Lo! The Flat Hills of My Homepage

The death of Sue Townsend 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 got used to thinking 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.

11 April 2014 · People