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Honorary Degree Orations
Public Orator, Professor Elaine Hobby presented the Honorary Graduand at the Degree Ceremony held on Friday 20 July at 3.00pm
Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Lord Lieutenant, Honorary Graduands, Ladies and Gentlemen, and Graduands
As we settled into our seats on this momentous day and people opened their programmes, I kept hearing: 'Susan Townsend; do you think that's Sue Townsend, you know, the Adrian Mole author?' I am delighted to say that it is, and also to repeat to you what one of today's graduands said on hearing she's here: 'I'm getting my degree at the same time as somebody famous? That's amazing'.
Amazing it is. Sue Townsend is a star from Leicestershire whose story and achievements make her singularly well-suited to be awarded a higher degree. Both in Leicester in 1946, she left school at the age of 15 and held a variety of ordinary jobs, which included working in a local factory, and being a shop assistant. Then, more than 30 years after leaving formal education, she joined a writers' group at the Phoenix Theatre, Leicester, and at the age of 35 she won a Thames Television Playwright Award for her play Womberang. Since then there have been many other plays, which have been performed at venues including not only the Phoenix and the Haymarket in Leicester, but also at one of the most exciting venues of the 1980s, the Royal Court, and many novels, both satirical and serious.
But it is of course as the inventor of Adrian Mole that Sue Townsend is best known. The first book in this series, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 133⁄4, came out in 1982, and it was the best-selling new British fiction book of the 1980s. When its sales are combined with those of its immediate sequel, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, Sue Townsend proved to be the best-selling novelist of that decade. What takes some imagining are some related statistics: the Adrian Mole books have been translated into 34 languages, and have been adapted for radio, television and theatre. This is truly phenomenal success.
Success in the literary marketplace would not, in itself, lead Loughborough University to award an honorary degree to a writer, of course, however admiring we might be. What makes Sue Townsend such a pre-eminent candidate is the quality of her writing. In preparation for today, I have been re-reading the Adrian Mole series and rejoicing again in the way in which these books subtly combine startling social satire with a deceptively easy-going plot-line. In the course of any one of these books, the laughing reader is teased, reprimanded, prodded to think. If you have not read these books recently, or not read them at all, I recommend them to you: they certainly stand the test of time.
My favourite Adrian Mole book is The Cappuccino Years, so I returned to that one with particular relish, and for a moment, panicked. Quite early in that book, Adrian Mole's old school enemy, Barry Kent, who has become a successful novelist, is presented with an honorary degree by De Montfort University. So now I quote:
[Barry Kent] grabbed the headlines throughout the English-speaking world by parting his academic robes, revealing he was totally naked underneath them, and intoning 'Yo, I'm a man'.
Had I made a terrifying mistake, I wondered, in nominating Sue Townsend for this honorary degree? But then good sense and professionalism took over: as a professor of English I know perfectly well that one should never confuse a writer with one of her characters. And anyway, Sue Townsend is a woman, and what she is hiding under her robes is certainly both more interesting, and more surprising, than Barry Kent's treasures.
Therefore, Chancellor, I have the honour to present to you, and to the whole University, Mrs Susan Townsend for the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa.