Sue Townsend, an Aristocrat of the Spirit

Sue Townsend, a very great woman and a very great writer, passed away on Thursday night. She would never have thought of herself as spiritual, yet she was a true aristocrat of the spirit. She would laugh when I told her that, as she always did when hearing compliments.

This story about Sue will not detail her great public importance and success, as that is available elsewhere. This is more a small assortment of impressions or memories from the twenty years I knew her. I can hardly believe that I am writing this as a kind of obituary. To me, it seems she is still laughing in her kitchen in Leicester.

Sue was a great friend of Skyros as well as a friend of mine. She came to Skyros first in 1993, and then every year for 10 years, until ill health made it impossible.

I remember the evening we were sitting in the Skyros office, preparing the second year of the Skyros Writers Lab, and I summoned up the courage to phone the famous Sue Townsend at her home to ask if she would join us. One of our writers must have given me the number.

To my surprise and delight, she agreed instantly to come. Later she told me that she was so surprised about the phone call, because so few people outside the family had the number, that she said Yes because it was always so hard for her to say No to anyone.

Often her inability to say No got her in trouble, but, luckily, that Yes was one she never regretted. She seemed to love everything about the life of Skyros, but most of all, I think, she loved being in a community of people where she was accepted as a human being and a teacher rather than just as a famous writer.

Though of course she was happy that her books were so popular, she was never interested in her fame, nor indeed, in the money she earned from it. She did her best to give her money away, and she systematically ‘de-famoused’ herself, as she called it, by staying out of the public eye so she wouldn’t be easily recognized in the street.

She never moved from her home in Leicester and she would rather sit in a queue at the A&E department than use private medical treatment. As she had a tendency to neglect her health and this was having more and more serious implications, I begged her to get herself a private doctor to call on when she was ill. She humoured me by saying she would, but she never did. It was not her way.

She wouldn’t hesitate to use her fame though to help other people. She was incredibly kind to me, consenting to be interviewed for Joy of Burnout, because she saw her illnesses as a kind of burnout, but more than that, because she knew it would help me, and even writing an Adrian Mole introduction to a new edition of Life Choices, Life Changes, despite the fact that the publisher wouldn’t pay her for it. She would travel huge distances to give talks if she thought that not doing so would disappoint anyone, and particularly if the audience was of children.

A staunch socialist, she never forgot her roots, and remained a completely unprejudiced person. More than that, she was someone who deeply and naturally cared about everyone. Even in her books about the Royal Family, she managed to describe them humorously but lovingly. She never did cruel satire.

She was so reluctant for anyone to put her on a pedestal or even to feel in awe of her. She would systematically and laughingly tell painful stories about herself, not to get sympathy, but just to let people know that even though she was famous, she too was human. I used to ‘forbid’ her from telling these stories, and we would laugh at my telling one of the greatest storytellers of England to stop telling stories.

As is widely known, Sue’s life was plagued by ill health, all diabetes related. Each time I saw her, something else in her body had failed. I think the loss of her ability to read was probably the worst for her. Yet, we always managed to find something to laugh about, even when secretly I was incredibly worried about her, and she herself was becoming more and more restricted, and more and more aware of how dangerous her situation was.

For Sue, her beloved husband Colin and her family were everything. They were the centre of her life, and she was the centre of theirs. Colin sold his business so that he could take better care of her. Unusually for families nowadays, all the family seemed to live near her in Leicester. I never visited her home without at least one member of her family dropping in to see her, and although she was getting more and more disabled, it was always she who saw herself as everyone’s caretaker, never asking for any care herself. When she needed a kidney, the family queued up, each wanting to be allowed to be the one to donate theirs. Her son Sean’s kidney was found compatible and so he became the donor.

I have so many lovely memories of Sue. Right now I am picturing a time we sat in the sun at a table in front of a restaurant in London—Sue, myself and my kids, Ari and Chloe–and she told us about the Adrian Mole book she was writing, despite the fact that it was of course top secret.

I’m remembering also the time that we were walking and chatting in the street. Her eyesight was almost gone, yet, consummate observer that she was, she was the one who steered me around a man taking a photo because she could sense what he was doing from his bent over posture, while I had blithely ignored him.

One day as we sat together at a table in a Skyros bar, I found myself saying ‘You know I love you, Sue, whatever the hell that means’.

The truth is that you couldn’t not love her. She had that wonderful grace of someone who honoured life in all its manifestations, loved both individual people and humanity, and had that warmth, kindness, intelligence and a sense of humour that are simply unforgettable. I honestly can’t think of a negative thing to say about her, except perhaps that she took such good care of everyone else, but not of herself.

The last time I saw her, about 6 weeks ago, she had asked me to find the myth of Pandora to read to her, because she was writing a new book about her own character, Pandora. The article I read her detailed the way that the myth changed with patriarchy, downgrading Pandora from being a great goddess, whose name meant ‘all-giving’, to being a beautiful and silly woman, her name now translated as ‘all-gifted,’ created by the male gods to attract by, and be the ruin of, men. We were both fascinated.

When I read to her about a fifth century amphora where Pandora has her arms raised in an ‘epiphany gesture’, Sue immediately had to learn how to make the epiphany gesture herself. She and I and Colin had dinner together discussing whether Adrian Mole was attractive or not and what kind of character her Pandora was in terms of the myth.

As I reflect on it now, Sue herself was both all-gifted and all-giving. The light and grace of her presence in this world will live on.