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Adrian Mole author Sue Townsend dies at 68

RIP Blighty's best-selling author of the 1980s

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Obituary Sue Townsend, queen of adolescent nerds and confessional publishing, has died. She was 68.

Townsend is best known for her creation Adrian Mole, protagonist of The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4 in 1982 and Growing Pains of Adrian Mole in 1984.

The works, which tapped into the greasy, moist seam of teenage boy angst, earned Townsend the title of Britain’s best-selling author of the 1980s.

Mole was confessional writing before Helen Fielding started her Bridget Jones' Diary column or Belle du Jour began her blog.

The character was a blogger before the age of blogging, a teen charting his life before teens learned the art of polished presentation using filters like the selfie.

Interestingly for a teen growing up in the early-to-mid 1980s, Mole never laid a finger on a computer keyboard – despite the fact BBC Micros were appearing in schools and ZX Spectrums in bedrooms of the time.

Mole’s medium was ink and paper, hence the secret diary.

On those pages we met an adolescent who represented all of us boys: awkward around girls and hopelessly in love with an unattainable one – the undeserving Pandora, who had a dad richer than Mole’s and could afford to holiday in exotic and far off places like, er, Tunisia.

Mole was embarrassed by his parents' drunken antics, left red-faced by talk of breasts and thighs (turkey, that is, over Christmas dinner), alienated by his father’s crassness, and spent much of his time looking up new words and their meanings in his new dictionary.

The spotty Mole was a conflicted proto middle-class elitist, but didn't know it. He consumed Marx and Muggeridge and sided with the idea of the working classes but hated the plebs at school and moped about Pandora's dad's wealth. He raged against Maggie Thatcher but thought her kindly, too.

The teenage character was self-obsessed and pretentious. Concerned enough about the size of his penis to be periodically measuring it and recording the length he also banged out Alan Bennett-style verses on his reflections on love, nature, death, Pandora, “the dog” (the family pet) and Bert the WWII OAP, whom he looked after.

On the trembling agony of breaking up with Pandora:

Little Brown Horse

Eating apples in a field,

Perhaps one day

My heart will be healed.

I stroke the places Pandora has sat.

Wearing her jodhpurs and her riding hat.

Goodbye, brown horse.

I turn and retreat,

The rain and the mud are wetting my feet.

On Bert:

Bert, you are dead old.

Fond of Sabre, beetroot and Woodbines.

We have nothing in common,

I am fourteen and a half,

You are eighty-nine.

You smell, I don't.

Why we are friends

Is a mystery to me.

On Maggie Thatcher:

Do you weep, Mrs Thatcher, do you weep?

Do you wake, Mrs Thatcher, in your sleep?

Do you weep like a sad willow?

On your Marks and Spencer's pillow?

Are your tears molten steel?

Do you weep?

Do you wake with 'Three Million' on your brain?

Are you sorry that they'll never work again?

When you're dressing in your blue, do you see the waiting queue?

Do you weep, Mrs Thatcher, do you weep?

He was an everyman boy living in changing times. On the one hand, he had the security of nylon-blue parkas (now back in fashion), Airfix kits and knowing exactly where he fitted in the pecking order at school – graduating from the kind of kid who got beaten up by the bullies to one who watched other kids getting beaten up by the bullies.

This comfort is juxtaposed against the background of an unsettling family split – in the first book, Mole’s mum leaves his dad for another man. The familiar household unit breaks down just as Thatcherism is tearing up the familiar, post-war consensus.

Mole broke out of the 1980s to return older but no wiser or more confident in Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years (1993); Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction (2004); and most recently Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years (2009), while there have been theatre, TV and radio adaptations.

What made Townsend’s creation so compelling?

Townsend was not a trained writer. Born in Leicester in 1946, Townsend had lived what most of us would consider a “conventional life” before she had hit 25: she left school at 15, was married aged 18 and had divorced and was living as a single parent with three children at the age of 23.

Townsend worked in a variety of jobs including factory worker and – possibly the most significant vis-à-vis the Mole books – a youth worker. She wrote on the side for 20 years, penning plays and winning awards, but it was the Secret Diary that made her name.

She was awarded an honorary MA from Leicester University and made a distinguished Honorary Fellow, the university’s highest award.

Although Townsend created other characters, it’ll be for the frustrated but well-meaning Mole that she’ll be remembered. ®

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