Sometimes I think that books can never mean quite as much to me now as they did when I was twelve years old, lying on my bed, reading half of the weekend, or late into the night — even pulling out the proverbial flashlight to do so. Growing up an only child, books were intimate companions. They were how I discovered a vast world. We lived in a small English village; there wasn’t even one shop in the place. We did have a blacksmith. Every week a van passed by selling pies, milk and soft drinks. When I opened a book, I could be in Tolkein’s Middle Earth, or in America, where the Hardy Boys were solving another mystery… or I could be in the world of Adrian Mole, that adolescent just a couple of years my senior, living less than an hour’s drive away in the city of Birmingham. This was the fictional world I chose to live in more than any other. I read The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ and its sequel, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, approximately 24 times. Sometimes I’d literally reach the end and immediately go back to the beginning.
I never thought much about the books’ creator, Sue Townsend. It must have — if only briefly — struck me as pretty clever that a woman was able to so convincingly inhabit the body of a teenage boy. But so gifted was she that she more or less ceased to exist to me. There was Adrian’s voice and no other.
Sue Townsend passed away April 10.
That a woman who struggled so much of her life because of illness, physical disability, single-motherhood and grinding poverty was able to create books beloved by millions says an awful lot about her strength of character, but I think it would be wrong to view her success in purely individualistic terms. She never forgot her experience of poverty; never ceased to observe and critique the system that had exacerbated it; never lost her deep sympathy for the communities that continue to live this reality right up to the current day. She was a tireless critic of Thatcherism and its legacy — the meanness, the degradations inflicted on the labouring classes, the loss of social cohesion. Her success proved that a social conscience and a deep skepticism about power and the State can inspire deeply convincing and savagely witty accounts of the human condition that become, for the reader, just as real as the read world itself.
Her forays into journalism were serious and relevant. The Guardian recently republished this gem: “How the welfare state left me and my kids scouring the streets for pennies.” This brief overview of her life is almost as moving.
RIP: Sue Townsend. She truly meant the world to me.