK
Birth Name: Susan Lillian Townsend
Nicknames: Susan Townsend
Sue Townsend, who has died aged 68, was one of Britain’s most celebrated comic writers: novelist, playwright and journalist. She was best known for the fictional diaries of Adrian Mole, a character who, unlike Peter Pan, was allowed to grow up, evolving from the penis-measuring adolescent who confided: “I was racked with sexuality but it wore off when I helped my father put manure on our rose bed” in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ (1982), to the middle-aged and, Townsend liked to insist, more evolved and better dressed bloke who survives prostate cancer in Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years (2009).
The glory of Mole is his inability to see the funny side, his self-importance and the way in which his diaries unwittingly accommodate his creator’s social commentary. The first book, which in the 80s made Townsend the decade’s bestselling novelist, took a shrewd look at Thatcher’s Britain. In Adrian Mole: the Cappuccino Years (1999) she took on New Labour with equivalent relish. Mole was a hapless Blairite, in love with Pandora Braithwaite, on-message MP.
He was last seen in the late Noughties living with his dissatisfied wife in a converted pigsty.
The Mole books have been translated into 48 languages and sold more than 10m copies. Adrian’s career has extended to radio and television adaptations and he has been a smash hit in the West End. “Adrian Mole, c’est moi,” Townsend said when I interviewed her in 2010.
Unlike Adrian she could spot a joke a mile off. Her ability to entertain without compromising her integrity was a gift that defined her and her writing. And she was not in the least self-important.
Townsend was born in Leicester, the eldest of five sisters. Her father worked in a jet engine factory and became a postman when it closed. Her mother was a housewife who worked in the factory canteen. At Glen Hills primary school Townsend was terrorised by a teacher who, when children had failed to master their lessons, would make them do handstands and slap their legs.
She could not read until she was eight. It was her mother who taught her with Richmal Crompton’s William books the inspiration behind Adrian. After failing the 11-plus she went to a secondary modern, South Wigston high school. She left at 15 but kept reading. She devoured Woolworth’s Classics (Jane Eyre, Heidi and co) and moved on to Russian and American literature.
As a chain-smoking teenager, dressed in black, she was fired from a job in a clothes shop for reading Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol in the changing rooms. From the age of 14 she was also writing in secret.
By the time she was 18 she had married a sheet-metal worker and, by 22, had three children under five: Sean, Daniel and Victoria. She lived on the Saffron Lane estate, not far from the house in which the playwright Joe Orton Leicester’s other claim to literary fame had grown up. When, after seven years, her marriage ended, she worked in assorted part-time jobs: at a petrol station, as a receptionist, for Bird’s Eye foods.
The toughness of that time is something she never underplayed. She remembered making pea soup for her children out of one Oxo cube and a tin of garden peas. Although her books later made her fortune, she said that no amount of “balsamic vinegar or Prada handbags” would make her forget what it was like to be poor.
It was through one of her many jobs, at an adventure playground, that she enrolled on a canoeing course where she found herself attracted to the man running it initially by the way he tried to take off a jumper while simultaneously smoking a Woodbine. This was Colin Broadway, who was to become her second husband and father of her fourth child, Elizabeth. It was he who encouraged her, in 1975, to join a local writers’ group at the Phoenix arts theatre in Leicester. There she wrote her first play, Womberang, set in a gynaecology clinic, which won the 1979 Thames Television Playwright award and gave her a bursary at the theatre. Soon afterwards she dug out Adrian or Nigel, as he was in his earliest incarnation from the cupboard in which he had, for years, been snoozing.
She showed the script to the actor Nigel Bennett, who recommended it to John Tydeman, then deputy head of radio drama at the BBC. It was first broadcast on Radio 4 and its success as a radio drama led Methuen to offer to publish the novel, but they insisted Nigel be renamed Adrian (to avoid clashing with Ronald Searle and Geoffrey Willans’s Nigel Molesworth).
For some years, in Who’s Who, Townsend listed her interests as “mooching about, reading, looking at pictures, canoeing”. But all these, apart from the mooching, were to be sabotaged by ill health. She had TB peritonitis at 23; a heart attack in her 30s; Charcot’s joint–degenerative arthritis, which meant she had to use a wheelchair. She described herself as the “world’s worst diabetic” finding the disease hard to manage. In the 1990s she started to lose her sight. In 2001 she was registered blind and although, characteristically, she made jokes about it, she also wrote about the sense of loss, the disappearance of detail, the misery of suddenly finding she could no longer distinguish between a daffodil and a tulip.
She talked about what it felt like to “throw words into the dark”. She dictated all her later books usually to her eldest son, Sean. In 2007 she suffered kidney failure (also diabetes related) and was put on dialysis. In 2009, after a two-year wait for a donor, she had a transplant (Sean donated a kidney). In 2013 she suffered a stroke.
She did not appreciate being hailed as “brave” pointing out she had no choice about the blindness. But her writerly staying power and the continuing buoyancy of her prose were remarkable. She used her ill health and failing sight in the novels (Adrian’s cancer, his friend Nigel’s blindness for starters). In addition to the Mole books she wrote half a dozen novels, most notably Ghost Children (1997) about the psychological effects of abortion, The Queen and I (1992), in which the Queen, after a revolution, is compelled to live on benefits (the novel became a play in 1994, starring Pam Ferris and directed by Max Stafford-Clark) and its sequel, Queen Camilla (2006) in which Britain is run by Jack Barker’s Cromwell party and talking corgis provide the commentary.
She wrote a dozen plays, two works of non-fiction and was a prolific journalist, writing for the Observer, the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail – and also contributing an Adrian Mole column to the Guardian, The Secret Diary of a Provincial Man, which ran between 1999 and 2001.
A lifelong socialist, she made no secret of her disappointment in New Labour. She wrote repeatedly about the way ordinary lives are disfigured by politics. While her books made her fortune, the money did not bring about any change of heart. She lived in a Victorian vicarage outside Leicester and championed the city (she also bought two pubs that would otherwise have closed down). She enthusiastically backed its bid to become City of Culture in 2017. In 2009 she was given the freedom of Leicester. She was an honorary fellow at its university, a Doctor of Letters at Loughborough University and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Her last novel, The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year (2012), was her darkest. It is about a middle-aged woman who, when her children leave for university, gets into bed and stays there. She has her bedroom painted luminously white (in contrast to Adrian’s all-black teenage bolt-hole) and decides to shed all her possessions. It is a fresh start of sorts. And as she did in the Mole books, she makes an invisible character visible quite a feat for someone who could no longer see.