PETER FROST celebrates the political principles of one of Britain’s funniest writers
It is 1969. The young single mum from Leicester was struggling at the bus stop with her three toddlers. Only one, aged five, is old enough to need a ticket and Mum is busy instructing him. “If the conductor asks how old you are, tell him you’re four.”
With just 11 pence in her purse, Mum has enough for her fare into town to join the long fight to collect her dole money, but not the boy’s half fare. When the conductor arrives the lad looks at mum and asks: “Mum, am I four or five?”
That young Leicester mum, eldest of five sisters, left school at 15 destined for dead-end jobs in the town’s hosiery factories, a petrol station or packing fish fingers for Birds Eye.
She married at 18, had three children by the time she was 23. The marriage ended and she became a single parent struggling on benefits.
A dozen or so years on this mum will be a multimillionaire and one of the widest-read authors and best-known playwrights in the world.
But Sue Townsend, who died earlier this month aged 68, would never forget her humble origins nor stop campaigning for those who still struggle to find enough money for the bus fare.
Well-known for her many hugely funny books, this article celebrates the book she first published in 1989 exactly 25 years ago, Mr Bevan’s Dream: Why Britain Needs Its Welfare State.
It is non-fiction, but in a series of personal memories and anecdotes it make a passionate case for what was, and still is, going wrong as Tories, then as now, try to demolish the welfare state.
A quarter of a century ago, Townsend argued that the benefits system was unfair, inefficient and totally unprofessional — which is why millions of people do not claim the benefits to which they are legally entitled. She was still making that argument right up until her death.
Her better-known books, starting with The Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾, never hid her radical political views.
We meet Bert the old communist, clearly based on an old comrade Townsend had known in Leicester. Bert sends the young Master Mole to the newsagent to get his newspaper. What else but the Morning Star?
When the boy asks Bert if the Morning Star is a newspaper, Townsend’s politics comes echoing through in Bert’s strident reply.
“Are you backward? The Morning Star is the only newspaper worth reading. The others are owned by capitalist running dog lackeys.”
Through Adrian’s stumbling political awakening we learn all about Thatcher.
“I’m not sure how I will vote. Sometimes I think Mrs Thatcher is a nice kind sort of woman. Then the next day I see her on television and she frightens me rigid. She has got eyes like a psychotic killer, but a voice like a gentle person. It is a bit confusing.”
Other lessons, all woven with incredible humour, include war and peace, the horror of three million unemployed, as well as love, sex, sexuality, militant feminism, writing poetry and even holding your drink.
Adrian’s ultimate lesson is about Labour politicians who betray their class. His beloved Pandora sells out to become an MP and one of “Blair’s babes.” Townsend’s conscience makes sure the even Pandora’s sell-out is not complete — she opposes the Iraq war.
The Adrian Mole books are full of these political messages and lessons, not always politically correct and often told through the actions of Adrian’s mum Pauline, surely a barely disguised Townsend.
Pauline goes to the Greenham women’s peace camp. Adrian almost understands.
“My mother has gone out with Mrs Singh, Mrs O’Leary and her women’s group to have a picnic on Greenham Common.”
Pauline reads Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and embraces feminism.
“My mother has gone to a woman’s workshop on assertiveness training,” moans Adrian. “She came home and started bossing us around.”
Townsend never hides her staunch republican principles. One Christmas, the old communist Bert tells Adrian’s aunt that the royal family should be made to live on a council estate.
That simple, but useful, idea became a whole book, The Queen And I, where a socialist government throws the royal family out of their palaces and the entire family move to a council estate.
The politics of the Gang of Four and the origins of the SDP and thus the Liberal Democrats gave the author a huge and entertaining new theme.
Pandora’s mother supports the Labour renegades in the SDP, her father loves Tony Benn. Violent arguments ensue and, when Adrian tries to help by posting a draft letter to the local Labour Party, chaos results.
Townsend always described herself as a passionate socialist, atheist and republican. Hating Tony Blair and new Labour, she enthusiastically supported the traditional views and the proud history of the Labour Party but said she had only voted Labour once.
She told reporters she preferred to vote Communist, Socialist Worker or a for one of the minority left parties if she had the chance.
Townsend may have gone, and she will certainly be missed, but Adrian Mole, Pandora Braithwaite and her many other characters and books will last forever. Most of her books are still in print — all, sadly, except Mr Bevan’s Dream.
If you want some not-too-heavy political history of the last half a century as well as a really good laugh you could still do a lot worse than rereading Sue Townsend.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 24 April 2014