Sue Townsend a woman I admire
You don’t have to know somebody for a long time to know if you admire them.
We were travelling from the Greek island of Skyros to the mainland. A journey of about 1 – 2 hours and we just sat the whole time and had a conversation that still inspires me.
An initial lack of confidence about her writing.
When Sue first started writing she used to put the paper under the cushion on a sofa so that her then husband wouldn’t find what she had written. I can’t really remember if he was against her writing but she definitely wasn’t supported, and also felt awkward about what she was writing.
I certainly could identify with that feeling of wanting to keep writing personal. I do think many of us often don’t own up to the greatness we could achieve. This may simply be part of the journey and is quite natural unless you are very focussed and exceptional.
She had a lively sense of humour.
It can be one thing to be amusing on paper, or in front of an audience but quite often those people are depressive or joyless in real life. Sue was funny in her books and funny in real life too. I always feel more comfortable if I can laugh, and it encouraged me a lot that an author famous for selling millions of books about Adrian Mole as well as screenplays and plays was able to have a good chuckle, and didn’t take life too seriously. As she had diabetes and was losing her eyesight and feelings in her feet it was especially remarkable – and humbling.
Sue was a great teacher.
I learnt two fantastic aspects of writing which I still remember. We had an upstairs room in a Greek tavern to write in, but Sue wanted us to find our own place to write. So we dispersed to cafes, beside stone walls, on the beach and elsewhere to write. Then came back together. I love writing in strange places as well as where I am “meant” to write to this day and owe that to Sue’s influence. The other aspect was to do with editing. She maintained that no matter how good you think your writing is, there is always something you can edit. She was an advocate of writing in a notebook in blue or black, and editing in red. By my nature I am not so much of a perfectionist editor so it was a useful lesson for me to learn. I applied it to only one verb in one piece I wrote then, and was amazed by the powerful change.
Writers notice details.
She told me that she used to walk to school with a friend when she was young, and one day commented on the peeling wood on a gate. Her friend hadn’t noticed it. She stated that “writers notice details.” I listened to her telling me the story and imagined she must have extra powers which I as a mere mortal did not have. Then I remembered an incident which was remarkably similar.
I was walking to school with a friend. In the village street there were big wooden doors between two houses which were sometimes closed. When they were open you could see stone steps leading up to little doors, and alleyways leading to fields. I always hoped the doors would be ope as I loved looking at the scene. One day the gates were open and I could see in. I was so pleased and said so to my friend. I was astonished when my friend said that she had never noticed the gates before. I could hardly believe we lived in the same place. Because the situations were so similar it gave me a sense of belonging and finding another person who felt the same way .. and the thought began to trickle in that I was a writer, too.
We had a number of other connections, too. She read and loved the Just William stories by Richmal Crompton as I did. In fact I encouraged my children to read them as well, and many car journeys were in the company of Martin Jarvis reading them aloud.
Another connection was that she was published by Methuen which was the publishing company I joined when I left teaching. Our paths didn’t cross, but it felt like another coincidence.
The most powerful aspect of our conversation on the ferry was when we told each other a bit more about our lives including about our children and failed marriage. As part of this conversation she mentioned that her own mother had died when she was an eight year old child, and that a lots of writers – Shakespeare included – had lost their mothers at the age of eight. She wondered if there was something about losing a mother at that age which encouraged the child left behind to write. I can’t now remember the names of the other authors she mentioned, but I have a plan to do some research about this. Because my mother died when I was eight.
My conversation with Sue Townsend included a lot of laughter as well as serious issues and is one I treasure. She died in 2014 and was described by the actor Stephen Mangan who played Adrian Mole one one of the “warmest funniest and wisest” people he knew. Warm, funny and wise are wonderful ways to describe a woman, and from my own experience of her I would add the word “inspirational”.