A comprehensive study of the non-dramatic work of Sue Townsend. (Jurgen Willems)


home list theses content previous next  



                   This booklet is not a novel but rather a political pamphlet. It reflects Townsend's socio-political ideas, which can also be deduced from her fiction. The pamphlet is part of a series called Chatto Counter Blasts in which famous British writers and philosophers give their opinion on topical issues. On the back of this book the series presents itself as "a forum for voices of dissent" which challenge the dominant values of our time".

                   In the introduction to the pamphlet Townsend admits that she "can't write a well-structured essay" as a result of her lack of formal education. "So", she continues, "I have fallen back on the traditional working class method for expressing ideas. The anecdote..."[72] This means that she is going to present a defence of the Welfare State from her personal experiences. Before she moves on to recount the first anecdote she explains the title. She confesses to the reader that she used to have a crush on the left-wing politician Bevan who was a strong fighter for the Welfare State years ago. Young Townsend was so fascinated by this backbencher's appearance and speeches that she adopted his ideas. When she grew older and experienced the necessity of the Welfare system herself this ideological stance was reinforced by crude reality.

                   Next, Townsend exposes the social evils and unacceptable inequalities of present-day society in ten separate chapters. In two chapters dealing with her own experiences in the NHS she defends the necessity of such an institution. At the same time she files a complaint against the present-day policy with regard to the National Health Service. Townsend condemns the fact that babies and cardiacs die because there are not enough incubators or heart monitors to keep them alive.

                   In another chapter Townsend pleads for "a gesture of respect from powerful adults to powerless children".[73] This gesture should be to give school children a decent meal at noon, not the cold and tasteless food prepared in so-called 'Central Kitchens'.

                   Further on the humanitarian writer tackles the problems of deficient child benefit. By giving an example of what a child really needs (healthy food and clothes) she shows that it is impossible to raise a child with the meager allowance of 7.25 a week.

                   The scandal of illiteracy is exposed when Townsend recounts that three sixteen-year old boys one day asked her to teach them to read and write. In school they hand not learned anything due to the institutionalized inequality of the education system. They were labelled "dumbos" and left to their own devices. Regarding this problem Townsend does not only blame the system. She also criticizes the incompetent headmasters and teachers who cause a lot of schoolchildren to be unmotivated.

                   The following passage depicts how Townsend once had to beg for money at the Social Security Office but did not receive a dime. So she collected empty bottles and used the deposit money in order to buy food for her children. Here she denounces the bad working conditions of the Social Security staff and the unfriendly treatment of claimants resulting from this.[74]

                   In the chapter 'Community Care' Sue Townsend demands the protection of ex-patients of lunatic asylums and unofficial homeless street entertainers.[75] She accuses people in general of not caring for such people or even worse for turning them away or abusing them. She points out that because of this general aggression towards outcasts such people should be protected against the community rather than the other way round.

                   The fate of rehoused old people is also scrutinized in this pamphlet. Some unfortunate old-age pensioners have to leave their houses and are accommodated in sky-high threatening flats. Their financial situation is sometimes so miserable that they cannot even save enough money to provide a decent funeral for themselves.

                   Finally, Townsend depicts a hilarious future fantasy world. The chapter is called 'Mr Smith's privatized penis' which already indicates the nature of this world. It is a society in which everything is privatized and has to be paid for: the use of the pavements, the sunlight, the air and even sexual pleasure. This grotesque prophecy is meant to indicate that a serious change is necessary in society or that otherwise our lives will further deteriorate and the present-day inequality of people will become even sharper.



                   In this pamphlet Townsend proves she does have serious ideas about social issues. She proves that she is more than the simple-minded popular fiction writer or popular dramatist she is sometimes believed to be. Townsend displays a pervasive insight into the socio-political situation not only of the present day but also of the past. Furthermore she shows considerable learning and background knowledge when stating her point. It proves that she is well documented on what she writes and this gives her a certain authority. When she quotes Karl Marx for instance she knows what she is writing about.[76]

                   On the whole she presents a highly-spirited and fascinating defence of the Welfare State and its progeny, the N.H.S. The ideas formulated here recur in her works of fiction as I pointed out above. But there they are less easily discovered by the reader since they are hidden under the primarily entertaining surface level.

home list theses content previous next  


[71].Sue Townsend, True Confessions of Margaret Hilda Roberts, p. 157.

[72].Sue Townsend, Mr. Bevan's Dream. Why Britain Needs its Welfare State, London: Chatto and Windus, 1989, p. 3.

[73].Sue Townsend, Mr. Bevan's Dream, p. 24.

[74].The scene in the DSS office is also incorporated in The Queen and I and in The Growing Pains.

[75].In Rebuilding Coventry one such character is focused on: Coventry's friend Dodo.

[76].Sue Townsend, Mr Bevan's Dream, p. 6.