A week ago today I was standing outside the Charles Wilson Building at the University Of Leicester with award winning author Bali Rai who was vaping madly. We were there to celebrate the 50th birthday of a character in a book.
Now this wasn't just any character...it was the birthday of the wonderfully and woefully comic Adrian Mole, and what would have been the 71st birthday of his creator.
Adrian became a worldwide publishing phenomenon of the 1980's and brought success to the much loved and admired Sue Townsend who was born and lived in Leicester. Last Sunday was all about celebrating that success and to find out more about Adrian, Sue and the worlds they inhabited.
But first lunch! Bali and I went up to the restaurant and met the other speakers who would be taking part in the afternoon's talks and the reunion which I was chairing.
A jolly affair and a hearty meal, and wine? "Oh should I?" I wondered , and then thought "Bugger it - everyone else is having one." Which they were...to calm the nerves as one said. Cheers then...
In the morning, Caroline Holden Hotopf had held a very popular illustration workshop so she was celebrating, and as we sat next to each other at lunch, it turned out that as youngsters we had lived within half a mile of each other and in summer went to the same outdoor swimming pool. We were both in Loughborough at arts college and university. Small world.
The first session in the afternoon was devoted to Sue Townsend's work as a playwright. Introduced by Bali Rai, it featured Carole Hayman and Janette Legge who knew Sue as an emerging writer, when only a few years before, Sue a young mum of three children had been so desperately broke, she and the children used to play scavenger hunt for pop bottles so that they could get 4 pence for each bottle they took back.
Carole Hayman was a hoot...theatrical, full of gossip, and lovely anecdotes about her time at the Royal Court Theatre in the late 1980's, when she directed two of Sue's plays, Bazaar and Rummage and the Great Celestial Cow. They got on famously, so much so that she collaborated with Sue Townsend on the TV series "The Spinney" which sadly never made it to the screens.
Carol and Janet then read out a script from the series to the appreciation of the audience...what a missed opportunity we all thought.
Then it was my turn to chair "a Reunion" of the key figures responsible for bringing Adrian Mole, the teenage intellectual, out into the world of radio and publishing.
John Tydman the legendary Deputy Head of BBC Radio who commissioned and directed Mole’s first radio appearance was unwell and couldn't be there unfortunately .When I say Mole, on radio, it was Nigel Mole aged 13 and three Quarters who created such an impact on New Years Day in 1982.
Colin Broadway, Sue's second husband also was unable to attend - a real shame as he suggested that Sue start a writing course at Leicester’s Phoenix Theatre. It was there that Sue learnt her craft writing plays, before branching out into writing books. Colin had met Sue when she was a single mum. They fell in love, had another child together and until Sue died, was her champion, her support and her rock, especially as her health declined. When she lost her sight, He and her son Shaun, her daughter Vicky and her editor Louise took it in turns to type out Sue’s work as she dictated her words.The audience last Sunday loved the story of his I told about one winter he and Sue were in Spain. He came back to Leicester for a few days, and Sue’s daughter continued to work on the latest book. Unfortunately there was a power cut, Vicky hadn’t backed up the work...there was a panicky phone call back to Colin. What can we do? He said "Give Sue a vodka and tonic, a packet of cigarettes and give her ten minutes. "Vicky did, and Sue was able to recreate the lost work.
So Simon Dixon, Archives and Special Collections Manager here at the University of Leicester stepped in as the first speaker. He talked about Sue's early career as writer and described the large collection of her work which is stored at the university.
Luckily I've had a private viewing of that collection...and it's fascinating to see early glimpses of Adrian in cheap lined exercise books on one side of a page and shopping lists....bread, potatoes on another.
To say that our next speaker had a tremendous impact on Sue Townsend and indeed on Adrian Mole himself, was an understatement. Geoffrey Strachan was the commissioning editor at Methuen in the early eighties who read an early version of the script...and he was charmed by its humour and pathos. He knew comic talent when he saw it...and the value of diaries, after all he'd suggested to Michael Palin that there was a good book in the diaries of working on Monty Python and behind the scenes. He also commissioned Caroline Holden Hotopf to illustrate the first and subsequent books.
He also had quite an impact on the audience...what an amusing and thoughtful speaker he was.
Then it was Caroline Holden Hotopf's turn ...since the Adrian Mole books, she’s illustrated children’s books, picture books, grammar books, poetry books and underwater detective novels. Her work has also featured in Private Eye, The Oldie, the Sunday Times and the Law Gazette. She also writes childrens books.
She described so well what it was like for her work to be spotted in an exhibition by Geoffrey Strachan, being asked to design the book jacket and how they both decided that they wanted the readers to imagine the main characters. How do illustrators get their inspiration? Well she told us...and she mentioned chatting to Sue about places in Leicester to use as locations in the book. Apparently there was a list.
So when it came to question time, after some lovely questions by our audience, I couldn't wait to ask where the list was and where were those locations? I feel a feature coming on...and I also wanted to know just how grateful she was to Geoffrey for such a regular source of income. "Very" she said "It paid for my first flat in Stepney!"
The next part of the afternoon brought some delightful surprises, in the form of new writing from both commissioned writers and school pupils, which channelled and was inspired by Sue Townsend's work.
Pupils from two local schools were introduced by Bali Rai and their voices shone from the page as they read of their Leicester, their streets and their world. Funny, clever and thought provoking they were too.
Then there were three commissioned monologues from Maria Taylor, Marilyn Ricci and Heidi Goody and Ian Grant. Different futures and scenarios for Adrian were laugh out funny, with great one liners, which so accurately captured the wit, cleverness and charm of the original Adrian.
A new speaker came skidding in towards the end...the first actor to play the original Adrian Mole no less. Simon Schatsburger was in the original play at Leicester's Phoenix Theatre, and transferred to London when the time came, with the rest of the cast at Sue's insistence. She didn't want more famous names...she wanted her actors which she chosen. Simon spoke very warmly and affectionately about Sue, and how she looked after everyone in a series of stories which made everyone smile.
Then it was time to remove our bottoms from the lecture theatre seats, buy books and make our way upstairs to celebrate Adrian's 50th birthday with bunting, party food from the eighties (sandwiches, vols au vents or cheese and pineapple on sticks anyone?),
cheesy music, and above all, a birthday cake. This wasn't just any birthday cake (cue Fleetwood Mac music and imagine me doing a deep husky intro) this was a Frances Quinn, winner of the Great British Bake off, birthday cake.
There were even goodybags!
What a lovely afternoon celebrating Adrian Mole's 50th birthday - the intellectual who sprang from the mind of a ordinary Leicester girl who endured ill health and poverty, to become an extraordinary writer whose work will not be forgotten.
Mind you, Penguin Books have no intention of letting that happen...not only are there delightful new editions with anniversary covers of all of the Adrian Mole books, which I am re reading with such great pleasure , there's even a new book out by Mole Press "The Collected Poems" by Adrian Mole. Inspired brilliance. Penguin, I adore ya...
*five of these photos are mine, the others are by courtesy of The University of Leicester.