Sue Townsend and the N Word
Today the sad but not unexpected announcement of Sue Townsend’s death. In recent years she was prey to a shocking list of disabilities and a testament to the old saying that health is wealth.
Sue and I grew up on the same street and went to the same school. We were never friends. She was a year older than me and lived in what my Mum sniffily referred to as The Prefabs. They were just little bungalows erected to house people while Leicester recovered from its wartime bomb damage, but they were the source of a kind of apartheid on Grange Drive. My mother could be a bit ‘bay-window’ when provoked and Sue’s enormous success with her first Adrian Mole book was the occasion for some maternal bristling in our house. My mother believed that God only handed out one publishing contract per street, per century, and that Sue had gone and pipped me to it.
Memories are so personal. Sue named her famous diarist in honour of one of our primary school teachers, Tom Mould. She said his reading of stories to us had inspired her to become a writer. Funny, because I don’t remember him reading stories to us. I remember him for his ability to play anything, I mean ANYTHING, on the piano and for the love he gave me of singing. Regrettably I wasn’t able to parlay his influence on me as successfully as Sue Townsend did. I still move my lips when I’m reading the bass clef line and my singing is only welcomed by those who love me.
By the time I was published Sue was already a celebrity, albeit a reluctant one, and when my publicist learned that I had a vague Adrian Mole connection she practically wet herself with excitement. Sue was approached and asked for a blurb for the cover, which she promptly and generously provided, describing my Parents’ Survival Guide as ‘shining like a Noddy nightlight amidst the gloom of most childcare books’. We were grateful and thrilled. Until the book hit the stores and Enid Blyton Rights Inc or some such avaricious organisation threatened to sue us if we didn’t pay them bags of money for use of the N word. That or remove it from the cover. And as I was an unknown author, unlikely even to earn out my modest advance, my publishers decided not to throw good money after bad, and for the second print run Sue’s praise underwent a Noddy-ectomy.
Sue Townsend used to say that readers must have felt disappointed when they met her and discovered she was just a regular Mum and granny. I think she was wrong about that. I imagine she inspired many of her fans to have a go at writing or to pursue some other ambition that might otherwise seem crazy to a woman with children clamped to her knee.
Well now Sue has laid down her pen for the last time. May she rest in peace. Sixty eight is far too young to die.
Fascinating, Laurie. I am one of those writers forever channelling her talent.