Sue Townsend interview: "I think people are overloaded with information"

Thomas Quinn Apr 11, 2014
Sue Townsend

Sue Townsend, who sadly died yesterday, spoke to The Big Issue two years ago about politics, Adrian Mole, and being blind

I had the pleasure of interviewing Sue Townsend – who died yesterday, aged 68 – for The Big Issue back in March 2012. She had just published The Woman Who Went To Bed For a Year, a hilarious, angry, warm, emotional book about a middle-aged woman's exasperation with those she has spent her life with.

Sue was blind. She suffered from chronic ill health. But those mere details didn't prevent her from writing. Or reading. Or being. She was as radical in her sixties as she had been in her twenties. Hugely sceptical of mainstream politics, she had a delightfully English sense of humour and an ability to prick the balloons of buffoons.

This was exhibited beautifully in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (Aged 13¾) and its sequels. Hugely popular books, they managed to delight critics and the masses alike, while striking at the empty heart of British politics – from Thatcher to Blair and Brown.

Few writers have had the impact Sue Townsend had. She'll be badly missed.

Sue Townsend: The diary of an author aged 65 and 11/12ths

After selling 30 million copies of Adrian Mole’s diary, you could forgive Sue Townsend for wanting to rest up a bit. But could she really go to bed for a year?

“Oh I’d love to,” she says. “A month would be great. Just getting up now and again, you know, to take showers and stuff. I wouldn’t get bored, I’d listen to the radio.”

Retreating under the duvet is the premise for her new novel. The Woman Who Went to Bed For a Year – the funniest book about a middle aged mum who refuses to get up, ever – has the recognizable Townsend mix of hilarity, politics and poignancy.

Mild-mannered 50-ish frump, Eva Beaver (yes, really) waves goodbye to her two children as they go off to university. Then goes back to bed and refuses to get up for a year.

This decision cues a series of dramatic events, including the uncovering of husband Brian’s extra-marital comings and goings in the shed at the bottom of the garden.

“It is a very common age, when the children have left home, to divorce and separate because people think ‘now is my chance to be who I want to be’,” Sue says.

“I think a lot of people, including me, just feel overloaded. You listen to the news in the morning and it's terrible. You come down the stairs and watch the telly for a bit and you see some horrible images before you even start the day properly. There is all this information you have to take in. All these statistics.

Women with children are always exhausted. They take exhaustion as a normal state to be in. I deliberately put in a list of household tasks: what has to be done before a party, banal things, what you have to do for Christmas. The long lists of things to buy, to do, to prepare leads to a general kind of frantic, running around exhausting yourself.”

Now registered blind, a condition caused by long-term diabetes, Townsend can see a little but not enough to read or write. She dictates her novels to her oldest son, Sean, while lying on the sofa. “It makes me sound like Barbara Cartland,” she chuckles. “But I’m never as well groomed as she was.”

She writes about a grey, lower middle-class suburban England, clearly based on her own community – she has lived in Leicester her entire life. But she is also one of our most overtly political novelists.

She says she has become more left-wing as she has got older, but has no time for direct action. “I knew a lot of people at The Socialist Worker. But the factions were always fighting each other and they would get terribly excited if they sold two of their newspapers outside a shop.”

She prefers to get her message across “subliminally”. Adrian Mole was at once the hilarious musings of a pubescent teenager struggling with the length of his thing – while simultaneously being a commentary on Thatcherism, the Falklands War and the rise of New Labour.

“It was all based on truth, those things were all happening at the time,” she points out. “Like when Adrian’s dad gets made redundant from his job selling storage heaters and leads a gang cleaning the canal banks. I knew people who did that.”

The original volume – The Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ – has just been reissued to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Her first novel and the top selling title of the 1980s, it has found an international audience and became a standard for teenage boys everywhere.

“I like Adrian now a lot more than I used to,” she admits. “I’m interested in what he will do next: there is something entirely English about him. There is nothing Celtic or romantic about Adrian and his family. He is a loser, but he is kind.”

Thomas Quinn


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