A book that reads as satire to adults & documentary to teens
April 10, 2014 9:11 PM   Subscribe

Beloved British writer Sue Townsend, best known as the creator of the Adrian Mole books has died aged 68. Townsend's creation was unleashed on the world in 1982 with his last literary outing in 2011's Aidrian Mole's Royal Wedding. While Mole remains her best known creation (and made the jump to TV) she was also a playwrite, had written other novels

Quiz: How well do you know the secrets of Adrian Mole's diaries?

Thames TV has put the Secret Diary of Aidrian Mole on YouTube if you would like to revist the happy days of the Thatcher era.

There is an official site, but it seems to be down.
posted by Mezentian (69 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Right in the feels, as the kids of today day.
posted by Mezentian at 9:12 PM on April 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oh, that's terrible news. She was one of my favourite authors. 'Ghost Children' is a book I re-read every few years. R.I.P.
posted by h00py at 9:31 PM on April 10, 2014


I only read a couple but wish I had found her writing earlier in my adolescence.
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:33 PM on April 10, 2014


I just reserved the Adrian Mole books at the library because I was suddenly yearning to reread them.
posted by skycrashesdown at 9:39 PM on April 10, 2014

Mrs Townsend
You captured my teen years
And held them in the pages
Of your book

Now when I create a poem
That holds a mirror to the world
And people wonder
How could one mind contain such beauty and passion?

The poem will silently say
There was never one mind here, but two.
Mine and yours, Sue.

posted by Joe in Australia at 9:55 PM on April 10, 2014 [30 favorites]

posted by pompomtom at 9:55 PM on April 10, 2014

posted by TwoWordReview at 9:57 PM on April 10, 2014

Actually now that I think of it, I've had what I think was the theme tune ("I'm profoundly in love with Pandora") stuck in my head most of last week. Guess that series was more deeply ingrained in my mind than I thought
posted by TwoWordReview at 9:59 PM on April 10, 2014

I met her books too late, but wish it had been earlier. Sad news.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:59 PM on April 10, 2014

i loved those books
posted by Bubbles Devere at 10:20 PM on April 10, 2014

I was so sad to hear of this today. I have read Adrian so many times I have practically memorized it.

Townsend's work was funny, touching and humane. I'll really miss her.

posted by radiocontrolled at 10:29 PM on April 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Me and my friend still get into hysterics when we recite Adrians ode to earwig crap. From memory:

How to measure earwig poo
How to find out how much they do
Are there scales to measure it
Those little piles of earwig shit
posted by PenDevil at 10:31 PM on April 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

Aww, I have such good memories of reading the Adrian Mole books when I was a kid. And her adult novel The Queen and I is utterly hilarious. I knew she had chronic illnesses but reading her obit I see she experienced about 7 major medical events/illnesses/conditions over her lifespan. Pretty extraordinary life from beginning to end!

posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:33 PM on April 10, 2014

Oh, sad. Adrian Mole was one of the first books I bought in hardcover. I need to find that copy and read it again now.

posted by OolooKitty at 11:04 PM on April 10, 2014

posted by Think [Instrumental] at 11:16 PM on April 10, 2014

Dammit. So much of Adrian Mole became part of my families' lore when I was growing up. You only had to mutter "Nice man, Mr Lucas" and everyone in the family would know what you meant about the person you were directing it at.

posted by drnick at 11:19 PM on April 10, 2014

The Adrian Mole books were a pretty big thing here in Norway as well. I read most of them, I think, and really enjoyed them. I was sorry to hear of her passing.

posted by Harald74 at 11:19 PM on April 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Today the Norwegian leather industry has lost one of its brightest lights. We are all longing for Wolverhampton.

posted by gingerest at 11:34 PM on April 10, 2014 [8 favorites]

Living here in the post-glacial Midwest, I still cry "Lo! The Flat Hills Of My Homeland!" as I drive past the cornfields.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 11:37 PM on April 10, 2014 [10 favorites]

True fact: I had never even heard of Tunisia (I know! Even though I loved Star Wars) until I read the Secret Diary (or was it Growing Pains?), when Pandora heads off on holiday.

I've been a bit afraid to read past the first two books since I was 11, especially knowing that the final one is called The Prostate Years, and that seems hellishly depressing, but maybe it's time.
posted by Mezentian at 11:51 PM on April 10, 2014

This makes me want to paint my bedroom black. Sad news.
posted by Elmore at 11:54 PM on April 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

Awful news - one of my old housemates had most of her books, and I loved reading them so much. The Queen and I is hilarious, except for the most wonderfully poignant chapter when the Queen Mother passes away.
Time to go back and reread from the beginning, and soon.
posted by kalimac at 12:11 AM on April 11, 2014

It's "playwright" -- like wheelwright, wainwright, cartwright, millwright.
posted by pracowity at 12:24 AM on April 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

I bought The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year on a whim and listened to it over the course of a week. I was in a bitter mood when I started listening to it and the idea of going to bed for a year seemed glorious, a nice domestic comedy.

It has mixed reviews for a reason. It is, I think, going to end up being one of her strongest books for being a story of pain and love and evil, faith and shame, full of small deftly painted portraits of secondary characters and in the centre of it, the story of a woman becoming transcendent through madness. The complexity of the book is remarkable because it seems like a domestic comedy at first. And the ending - the ending is brutal and beautiful and emptied.

I loved Adrian Mole as a kid, but after that I thought wow she's the opposite to Tom Sharpe, she's getting so much better and richer in depth and skill as a writer. I can't wait to see what she writes next.

posted by viggorlijah at 12:30 AM on April 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Damnit. I blame my sense of loss or something.
posted by Mezentian at 12:35 AM on April 11, 2014

Watching some of the above linked TV adoptions of the book I read when I was about Adrian's age. The whole point about documentary becoming satire is bang on. But they are also great records of that the 80s in Britain and of being that age.
posted by rongorongo at 12:37 AM on April 11, 2014

So sad. I think I feel the need to go and measure my thingy.
posted by tim_in_oz at 12:38 AM on April 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Her obituaries should say she "has died, aged 68¾."
posted by pracowity at 12:44 AM on April 11, 2014 [8 favorites]


I remember watching Adrian Mole as a young girl and finding it funny but also a bit sad, though I didn't know why. Then I read the books when I was older and, oh, how I saw Adrian Mole in myself: terrible poems, overly pretentious teenager, and a deep love of books.

But also Sue Townsend made me realise that a working-class girl could love books and travel in her mind. It was ok. There were other people just like me. Thank you.
posted by kariebookish at 12:59 AM on April 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

I see she lost her sight through diabetes. That used to be common, but I didn't think it happened any more. Obviously complex health issues.
posted by Segundus at 1:11 AM on April 11, 2014

posted by brujita at 1:20 AM on April 11, 2014

Today we are all intellectuals.

posted by the duck by the oboe at 1:25 AM on April 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

posted by litleozy at 1:27 AM on April 11, 2014

Ian Dury's theme tune to the TV series: Profoundly In Love With Pandora
posted by DanCall at 1:30 AM on April 11, 2014 [6 favorites]

Just about exactly what kariebookish said.

Thanks, Sue.

It was in the end my wife who reintroduced me to ST. Previously I'd had the (same?) bittersweet aversion; something was too real, too close to home in Mole to be quite enjoyable. But as the years rolled by and we all got older (and with Mrs A.'s prompting), the books seemed more tender than mocking, which I suppose had been an unwarranted fear from the start.

[And thanks, Mrs. A. .]
posted by aesop at 1:36 AM on April 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd quite forgotten the Dury theme (so evocative of the '80s), but I had to laugh at the line about Pandora bouncing in his dreams.

It's hilariously accurate of the pre-internet pubescent experience.
posted by Mezentian at 1:39 AM on April 11, 2014

I read the books when they first came out, and hated them -- I was a teenager just a little bit older than Adrian Mole, and I felt she was making fun of me. Now, looking back, I can appreciate the edginess of the humour. It's basically a rewriting of Diary of a Nobody, with Adrian as Mr Pooter, and just as with Diary of a Nobody the comedy has a very dark edge (they are very sad books in some ways). And she was writing sympathetically about single mums on benefits, which in 1980s Britain was quite a courageous thing to do.

This also seems a good moment to mention The Secret Diary of Matthew Toplis Aged 13 1/24, a real-life Adrian Mole, in which a 30-something man revisits the diary of his 13-year-old self.
posted by verstegan at 1:42 AM on April 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by runincircles at 1:54 AM on April 11, 2014

I celebrate the great woman's achievements in life, literature and comedy, and the joy she gave to so many!
posted by the quidnunc kid at 2:14 AM on April 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

She was a good egg by all accounts.

posted by asok at 2:15 AM on April 11, 2014

There is an official site, but it seems to be down.


posted by Too-Ticky at 2:54 AM on April 11, 2014

Just because it might be missed otherwise in the OP, make sure to read Alexis Petridis' article about reading the book first as a teenager then as a 40-year-old father. It's really touching and includes bits of an interview with Sue Townsend.
posted by litleozy at 2:57 AM on April 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

posted by Mister Bijou at 3:07 AM on April 11, 2014


Aw man, I absolutely loved the Adrian Mole books. He was virtually the same age as me, and I was 13 or so when I read the first one. When it came out, Growing Pains was the first book I ever read in one sitting, cover to cover.

Like many of you, I still have little phrases jump into my mind every so often. In fact, on my walking tour of Buenos Aires I say that the British military reaction to the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands only came after we realised that they weren't off Scotland, which was our initial reaction. To my immense pleasure somebody actually recognised it as coming from Adrian Mole a couple of months back.
posted by jontyjago at 3:21 AM on April 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I read The Secret Diary for the first time when I was eight, and convinced that the 1980s were the best time to grow up. Half the references went over my head, but it was thrilling to read what I felt was not a comic novel but an in-depth account of How Boys Think. They measure their 'things' and wait for the Giro! I re-read it later, and many times since, and managed to get the satire, the class references, the significance of a horse named Ian Smith. I still think The Wilderness Years is one of the saddest books I've ever read.

He shared a birthday with me - as did Sue Townsend - and just yesterday I was wondering whether there would be a new book on my way to work, trying to work out how old his daughter would be now.
posted by mippy at 3:22 AM on April 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

This hits hard. I was fourteen in 1982 and had started my own diary that year, so was an eager audience for the first Adrian Mole book. I've been reading them ever since, as each new one appeared: a kind of fictional 7 Up series, but featuring my peers, albeit as seen by an elder. It helped that they contained some of the best comic writing around: funny, cutting, warm, wise.

Really, this feels like the death of not one familiar name but two. Adrian feels so real to me, such a convincing and compelling voice, that it's as if a 40-something has died as well as his 68-year-old creator. Adrian was convincing not just for being so gloriously un-self-aware most of the time, but for the flashes of self-awareness that sometimes peeped through: that moving window of insight we all know, where we become aware of our past foolishness without recognising that it persists.

The other characters felt equally real and beautifully observed: who can forget Bert Baxter's beetroot, or Pandora's stratospheric rise, or Adrian's perfectly portrayed parents? They all served a vital narrative role in commenting on Adrian's foibles in a way that was both critical and kind, revealing that he wasn't as bad as he sometimes imagined, and sometimes was insufferably worse.

The early books will inevitably be the best-known, but my favourite moment has to be the end of The Cappuccino Years, where his temporary sense of peace comes crashing down in flames. Other images from the later books - the police knocking on the door, the converted pigsty, and the novel, o, the novel - are key ones for me, and together they're one of the best fictional portraits of boom-time Britain. If you never got past the first two, you really should try again, because Townsend's writing never faltered, even while her health did. Her portraits of power in The Queen and I and Number Ten are also well worth reading.

Despite knowing about Townsend's health problems, I had always sort of assumed that Adrian would keep popping up every few years - living his autonomous life, detached from hers - so it feels strange, and doubly sad, that there will be no more.

posted by rory at 4:27 AM on April 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

posted by sidra at 4:32 AM on April 11, 2014

posted by Flashman at 5:04 AM on April 11, 2014

posted by pinacotheca at 5:12 AM on April 11, 2014

posted by dlugoczaj at 6:26 AM on April 11, 2014

posted by SpaceWarp13 at 6:31 AM on April 11, 2014

Oh, no.

Given how young I was when I read those books (the first around probably around 8 or 9), how completely outside my frame of reference they were (a New York City kid), the first two Adrian Mole books, but especially the first, have to be among the most influential and formative of my life. Adrian, Pandora, Bert, Queenie, beetroot sandwiches, Skegness, the Falkland War, spots, O levels, A levels, a room painted black--it was all home to me.

posted by oneironaut at 7:11 AM on April 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


Time to break out my monochromatic rags.
posted by Jilder at 7:41 AM on April 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think I first read The Secret Diary when I was around 10. What a revelation! Hilarity and bleakness all wrapped up.

posted by gaspode at 7:43 AM on April 11, 2014


Damn. Formative stuff.

You have to understand that pre-internet/cable/satellite tv, teenagers and pre-teens did not have easy access to many erudite works written FOR them from their perspective. Everyone these days would get this kind of stuff from a blog or content aggregator, or from the vast throbbing silo-ed hive minds that are pitched to every demographic, or from the 200 tv channels they can get.

Back then we had top down stuff: radio (mostly naff unless music), TV (ditto, 3-4 channels depending on era), magazines (pop fluff, geeky hobby or sport mags, or condescending twaddle)........and BOOKS. Adrian Mole felt very real to a lot of nerdy* boys and girls, and having someone who shared the same struggles with the same language and same kind of life as we did was immensely helpful.

. When, after seven years, her marriage ended, she worked in assorted part-time jobs: at a petrol station, as a receptionist and for Birds Eye foods. The toughness of that time was something she never underplayed. She remembered making pea soup for her children out of one Oxo cube and a tin of garden peas. Although her books later made her fortune, she said that no amount of balsamic vinegar or Prada handbags would make her forget what it was like to be poor....... A lifelong socialist, Townsend made no secret of her disappointment in New Labour. She wrote repeatedly about the way ordinary lives are disfigured by politics. While her books made her fortune, the money did not bring about any change of heart.

Sue, you did us all a great service. Despite your health woes, you brought empathy via the flash of recognition of others pain/angst to millions of young people.

You had a life well lived. RIP.

* Nerdy before nerd was a complement.
posted by lalochezia at 7:59 AM on April 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

I liked this piece in the Guardian about Adrian.

Also, John Tydeman was a real person.

posted by mippy at 8:04 AM on April 11, 2014

posted by raena at 8:10 AM on April 11, 2014

It has only just struck me: TV Mole must have been an inspiration for Potter, just with less wizardry and socialism.
posted by Mezentian at 8:21 AM on April 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

More MORE wizardry and and LESS socialism.
Sorry, I am getting drunk with Judy Blume.

She is still alive, right?
posted by Mezentian at 8:31 AM on April 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by theora55 at 8:45 AM on April 11, 2014

posted by cadge at 11:25 AM on April 11, 2014

posted by No-sword at 2:32 PM on April 11, 2014


I first started reading the books when I was almost Adrian's age (12 1/2 or thereabouts).

They were formative.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:44 PM on April 11, 2014

posted by humanfont at 3:37 PM on April 11, 2014

Do you think Harry Potter could have existed without Adrian Mole?
posted by gingerest at 3:41 AM on April 12, 2014


Potter goes to boarding school, so he harkens back to an earlier era of school stories that predate Mole.
posted by Mezentian at 9:23 PM on April 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, they're very different stories. The HP stories are about Potter's saga - how it was he was born, his great enemy, the companions he accumulated, and his eventual victory. The AM Diaries are really about Adrian Mole's reaction to events. They're his inner life, not some sort of saga.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:38 PM on April 12, 2014

I think what gingerest means is was JK Rowling inspired by Sue Townsend's story to also try and get a book published.
posted by Flashman at 9:12 AM on April 13, 2014

No, I was just wrong. But you have a point.
posted by gingerest at 4:54 PM on April 13, 2014

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