Monday, 13 September 2010

Why I Love Sue Townsend

When I was in second year of high school (that’s Year 8 in new money), Mr Tanner, my form teacher, handed us all a leaflet for the school’s book club. Being the kind of kid who never passed on an opportunity to get her hands on new reading material, I examined the leaflet very carefully before putting a tick next to the book of my choice. It was something I’d never heard of. But it sounded quite funny. And also – and more interestingly – it sounded SCANDALOUSLY rude.

It was The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 ¾

I chose well. It’s one of the few books from my childhood that I’ve kept.

Back then – 1984 – there wasn’t a huge choice of teen reading like there is now. The selection was pretty much limited to the boring stuff – often about nuclear war – which you were forced to read in your English lessons OR Wildfire Romances. These were imported from America and the plot always involved a highly-strung high school beauty in junior freshman year who dumps the baseball ‘jock’ to take a risk on an interesting bespectacled loser who only ever wears black. Fortunately, the risk always paid off because the speccy weirdo turned out- every time - to be a real nice guy with the looks of a Greek god.

I didn’t know what a junior freshman was. Or a baseball jock. But I read these books anyway. For a second year pupil in comprehensive school in Felixstowe in 1984, there wasn’t anything else to read.

And then – Thank God! – Sue Townsend wrote Adrian Mole. And I am convinced that she wrote it for ME. Instead of reading about beautiful rich kids in L.A, I had the joy and relief of reading about Adrian’s crap life in Ashby-de-la Zouch (Leicestershire) and his crap high school filled with crap people like the crap bully, Barry Kent. I understood all this perfectly. And then there was Pandora - outspoken, feisty and inflicted with dental braces. These were REAL people living in the REAL world. And they were MY age. In 1984, the pride of winning the Decorate Your Bike in Patriotic Colours competition at our Charles and Di street party was still fresh in my memory. I therefore recognised Adrian and Pandora’s own street party experience and I shared Adrian’s disappointment when his sparkler failed to work during the celebratory fireworks display.

And I’ve stuck with Adrian ever since. I feel like I know him. We’ve grown up together. And now, in Sue Townsend’s latest book, Adrian Mole – The Prostrate Years – he’s nearly forty and so, nearly, am I.

And Sue Townsend STILL makes me laugh out loud and engages me in a way that those predictable American teen romances never did and never will. The jokes don’t come easily though; poor Adrian is seriously ill at the moment and undergoing chemotherapy treatment. His hair has fallen out, he’s constantly knackered and – to top it all – his wife has left him for a rich floppy-haired idiot. I’m about two-thirds of the way through his diary and I’m almost praying for one of those predictably positive endings that always concluded the Wildfire Romances. And yet… and yet, amongst all this misery, there is magnificence. Sue Townsend’s eye for observation has not dimmed – even though her eyesight sadly has. When trying to book an appointment with his doctor, Adrian phones up at 7.59 and is told – before the receptionist hangs up on him- to ring back at 8.00. He does but is unable to get through again because the line is busy. Meanwhile, his mum is busy writing A Girl Called Shit - her memoirs of her miserable childhood in Norfolk, and his sister is about to appear on The Jeremy Kyle Show, to establish once and for all, the identity of her biological father.

This is Britain. Unsweetened and undisguised. Sometimes it’s weirder than fantasy.

When I was twelve, I was surprised, excited and extremely grateful that Sue Townsend thought it was worth writing about. I still am and I’ll love her books forever.

Before I go, I’d just like to say hello to Danielle and Demi who both sent me lovely emails this week and also to Pieta who WROTE ME A LETTER!!! Wow!!! I haven’t had an actual, real-life, written-on-paper letter for years. It took me back to the days when I was a student and spent half my time scribbling and drawing notes to my friends which I’d then put in the post. Mobile phones and email and Facebook is all well and good but NOTHING beats the excitement of a hand-written envelope with your own name on it. Thank you very much Pieta for reminding me of that.