#100WomenNovelists: Sue Townsend

Blog Post 26: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 (1982)

Thursday January 1st

These are my New Year’s resolutions:

1. I will help the blind across the road.
2. I will hang my trousers up.
3. I will put the sleeves back on my records.
4. I will not start smoking.
5. I will stop squeezing my spots.
6. I will be kind to the dog.
7. I will help the poor and ignorant.
8. After hearing the disgusting noises from downstairs last night, I have also vowed never to drink alcohol.

Adrian Mole is one of the greatest ever comic creations. Quintessentially British with all the quirks, worries, frustrations, conformity, good intentions, disillusionments, and misinterpretations that come with it. And he is a teenager, on the cusp of growing up, dealing with his parents whose marriage is falling apart, his first love, comprehensive school, an uncooperative body, and a certain amount of existential angst.

It is fitting that Sue Townsend should be included in my list of #100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century. She was a rare gift, a writer who truly knew what it was to be human. She wrote with wit and empathy and always with a thread of poignancy and tenderness. Adrian Mole was her greatest creation. Like Pooter before him, and Bridget Jones after him, he is the fool who shines a light on the truth of the human condition. Often unreliable in his narration, we the reader can see the bigger picture that he unwittingly shows us.

Wednesday January 21st
Mr and Mrs Lucas are getting a divorce! They are the first down our road. My mother went next door to comfort Mr Lucas. He must have been very upset because she was still there when my father came home from work. Mrs Lucas has gone somewhere in a taxi. I think she has left for ever because she has taken her socket set with her. Poor Mr Lucas, now he will have to do his own washing and stuff.

Adrian Mole would now be 50. I have known him a long time. I have grown up with him. We were first introduced when I was 12 and he was 13 and I immediately found someone who I could laugh at and with. He is so recognisable and yet so unique, accompanying us through our own times, living through Thatcherism and Blairism, boil-in-the-bag cod and tinned peaches with Dream-topping. If you want social history, any history, read Adrian’s diary. And such a loss to our literary world that Sue Townsend died at 68, because Adrian is no longer able to grow old, except in our imaginations. Apparently Sue Townsend was about to write the next diary to be called ‘Pandora’s Box’. We shall never know whether Adrian finally wins back the love of his life.

David Nicholls, the same age as the diarist, wrote a piece for the Guardian earlier this year. He sums up my feelings.

‘The anxiety about acne and nuclear war, the perpetual sense of injustice, the anguish of the unrecognised intellectual, the reverence for the BBC and reliance on the public library in the endless quest for self-improvement, it was all here, and made blissfully funny in a sustained, near flawless piece of comic ventriloquism…Adrian was entirely average; a middle-achieving Everyboy from the Midlands, not as posh as Pandora or Nigel, posher than the terrifying Barry Kent, unremarkable, invisible, with everything happening below the surface like, well, a mole. The Secret Diary was smartly written, stuffed full of in-jokes and references to Orwell and Flaubert and Simone de Beauvoir, but it made sense to people who weren’t quite sure what a campus looked like, and there was also a compassion so much other comedy seemed to lack. Often touching, sometimes angry, never sentimental but always sympathetic, and with an extraordinarily high joke-per-page ratio, no wonder its appeal was so immense. Boys and girls read Adrian Mole, adults and teenagers, all of us wondering the same thing: “How does Sue Townsend know?”

How did she know?


Campus/academic novels

I’ve always been drawn to campus novels, ever since reading ‘Brideshead Revisited’ during the summer of ’86 before I went to Lancaster University. I know Brideshead is not technically a campus or academic novel, but the most vivid part for many people, including myself, is the Oxford section where Charles meets Sebastian. So romantic and sweet and full of adolescent yearning.

In my first year as an English undergrad we studied post-war novels which included David Lodge’s How Far Can You Go and Kinsgley Amis’ Lucky Jim. These were perfect choices for this time of my life – funny, clever, satirical, experimental. And I found one of my favourite genres. I love that David Lodge was Professor of English at Birmingham at that time (aka Rummidge). It all felt connected.

Now, as DS1 prepares to go to SOAS, and as I await the publication of my third novel in a month’s time, I see more connections. Bright Stars could be called a campus novel in that it is partly set at Lancaster University in the 80s (yes, it is fiction, really). And Lancaster University is most definitely a campus, stuck on a hill off the M6, three miles from town. Thinking about Bright Stars and my experiences of academic life, I have been drawn back to the campus novel. Here’s my top ten.

1. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954). Still makes me laugh. A comic book is so rare and this one is full of charm and embarrassment and is quintessentially British.

2. Nice Work by David Lodge (1988).


I could have chosen any one of Lodge’s books but I went for Nice Work partly because of the TV adaptation and Warren Clarke’s portrayal of Vic Wilcox. A changing places of industry and university with a nod to Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South.

3. Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson. This is the third of Atkinson’s novels and fantastic reading for anyone who has ever studied Creative Writing.

4. Starter for Ten by David Nicholls. Fabulous coming-of-age novel with more than a nod to television which is always fine by me. Funny and poignant.

5. Less than Angels by Barbara Pym. I could have chosen several of Miss Pym’s novels but went for this one, about anthropologists. Brilliant observations. Classic Pym.

6. Possession by AS Byatt. Not technically a campus novel but certainly set in an academic world. Multi-layered using different narrative devices.

7. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Just because.

8. The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury. A contemporary of David Lodge and also a fine example of the narrative technique of staying on the surface. Cutting satire of 70s academia.

9. Mary Swann by Carol Shields. Thought I should cross the pond, to Canada. I read this last year for the first time and was hooked. Such a clever use of subtle satire.

10. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. And south to the USA. A stunning portrayal of a post-grad love triangle, including a vivid account of the effects of bi-polar disorder. Wonderful characterisation.

I could add many more. What would be in your list?

Best Bits

It’s been a funny old year, 2014. Not particularly sorry to see the end of it as there have been stresses and strains. But there were some moments.

Best Book: Us by David Nicholls

Best Television Drama: Broadchurch


Best Television Comedy: Friday Night Dinner


Best Reality: Gogglebox


I didn’t see any decent films.

Most Inspiring Person: Malala Yousafzai


St Ives: Me and my mum


Glenda and Ben’s wedding:


The Exeter Novel Prize: Inaugural award ceremony


Trip to Israel (Silver Wedding treat):

Tackiest tourist trap – Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is supposed to be where Jesus was crucified and buried. What would Jesus think of the bling?


Most peaceful place and such a contrast to the latter was the Garden Tomb – much more authentic and real.


The Old City of Jerusalem where I felt I was treading in the footsteps of angels (whilst being squashed by tourists and pilgrims):


Olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane (that were there when Jesus was):


Putting my hand where Jesus was supposed to have placed his, on his last painful journey, down the Via Dolorosa:


Most breathtaking View: Masada


Trip to Edinburgh:My favourite city


My books: Seeing The Generation Game get to number 16 in the Kindle chart:


And some exciting news to come…

My family. We said some goodbyes to dear relatives, Auntie Shirley and Uncle Lyman. But I discovered my great grandmother’s letters and I got to know Mabel through her writing to her mother and sister.


I got to see my Canadian cousin, Susan. She’s serving in Lithuania.

I got to see my brother in Wales. He’s now American but Welsh in his heart.

sophie lecture 007

Seeing my children celebrate their 19th, 18th and 16th birthdays:

sophie lecture 029

Actually, I’m exhausted reading through all this. Thank you to everyone who reads my blog. It is a bit of a jumbled mess but I love it.

Bring it on, 2015.

Sophie x

Oh, do come on!


Yes, I do love game shows, so very excited tonight to be watching the final of University Challenge – it’s a looong series, been following for months and finally tonight we have a winning team: Manchester. (Surprise!)

Bamber Gascoigne was the iconic quiz master who hosted the programme from 1962 till 1987. (In 1987 I was an undergraduate at Lancaster but only knew answers to questions about Wham! or Evelyn Waugh, at a push, with a fair wind.) Since then Jeremy Paxman, aka Paxo, the demon interviewer, has been at the helm. He is not as student-friendly as Bamber. He is very scary. But I am just getting used to him after nearly two decades.

I am happy if I get a few questions right over the course of thirty minutes. In fact it gets quite competitive between my husband and me. He likes to think he is intellectually superior but we all know who has the brain in this house. Moi. At a push. With a fair wind. On a good day.

University Challenge might be elitist and academic but there is nothing wrong with spending half an hour in the company of boffs. And the happiness when you get an answer right is worth the humiliation of getting most of them wrong.

And not to mention this show’s place in our popular culture. David Nicholls’ wonderful novel Starter for Ten was made into a sweet film and was a memorable scene on The Young Ones… And a chapter heading in The Generation Game.

Well done, Manchester.


St Swithin’s Day


So this time in July there is a clutch of days that are memorable for one reason or another. The Twelfth in Northern Ireland, Bastille Day on the 14th in France and, today in England, July 15th is St Swithin’s day.

Legend has it that if it rains today, it will rain day and night for the next forty days.

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain

For forty days it will remain

St Swithun’s day if thou be fair

For forty days ’twill rain nae mare

I was mentally doing a sun dance last night as we have had quite enough rain this ‘summer’, thank you very much. And it has stayed dry. Hurrah!

And I couldn’t finish this post without a reference to one of my all time favourite novels, David Nicholl’s One Day. St Swithin’s Day plays a vital structural role in it. If you have read it, you will know why. If you haven’t read it, then do. It’s worth it. (And don’t forget the film.)

As for the rain, let’s see what happens over the next forty days and nights…

Before She Was Mine

Nothing can beat a mother’s love – except perhaps the love of two very different mothers…

Freya is torn between her two mothers. Liv, her adoptive mother who nurtured and raised her, is earthy, no-nonsense. The total opposite to Melody: with her vibrant, explosive personality and extensive, brightly coloured wardrobe, Freya’s birth mother is still apt to find herself thrown out of Top Shop for bad behaviour.
Hard as it has been for Freya to try to reconcile her two families, it has been harder for her mothers. Proud of her mature and sensible adoptive daughter, Liv fears Melody’s restless influence. Meanwhile, forced to give up her baby when she was just a teenager herself, Melody now craves Freya’s love and acceptance – but only really knows how to have fun.
Then tragedy strikes, and the bonds of love that tie these three women together will be tested to the max. Can they finally let go of the past, and pull together in order to withstand the toughest challenge life could throw them?

Kate Long is one of my favourite contemporary novelists. She deals with the subject matter closest to my heart, the one I most relate to, the one I am drawn to write about myself: family. Her style draws you in, down-to-earth, funny, poignant, and her gift for characterisation makes her stories utterly believable.

In Before She Was Mine, Kate Long deals with adoption and the consequences of an adoptee getting in touch with their birth family. As a teenager, Freya tracked down her birth mother, Melody, through Friends Reunited and, despite Social Services advice, made contact. Liv, always loving and supportive, gives Freya the space to explore this relationship.

I felt great empathy for twenty-three year old Freya. Since dropping out of college, she has moved back in with Liv and works in a garden centre. She does a lot of the housekeeping at home. (Someone has to.) Liv and her fellow nature conservationist and partner, Geraint – who Freya claims smells like a badger – are consumed with newts, insects, and the poo of small mammals. Meanwhile Freya’s best friend, Nicky, is planning her wedding to a bloke Freya has a crush on. Her beloved uncle and confidante is hoping to volunteer abroad. And her on-off relationship with loser, Oggy, is on repeat mode. All-in-all Freya feels she is being left behind, no future or prospects.

When her two mothers are each dealt a tragic blow at the same time, Freya’s loyalties are divided and she finally has to grow up.

Kate Long is a  Jacqueline Wilson for adults. She has a knack of drawing you completely into an everyday world where everyday people are pushed to their limits. She navigates through ‘issues’ with sensitivity and in an authentic way. You feel like you are right there, in the thick of it, gunning for the characters. For anyone who enjoys Laurie Graham, David Nicholls, Kate Atkinson or Marina Lewycka, I thoroughly recommend Before She was Mine – and if you have never read a Kate Long novel, you are in luck as there are many more to devour.



Read this article about Kate’s own experience of adoption. Some wonderful family photos!

Films of Books

Back along I put up a post on Songs about Books. With the final H.P. film opening tomorrow and my oldest right now in the charity shops of Teignmouth looking for an appropriate Potteresque oufit, I thought this would be a good time to blog about films adapted from books. Especially having watched the BBC adaptation of Sarah Water’s brilliant novel, The Night Watch on Tuesday evening. (Still on iplayer if you missed it.) I thought the one-off drama handled the backwards time frame brilliantly and, despite some changes to characters, it was faithful to the novel, capturing the immediacy and fragility of life and love in wartime.

One of my favourite recent books is One Day by David Nicholls, another novel with an unusual time frame as it follows its two main characters over two decades, with the action taking place on only one day, July 15th, throughout these years. A will-they-won’t-they story line but ultimately a beautiful, poignant love story with two memorable characters.

One Day is released at the end of August with Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess in the lead roles and, having read interviews about the upcoming film, it seems both of them know how serious it is to get these characters right as they will be accountable to over one million readers. A heavy burden to carry.

Probably my favourite ever screen adaptation is Brideshead Revisited, not the film as there’s far too much to cover in two hours, but the Granada production of 1981. I missed it the first time round but when it was repeated throughout the summer of 1986, I was hooked. It was the perfect television series for me as I was waiting for my A level results and then waiting to go up to university – not Oxford, but Lancaster. The music, by Geoffrey Burgon, captured the essence of the novel and has stayed with me through the years as has the magnificent cast which included Olivier and Gielgud as the two fathers.

As the countdown begins in earnest to the launch of my debut novel The Generation Game, I can’t help but daydream as to who would play my main character, Philippa… But for now,  I will happily leave her to the reader’s imagination…