The thoughts of a humanist writer who continues to chronicle our times with unblinking truth and humour
Want to rile Sue Townsend? Call her a ''professional prole-
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tarian''. Even better ''a multi-millionaire professional proletarian''. The outcome? The combined spluttering might of Guy Fawkes, July the Fourth, and millennial celebration fireworks. Guaranteed.
Britain's best-selling author of the 1980s - Jeffrey Archer pales by comparison - is back with Britain's best-selling fictional diarist, Adrian Mole - The Cappuccino Years. Mole, you remember, is the spotty suburban pedant aged 133/4 whose Secret
Diaries detailing his lusts, hopes, despondency, and penis size were universally acclaimed and made Townsend a millionaire.
With this fourth instalment, Adrian now aged 301/2, is a celebrity TV chef in a Soho restaurant called Hoi Polloi specialising in ''working-class food'' suc as offal, custard (#6 extra ''with skin'') and Nescafe. Exorbitant prices mean it is the preserve of the
rich New Labour and Met bar luvs. Though a divorced single parent,
Adrian's adolescent lust object remains Pandora Braithwaite, now a Blair Babe and still deflecting his flaccid arrows of desire. Uptight as ever, Mole logs his daily alcohol and Opal Fruit consumption, bowels (sluggish), bald spot (stable), and penis function (listless). It is an extremely funny and detailed book that confirms Townsend as one of the only British novelists consistently deploying political and social parody in mass-market fiction.
However, the suggestion that Townsend herself is ''classless'' or, indeed, there are any incongruities between her staunch socialist beliefs and millionaire status, induces a passionate hue of Clydeside Red in the author. She blasts: ''I resent that! I am working class! My family are working class! We are the literate working class: we read, we write, we are
members of libraries!''
The woman who bluntly informs you she was poor till the age of 39, is indignant of a middle-class press who try to promote her as classless. ''No. I'm not like you,'' she counters. ''My class experiences are completely different to you!'' And on her famed ''Mole money''? - ''It's ludicrous! People who aren't working class are never asked about their money. Men aren't. I'm not a multi-millionairess. I've spread it around. I have lived longer as a poor person than a rich person.''
Sue Townsend (aged 533/4), poor and rich person, was born and raised in Leicester by book-loving bus conductor parents in the prefabs - ''rabbit hutches''. With her ''Mole money'' she bought a rambling Edwardian house, and family and five grandchildren still live nearby. Despite a voracious reading habit, the young Townsend failed both her 11-plus and cycling proficiency tests, left school at 15, and coincidentally lost her virginity the same year.
Prophesising her later desire as a writer to uncover the ''subtext'' of
boring human lives, Townsend herself experienced two bizarre childhood incidents. Playing with friends up a tree, she witnessed the strangulation
of a fellow schoolgirl. The children reported the incident but were disbelieved. Another time in school assembly, staring at Christ on the cross, she felt stabbing pains in her hands and feet and collapsed in a faint. ''I really felt it; it wasn't just a symbol.''
At 18 she married a sheet-metal worker who left her for a hippie girl seven years later. Now a single mum with three children, she juggled three part-time jobs from hot-dog stand to garage attendant - ''and we were still poor''. It was at this time Adrian Mole reared his fictional head in Townsend's imagination - ''writing with a chip pan in one hand''.
While working as a playgroup leader, she met her second husband, Colin, a canoe-builder. The couple had a daughter, Lizzie, but married only when Townsend suffered a massive heart attack on her daughter's tenth birthday. It was Colin who persuaded her to enter a play-writing competition at the Phoenix Theatre. She won with
a comedy, Womberang, set in a gynaecological ward, and was subsequently made writer-in-residence. Adrian
Mole was commissioned as a BBC radio play, evolved into a book, sold eight million copies and was followed by Adrian Mole: The Growing
Pains; The Confessions of and The Wilderness Years.
Throughout that time the Conservatives were Townsend's bete noir. Now it is New Labour's turn. A stance confirmed when covering the recent Labour conference at Bournemouth, Townsend encountered legions of Pandoras and what she gleefully dubs ''Simon and Selina Smarms''. Having only ever voted for Labour once in a General Election - ''Communist, Socialist Workers, or a minority party usually'' - Townsend professed herself horrified at the party's treatment of
fellow Old Labourite, Deputy PM John Prescott. Almost tearfully, she says: ''They all take the piss out of him. It's like racism - classism . . . I feel s-o-o-o sorry for him because the man is in agony. He's had to turn himself inside out to compromise.'' As for Tony Blair, Townsend shakes her head disgustedly: ''His Bournemouth speech really was the froth on the cappuccino.'' Thus, The Cappuccino Years as the perfect metaphor for New Labour - ''three-quarters froth, very, very little coffee, presented in a very nice cup''.
Rough edges and human inconsistencies may be frowned upon by New Labour apparatchiks, but for Townsend they are the very meat of her writing. Mole is the perfect cypher for Townsend. ''I put my opinions in the mouths of all my characters.'' A self-confessed ''deeply serious person who sees most things in a humorous way'', a person of deep political convictions who - she is positively lascivious at this - ''loves chronicling things.''
It is, she says, Mole's ''duality'', the ''subtext of secret thoughts and feelings'', that make him universally appealing. ''We are all good. We are all evil. All in the same body at the same time. I tell people this and they don't know what I'm talking about. Perhaps its just me.''
Unlike her diarist, Townsend willingly offers up her own inconsistencies for analysis. Her anecdote about seeking comfort after a distressing visit to a poverty stricken council estate in Leeds, by purchasing a new dining set from Harvey Nichols, is a classic.
But, as her last novel Ghost Children demonstrated, there are layers to Townsend, the writer, that a Mole
public is unaware of. Where her two non-Mole fictions The Queen and I and Rebuilding Coventry still retained a strain of humour, Ghost Children - about a middle-aged woman haunted by an earlier abortion - was Townsend's bid to confront her own abortions ''after two extremely careless pregnancies'' following the birth of her youngest daughter. ''I found it was a taboo subject,'' she says. ''Feminists in particular didn't want to admit they still feel a sadness.'' She compares abortion to war. ''My position now is that abortion is fundamentally wrong - it's ludicrous to say that you are not taking a life - but that it has to be done.''
The book received mixed reviews. And, though Townsend conceded, ''I'm very aware of the clown wanting to play Hamlet'', she relished the challenge of writing a serious book. As if having got the book out her system she feels happy with her title as a ''literary oddity''. She provides the best description of her own role in British fiction: ''There is great genre confusion with me: I write about comedy and deeply moving and serious things but the people I respect, respect me, and that's all I want.''
The passion and vigour intrinsic to such a deeply passionate and intelligent writer is etched across any close-up of Townsend's face. Her heart is not so much worn but pegged out raw and bleeding across her chest. In conversation, Townsend is prone to a dazzling array of facial gestures. She pulls, rubs, pushes, pinches, and stretches eyes, nose, ears, and mouth in a punishing but unconscious ''thought'' workout.
Since April this year she has been forced to rediscover the art of thinking. Diagnosed as diabetic in 1984, she has diabetic retinitis and is registered as partially sighted. Though the writing routine of using a black A4 pad and black felt-tip pen is not affected, she has effectively stopped reading. ''I used to read all the newspapers and read books for four hours a day. Now I don't.''
On her annual holiday to the Greek island of Skyros, the usual 10 books were left at home. ''You never get time to assimilate your thoughts, but this time I was forced to,'' she explains pleasantly. ''I just lay on my bed and thought calm, different kinds of thinking the same as you'd read different kinds of novel: some sad, some very happy, some memory thinking, some realisations.''
Surely, her optimistic outlook must have been battered by this condition? ''I have had my moments when I've felt bereaved of my sight,'' she concedes. Once in spring she walked into her garden and couldn't differentiate between her daffodils or tulips. ''I had to kneel down and feel them. I experienced then what it was like to be totally blind. I felt a bit wobbly.''
Her loss of sight has not impeded her workload, how-ever. There is a humorous book in the works called A Lump In The Bed about a woman whose inter-ior life is a Technicolor extravaganza while her exterior image is that of - a lump in the bed. ''It was inspired by a man I met referring to his wife,'' explains Townsend, simultaneously tickled and appalled.
The eight-year saga of her screenplay Adios continues to run. Now in its 15th rewrite, the simple story of a young girl searching for her mother has shifted from being set on the Isle of Skye, Maine, Ireland, and Isle of Man. The movie-world experience she describes as ''mad and surreal''.
The same description could be applied to an encounter with Townsend herself - with the crucial adjunct of ''brilliantly invigorating''. Townsend is rubbing bits of her face again, cherry coloured nail varnish merging with her sparkling blue eyes. A revelatory thought suddenly shoots out. With a beatific smile of utter revelation, she beams: ''People are fantastic beings. I don't believe in God but I do worship churches and cathedrals because people built them. They remind me how brilliant and magical people are. I think its a real shame that people thank God for beautiful things when it's nature and people. I like to explore people and bring out the best and worst in them.''
This desire may be anathema to the Simon and Selina Smarms of Tony's world, but thankfully this true humanist writer will persevere to chronicle our times with unblinking truth and humour.
n Adrian Mole - The Cappuccino Years, by Sue Townsend, is
published by Penguin at #14.99 hardback and #9.99 paperback.