The thoughts of a humanist writer who continues to chronicle our times with unblinking truth and humour Sue Townsend Want to rile Sue Townsend? Call her a ''professional prole- tarian''.
Loading article content
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.