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Author Sue Townsend dies age 68

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Author Sue Townsend, best known for her series of books on anxious teen Adrian Mole, has passed away after a short illness at the age of 68.

A family friend said in a statement "Sue passed away on Thursday night and she was with her family. She'd been very ill recently - she'd suffered a stroke - and succumbed to that illness."

Townsend was diagnosed with diabetes in the 1980s, was registered blind as a result of her condition and had also undergone a kidney transplant in 2009.

Born in Leicester, Townsend was the eldest of five sisters. After failing her 11-plus exam, she left school at the age of 15 and went on to work in factories and shops. By the time she was 22 years old she had three children under five.

In her thirties, after writing in secret for years, she joined a writers’ group at the Phoenix Theatre. At the time of writing the first Adrian Mole book, Townsend was living on the Saffron Lane Estate.

The novel was reputedly based on her children's experiences at Mary Linwood Comprehensive School in Leicester. Several of the teachers who appear in the book (such as Ms Fossington-Gore and Mr Dock) are based on staff who worked at the school in the early 1980s.

The first of her book series, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 3/4, was published in 1982 and the eighth instalment, Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years, was released in 2009.

The Mole books have been translated into 48 languages and sold more than 10m copies and several of her books were adapted for the stage, while the Mole series was adapted for radio, television and theatre.

Comedian Stephen Mangan, who played Adrian Mole in a TV adaptation of the books, tweeted "Greatly upset to hear that Sue Townsend has died. One of the warmest, funniest and wisest people I ever met."

She is survived by husband Colin Broadway, and her four children, Sean, Daniel, Victoria and Elizabeth.

Read Sue Townsend's exclusive piece for Stylist, written in 2012, on the eternal appeal of a literary journal

I am often asked if I keep a diary. Sadly, my diary is not kept, it is a neglected hamster of a thing, huddled in the corner of its cage, starving and surrounded by its own droppings. The pages often contain one word entries. “Dentist.” “Hospital.” On a particularly racy day, “Pick up dry cleaning.” There is nothing in its A4 pages to bring a blush to the cheeks of a nun. However, there is nothing to stop me fantasising:

Saturday 8am: A call from Martin Amis to thank me for rewriting his New Yorker piece on the existentialism of Obama’s White House. I said, “Darling Marty, thanks, but this is the last time. I can’t keep covering for you.” He murmured his thanks again, while I turned back to Leonard Cohen and we resumed our conversation.

Noon: Karl Lagerfeld rang, begging me to model his spring/summer wheelchair collection. He emailed the sketches. I told him to ditch the long scarves – they would almost certainly get caught in my spokes.

4.30pm: Rupert Murdoch rang to ask me if I would help him launch The Sun On Sunday. “Rupe, I’m far too busy,” I said.

Even if there was sufficient excitement in my life to animate the pages of a journal, fear of exposure would keep me schtum. Because the simple truth is that people like reading diaries because they want to know how other people truly live. None of us know what anyone else is thinking, we only see what they want to project. Reading a diary gives us precious insight, especially if it belongs to a loved one. None of us are given a set of instructions on how to conduct ourselves so above all, we want to find out if we are normal. The peek into someone else’s head a secret diary offers is thus irresistible.

So if you’re going to keep one, conceal it Colditz-style. Find an ingenious hiding place, unlike Adrian Mole. When he had to go into hospital for a tonsillectomy, he entrusted his Secret Diary into the care of his mother, making her swear “on the dog’s life” that she would not read it. He couldn’t have chosen a worse person than Pauline Mole, a woman consumed by curiosity and gossip. There is no record that she actually read his secret diary, but, when Adrian regained consciousness, she was snappy and offhand with him. Perhaps she had sneaked a look and read about herself: “My mother looks properly old now. She has got little lines all around her lips. They look like little tributaries running into the sea of her mouth.”

I have no sympathy for Pauline, though. I have two daughters and two sons myself, and the girls used to leave their diaries on their bedside tables. I wasn’t even tempted to look. I was a working mother and felt constantly guilty, so I was too worried about what was inside to even open them. I expect it was, “I hate my mum! She is so selfish! She is never home from work!” or, “I think I’ve got bronchitis but mum says it’s just a cough! Hmph!”.

There was a great Radio 4 programme recently where comedians read out their own teenage diaries – they were full of stuff like that. I don’t think my boys keep diaries – they just doodled cartoon characters and practised their signatures in notebooks. I think this difference in diary-keeping between the sexes was part of Adrian Mole’s appeal. Mothers of teenage boys want to know what’s going on inside their sons’ heads, as they so often just get one word responses from them. I wrote the books as a secret diary so Adrian could express himself freely, especially about his family. It’s also extremely simple to write in a diary style – your structure is already there – so it’s brilliant for budding writers. You can vary the length of each entry, so when I was rushed for time or my children were ill, I could just write a few words and still be a step closer to finishing the book! One Adrian Mole entry in particular sticks in my mind: “Nothing happened today, apart from a hailstorm at 3pm.”

It’s also a great way of getting into your character’s head, as everything is viewed through their eyes. Hence Adrian Mole thinking his mother is an alcoholic because she gets drunk at Christmas, but then not realising when she is having an affair with her next door neighbour, and that they really are in the basement having sex instead of ‘fixing the boiler’. Naivety is a brilliant tool.

(Image: Rex Features)

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