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Newsletter 49 June 2014

Welcome to our first newsletter for 2014. We hope the year is going well for you and that you will be able to join us for the forthcoming AGM, and events planned for later the year. We apologise that newsletters are not more regular. Committee members are grateful for your patience and do appreciate your continued interest in the Society and the collections we support.

ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING 2014

The 2014 AGM of the Friends of the Dorothy Neal White Collection will be held on Thursday 26 June at the National Library building, Wellington, in the Tiakiwai Conference Centre, Lower Ground Floor (please use the Aitken Street entrance). The evening will begin with drinks & nibbles at 5:30pm. At 6:00pm we will present Nicola Daly with the FDNW Research Grant (see p.2 for more details), and the Annual General Meeting will follow at about 6.30pm.

Those who attended last year’s meeting will remember that four of our long-serving committee members stepped down. At the subsequent election of officers we were unable to elect a president or official secretary for the Friends and, as an interim measure, committee members have shared the duties of chairing meetings and recording minutes. Where a spokesperson has been needed Treasurer Janet Blake has taken this responsibility.

While all current committee members are happy to stand again we would certainly welcome expressions of interest in sharing the committee roles. If anyone is interested in joining the committee, or filling one of the missing positions, we would love to hear from you. Please contact Janet Blake janetblake1@yahoo.co.nz or Joan McCracken joan.mccracken@dia.govt.nz

A need for a new patron was also voiced following the death of our patron Margaret Mahy, and it is hoped that we will have announcement about this at the AGM.

Full minutes of the 2013 meeting can be found on the Friends’ here

The current Committee are:
Patron: President: (Meeting chair role shared)
Treasurer: Janet Blake
Membership Secretary: Trevor Mowbray
Minutes Secretary: Shared
Newsletter: Joan McCracken
Committee: Audrey Cooper, Corrina Gordon, Alison Grant, Mary Hutton, Barbara Robertson, Mary Skarott, Tania Connelly

FDNW RESEARCH GRANT

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Frontispiece of Waihoura, the Maori girl, by W.H.G Kingston (Gall & Inglis, 187-?)

We are delighted to announce that a FDNW Research Grant has been made to Dr Nicola Daly.

Nicola is a Senior Lecturer in Waikato University’s Faculty of Education. Her area of expertise is linguistics – specifically sociolinguistics, language teacher education, and Māori loanwords in New Zealand English children’s picture books.

She is going to use the Dorothy Neal White Collection to explore reflections of national identity in picture books available to New Zealand children in the century before 1940.

Nicola has published extensively in educational journals, has contributed chapters to several books, and delivered papers at many conferences, both in New Zealand and internationally. She is also the author of Sasha’s legacy. a guide to funerals for babies (2005).

Nicola will use her grant to make research trips to Wellington to explore the collections at the National Library. She will give an introduction to her research, her methodology and coverage at the Annual General Meeting in June (see p.1).

W G H KINGSTON

The image we have used to promote this year’s Annual General Meeting is the frontispiece of Waihoura, the Maori girl, by W.H.G. Kingston.

When I was given the image I was charmed by it, thinking I’d never seen it before or heard of the author or his book. I was wrong – but more of that later. Wanting to know more I did what all good librarians do – I went to Google, and Wikipedia told me quite a lot about William Henry Giles Kingston. He was born in London in 1814, the eldest son of Lucy Henry Kingston and Francis Sophia Rooke. His father was a wine merchant and the family spent considerable time at their property in Portugal. William joined his father’s business as a young man, but his real interest, however, was in writing and he published newspaper articles on Portugal which were translated into Portuguese.

To quote Wikipedia “His first book was The Circassian Chief, a story published in 1844, and while still living in Oporto, he wrote The Prime Minister, an historical novel, and Lusitanian Sketches, descriptions of travels in Portugal. Settling in England, he interested himself in the emigration movement, edited in 1844 The Colonist and The Colonial Magazine and East India Review, was honorary secretary of a colonisation society, wrote in 1848 Some Suggestions for a System of General Emigration, lectured on colonisation in 1849, and published a manual for colonists, How to Emigrate, in 1850.” Of those publications the Library holds only The Colonial Magazine, although a number of Kingston’s other titles relating to emigration and societal change are in the collection. Kingston’s main passion though was for writing historical books, biography and adventure stories for boys. Over 100 such titles are listed in the National Library catalogue – and we do not have a complete set. His interest in emigration, travel and the sea are strongly reflected in his work – books such as Captain Cook: his life, voyages, and discoveries (1871), A popular history of the British Navy (1876), The young Llanero: a story of war and wild life in Venezuela (1879) and South Sea whaler (1896). There are multiple editions of many of the titles and several are lavishly illustrated. Waihoura, from which our poster illustration was taken, was not his only book set in New Zealand. We also hold Holmwood, or, the New Zealand settler: a tale. Digital copies of both these books can be found on Victoria University’s Electronic Text Centre website

Victorial University Scholarly Metadata
and here

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Page from letter written by W H G Kingston
MS-Paper-6368-4 KA Webster papers – Alexander Turnbull Library

The Turnbull also holds a letter relating to emigration and the Canterbury Association which is catalogued as being from “William W G Kingston”. Closer examination shows that the writer was William H G Kingston. Unfortunately the front page is missing so we don’t have a date of writing, thought the reference to the Canterbury Association means it is likely to have been between 1848 and 1853. Kingston didn’t come to New Zealand but he did travel in Europe and Canada (where his younger brother, George Kingston, was a professor and leading meteorologist).

William Kingston married Agnes Kinloch in 1853. They were to have eight children, although all died young. Agnes was a talented linguist and in the 1870s Kingston entered into a contract with the publishers Sampson Low and Marston to translate some works of the French author Jules Verne. These are the works for which Kingston is most remembered today, but although they were all published under his name, the translations were actually done by his wife. Diaries kept by both William and Agnes were inherited by a relation, Reverend M. R. Kingsford, and he wrote a biography, The Life, Work, and Influence of W. H. G. Kingston, based on these. It was published in Canada in 1947. Unfortunately the Library does not hold a copy of the biography. Perhaps something for the DNW Collection desiderata list?

When I was searching for further information about W H G Kingston and his book Waihoura on Google, I was very surprised to be taken to several mentions on the FDNW website! Not only was the book mentioned but we had actually used the frontispiece to illustrate an article in Newsletter 44 about digital resources available through the National Library. One of the other references is to Notes-Books-Authors #1 Papers on the Dorothy Neal White Collection (1985) which it is digitised on the site. In this, in a section on the contents of the DNW collection, it is noted that “two titles by W.H.G. Kingston have so far proved elusive. They are Holmwood, or The New Zealand Settler and Waihoura, or The New Zealand Girl. “. The latter was added to the collection through a kind donation from the estate of Lois Luke, but the former is only held by the Alexander Turnbull Library and not in the DNW Collection.

What I set out to do was identify the artist of the frontispiece of Waihoura. I’ve found one mention in an online bookseller’s catalogue that claims the book contains a “Handsome colour frontispiece by Baxter”, but I’ve found nothing further to support (or contradict) this. Does anybody out there know more? If you do I’d love to hear from you.

Joan McCracken
Newsletter Editor

MARCH EVENT

The weather on Wednesday 5 March 2014 was dreadful but the brightness of the speaker more than compensated for that! Amie Lightbourne, Awards Manager of the New Zealand Post Book Awards, gave a highly entertaining and informative talk about the home-grown literary competition for recently published books that keeps writers, illustrators, publishers, shop owners, and children, in suspense every year. Amie is an accomplished speaker who covered her topic in exactly an hour (I noted this!) yet did so in an informal and easy manner that appeared spontaneous. Her talk, a power-point presentation, included some great photos of children and teachers celebrating the winners.

After describing how the competition was organized overall, she briefly outlined the adult section, before discussing the part devoted to children’s books, the selection of judges, the creation of the short list, the choice of winners and the awards ceremony. We heard about the amazing number of picture books submitted, far and away outnumbering entries in any other category and the wide range in the quality of those put forward. Not surprisingly, there were always, what she termed, ‘shockers’ among the submissions but what she found more regrettable, were those books containing a promising story marred by amateur illustrations, the latter frequently contributed by the author’s “Uncle Joe up the road”! Every year, the competition includes a “Children’s Choice” section, when children get the opportunity to indicate their favourite books on the short list and the reasons for their choice. According to Amie, she particularly enjoyed working with the schools and the frank and hilarious nature of some of the responses.

Lots of people harbour ambitions to write, especially to write for children. Amie’s talk was sufficient to encourage them to get behind the computer, even if for no other reason than to enter the New Zealand Post Book Awards/Children’s Book Awards! It was just sad that more of our members hadn’t braved the elements and come along to hear what she said!

Tania Connelly
FDNW Committee

NEW ZEALAND POST BOOK AWARDS FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE FINALISTS 2014

This year’s judges are award-winning novelist Barbara Else, illustrator Ant Sang and community librarian at Christchurch City Libraries, Zac Harding. The 2014 winners of the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults will be announced at a ceremony on Monday 23 June.

Best Picture Book

    • Machines and me: boats by Catherine Foreman (Scholastic New Zealand)
    • The boring book by Vasanti Unka (Penguin Group (NZ) Puffin)
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  • The three bears… sort of by Yvonne Morrison and Donovan Bixley (Scholastic New Zealand)
  • Toucan can by Juliette MacIver and Sarah Davis (Gecko Press)
  • Watch out, snail by Gay Hay and Margaret Tolland (Page Break Ltd)

Best Junior Fiction

  • A winter’s day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik (Scholastic New Zealand)
  • Dunger by Joy Cowley (Gecko Press)
  • Felix and the red rats by James Norcliffe (Random House New Zealand, Longacre)
  • Project Huia by Des Hunt (Scholastic New Zealand)
  • The princess and the foal by Stacy Gregg (Harper Collins Publishers (NZ))

Best Young Adult Fiction

  • A necklace of souls by RL Steadman (HarperCollins Publishers (NZ))
  • Bugs by Whiti Hereaka — eBook (Huia)
  • Mortal fire by Elizabeth Knox (Gecko Press)
  • Speed freak by Fleur Beale (Random House New Zealand)
  • When we wake by Karen Healey (Allen & Unwin)

Best Non-Fiction

  • An extraordinary land: discoveries and mysteries from wild New Zealand by Peter Hayden and Rod Morris (HaroerCollins Publishers (NZ))
  • Anzac Day: The New Zealand story by Philippa Werry (New Holland Publishers)
  • Flight of the honey bee by Raymond Huber and Brian Lovelock (Walker Books Australia)
  • The beginner’s guide to hunting and fishing in New Zealand by Paul Adamson (Random House New Zealand)
  • Wearable wonders by Fifi Colston (Scholastic New Zealand)

Māori Language Award

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  • Taka ki rō wai by Keri Kaa and Martin D Page (Tania&Martin)

A HORNBOOK ARRIVES IN THE COLLECTION

This article was first published as a blog on the National Library website. Do look at it online if you can as it includes a number of other illustrations in colour.

Now I know my A B Cs

Below is Curator of the Rare Book Collection, Ruth Lightbourne, with the newly-acquired hornbook.
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The Alexander Turnbull Library recently acquired a small late 18 th century hornbook, filling a hole in the Library’s ability to trace the history of children’s books.The name ‘hornbook’ is deceptive, as it is neither in book form nor is it anything to do with the musical instrument. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 describes the hornbook as the ‘first book of children, covered with horn to keep it unsoiled’. It was used to teach basic information to children and usually included the alphabet, numbers 1 to 9, and prayers such as the Lord’s Prayer and the phrase ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen’. Hornbooks were widely used by children from the 15th to the end of the 18th century. To begin with hornbooks were printed in Black Letter but this was gradually supplanted by the Roman font because it was easier to read. Numerals were also presented in two formats: Roman (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX) and Arabic (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9), and sometimes both at the same time.

In its simplest and most common form, the hornbook was composed of a piece of wood cut in the shape of a paddle with the lesson sheet of vellum or paper pasted on one side. In English-speaking countries a piece of transparent horn was laid over the sheet and held in place by narrow brass strips tacked through the horn to the wood. A common size was 2 ¾ x 5 inches (7 x 12.5cm), small enough so that a child could hold it easily in one hand. Sometimes a hole was bored into the handle so that a cord could be strung through and the item hung from a girdle, wrist, or around the neck. The more elaborate examples might be covered in tooled leather, or encased in silver filigree. The lesson itself could be engraved directly onto the backing, written out by hand onto the lesson sheet, or printed on a printing press. To make it pliable, the horn was first soaked in cold water for several weeks to separate the horn from the central core, then boiled, after which it could be cut and flattened easily into sheets.

Hornbooks were also made of ivory, and apparently even of gingerbread (the hard ‘dunk in tea’ type), although only the moulds for the gingerbread variety remain today; doubtless gingerbread hornbooks were eaten after lessons were finished (perhaps sometimes even before!).

In the early years of the 19th century when the hornbook was dying out, the wooden base was replaced by cardboard, sometimes covered in embossed and highly-coloured decorated papers, with the lesson sheet on the other side protected by a varnish. These cheaply-produced 19th-century items were sold for a halfpenny.

A refined example

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Ivory or bone hornbooks, such as the recent Turnbull acquisition, were more common towards the end of the 18th century. Because they were expensive to produce, they would have been used by children from more affluent homes. The Turnbull artefact measures only 100 x 50mm (including the handle), and is a mere 1mm thick. The letters were engraved into this and then filled with a black pigment. There are also traces of coloured pigment on the floral decoration of the handle.

Note the lowercase alphabet has two forms of the letter ‘s’. The ‘long s’, which is very similar to the letter ‘f’ but with a cross bar extending out to the left only, was used in the middle of words or as the first letter in the double ‘ss’ up until the end of the 18th century.

While hornbooks were intended to prepare children for reading, there was a large gap between learning your alphabet on a horn book and actually reading a book. Books for children did exist, but they were certainly not graded in reading ability such as they are now, and much of it was didactic in nature. Imaginative literature did not really come into its own until the 1840s. Until then, children read and took what they could from adult books such as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

Further reading
Beulah Folmsbee, A little history of the horn-book, Boston, 1942
Andrew W. Tuer, History of the horn book, New York, 1979

By Ruth Lightbourne
Curator, Rare Books and Fine Printing
Alexander Turnbull Library

FROM THE RESEARCH LIBRARIAN

Usage of the collection has been relatively light over recent months. However, this is set to increase markedly over the next couple of months when Nicola Daly, the recipient of our latest research grant, undertakes her research project, as detailed on page 2.

There has been the usual steady flow of donations, with some particularly desirable items being offered and accepted. More on these in the next newsletter.

A very positive development has been the re-appearance of the display cabinet to show selected items from the Dorothy Neal White Collection and, when appropriate, the National Children’s Collection. The cabinet sits in the foyer leading into the General Reading Room and has attracted a lot of interest from people passing through the area. To meet conservation requirements the display will be changed every three months. There are also some restrictions on the type of material that can be displayed, but rest assured there will still be plenty to choose from.

You can keep up to date with what is and has been on display in our new “In the Display Cabinet” column.

Mary Skarott
Research Librarian, Children’s Literature

IN THE DISPLAY CABINET

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Mary Skarott, Nancy Bale and Corrina Gordon looking in the display cabinet, First floor foyer.
Photo: Mark Beatty

#1 Victorian Woodblock Prints

The first selection of books in the reinstated children’s literature display cabinet was on view from February to mid-May.

The five selected books were examples of the collaboration between wood engraver and printer Edmund Evans and Victorian authors and illustrators Randolph Caldecott, Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway. Evans wanted to produce books for children that were both beautiful and affordable and he perfected the woodblock printing technique known as chromoxylography. This process requires great attention to detail, using as many as a dozen colour blocks for a single illustration, and allowing colours to be mixed to produce a variety of hues. His collaboration with Caldecott, Crane and Greenaway produced what are now considered to be classic children’s books.

To mark this first display and to promote the children’s literature collections in general, photographs were posted on the Library’s Facebook page. To view the photos, go to the Facebook page (there is a link on the homepage at natlib.govt.nz) then click on photos and scroll down the page.

#2 Pictorial Cloth Bindings

From mid-May to approximately mid-August you can view a selection of books with pictorial cloth bindings, dating from 1874 to 1926.

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Cloth bindings were introduced in the early 1820s. The cases were prefabricated in batches and attached to the text-block by gluing the endpapers to the inside of the covers. Cloth is tougher than paper and cheaper than leather, so publishers were now able to provide sturdy, ready bound books at a reasonable price.

By the 1830s covers were being decoratively embossed, making them much more attractive than unadorned cloth bindings with paper labels. Powerful steam presses were used to stamp the covers with all manner of gilt and coloured designs. By the twentieth century the process was fully mechanised.

Don Quixote of the Mancha / retold by Judge Parry,illustrated by Walter Crane. Manchester: Sherratt & Hughes, 1900.

TWO DRAGONS, DAVID ELLIOT AND ME

On the wall outside my bathroom there is a picture of two dragons having a wash. The big one, who is luxuriating in the water, wears a bath hat. The little one, perched perilously on the edge of the tub, is splashing water over his friend. On first glace they appear to be fantasy dragons. There is a moon with a face in the evening sky. The décor of the bathroom has a dream-like, fairytale, feel about it. Closer inspection reveals a more scary aspect to the picture. The underside of the big dragon’s tail is muscular and weighty and the nails on his colossal feet are yellowed and clawed. As for the little chap, his wings have a mummified, clammy aspect. He more closely resembles a pterodactyl than a creature from Margaret Mahy’s garden!

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Dragon Tangle illustration “To Tania with my thanks. David Elliott,1991.
Photograph: Martin Connelly

I treasure this picture partly because of its outstanding quality, partly because it is the original work of children’s illustrator David Elliot and partly because I can claim to have, not so much as a hand, but maybe a little finger, in its creation! David Elliot is one of New Zealand’s most distinguished illustrators, acclaimed both in this country and overseas. He has produced a raft of prize winning picture books, five of his own and a number in collaboration with some of our most famous authors including Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley and Janet Frame. Earlier this year, he received the Storylines Margaret Mahy Award in recognition of his lifetime achievement in children’s writing and illustration.

I met David in the early 1990s, not as a fellow writer though that certainly came into it, but as a teaching colleague. We were both on the staff of Queen’s High School, Dunedin where David had established himself as an excellent teacher of art. He had already produced Arthur’s Star a picture book published by Penguin (NZ) in 1986 and was currently trying to find a subject for his next venture. One morning (it must have been holidays!) he came to visit me at home and we discussed his problem. I told him of an incident that I had witnessed in the city where I had previously lived. A local church had decided to hold a medieval fair, complete with striped, awning-covered booths and stocks where local dignitaries were prepared to be confined and to suffer missiles thrown by the populace for a small fee! Shortly after the fair opened a howling nor’wester blow up and devastated the show! Stalls came crashing to earth, worthy church men and women, with their bells and motley, struggled vainly with guy ropes, someone got stuck in a tray of toffee apples and the poor vicar, who was not too popular with his parishioners, was left writhing in the stocks! I know it was most un-Christian of me but I found the scene extremely funny, hilarious even!

As I was aware that David was interested in depicting the mediaeval world, this disaster came to mind and I told him about it. He saw the possibilities at once. Somehow we came up with the notion that in his story, the protagonist, me, could be replaced by a dragon (!) maybe two dragons and that instead of wind causing the damage, the dragons could create the havoc themselves! Thus Dragon Tangle was born! It won the Unilever/Choysa Bursary in 1991 and was published by Ashton Scholastic in 1994.

Sometime afterwards I received a present from David, the original of one of his illustrations drawn for the book, beautifully mounted, framed and inscribed. I didn’t really feel I deserved the honour but none the less, I felt incredibly flattered and pleased. Today the picture isn’t quite what it was. The glorious blues have faded a little and the handsome frame is lightly freckled with age. However, my feelings of delight, when I look at it and recall its history, remain unchanged.

Tania Connelly
FDNW Committee

BOOK REVIEW – JIM’S LETTERS

Jim’s letters, written by Glyn Harper and illustrated by Jenny Cooper, stood out for me from the many books, both children’s and adult’s, about WWI. It is a poignant example of a child’s view of the war. The story itself is touching, but it is also a beautifully planned and presented book.

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As you open the book you see the endpapers printed with stamps and postmarks of the era. The book is written almost entirely in letter form and many of the pages have a ‘letter’ to open or take from an envelope. For those little fingers who may be exploring this book in the latest generation, this will probably have more of a novelty value, but for those of us who still receive or remember receiving real letters, this has a feeling of nostalgia for a time when it was exciting to open a letter which may have taken weeks to arrive.The story follows the letters between a boy and his older brother, who has gone off with excitement to the war, only to discover that it is not all he imagined it to be. Jimmy is young Thomas’s hero and he follows every bit of news avidly, thinking that his own news of the farm at home must be very boring, but after a while it is clear that Jimmy wishes he were back at the farm, with all the comforts of home and family.

The illustrations of the books are watercolour type pictures that really capture the expressions of the people and animals, and do not overly glamorise the conditions the soldiers had to endure. One image that caught my attention showed the ‘boys’ finally leaving for Lemnos – their faces so young they could still be at school, their eyes lit up with the prospect of seeing the action. Another shows soldiers trudging through knee-deep water while a disembodied hand floats past. These contrast sharply with images of farm life at home, which seems idyllic in comparison.

Glyn Harper is Professor of War Studies at Massey University in Palmerston North, and in addition to several adult books, has written two other children’s books, Le Quesnoy and My Grandfather’s War showing a view of war that children can more readily relate to. This is not the first book he has written using letters to tell a story. Letters from Gallipoli is written using letters from New Zealand Archives and other sources, in a more adult version of Jim’s letters.

The illustrator, Jenny Cooper, is very prolific and has been nominated for and received several awards. She won the 1998 New Zealand Post Student Stamp Design award and the 1998 Telecom New Zealand White Pages Art Award and was nominated in the junior fiction category for the 2008 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, and was listed as a 2008 Storylines Notable Junior Fiction Book.

At the end of the book is a short background history of Gallipoli campaign, being the inspiration behind this story. This tale would be a really good way of showing younger children the meaning of war from a family perspective and the sadness surrounding wars in general. Certainly a ‘must have’ for school libraries, but also for any child wanting to know more about how it was for the soldier on the ground.
Corrina Gordon
FDNW Committee

OBITUARIES

Betty Fleming (1925-2013)
One of the Friends members passed away last year on 9 February 2013, aged 88.

Betty (nee Glasson) came from Christchurch to attend the first course held by the New Zealand Library School (established 1946).

She married Jock Fleming, a Thorndon G P. Jock was an enthusiastic track makerin the Otari, Wrights Hill and Makara areas. After completing her library training, Betty began work at the School Library Service, then in the Progress Motors building on the corner of Harris and Victoria Streets. She was part of the book selection and reviewing team until about 1954, when she left to have her first child, a boy. She had four children, two boys and two girls.

Even with a growing family, Betty continued to maintain an interest in children’s books and other genres of literature. She had a wide knowledge of the arts and music, and was particularly interested in the Chamber music society. Betty served as a committee member of the Friends of the Festival in Wellington for many years.

In the late 1970s/ early 1980s, Betty established an attractive gallery with a friend in the Kelburn village. This promoted New Zealand artists and craftspeople.

After Jock’s death, Betty sold their Wilton Road home and moved to the family’s holiday home in Raumati, South Beach, to support her younger daughter and family.

Betty was a very likeable person, warm hearted and affectionate. I remember her very fondly as a work colleague and a personal friend. She was always a loyal supporter of the Friends of the Dorothy Neal White collection.

Mary Hutton

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Sue Townsend (1946-2014)

Sue Townsend, who has died aged 68 after suffering from a stroke, was one of Britain’s most celebrated comic writers: novelist, playwright and journalist. She was best known for the fictional diaries of Adrian Mole, a character who, unlike Peter Pan, is allowed to grow up, evolving from the penis-measuring adolescent who confides “I was racked with sexuality but it wore off when I helped my father put manure on our rose bed” in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ (1982) to the middle-aged and, Townsend liked to insist, more evolved and better-dressed bloke who survives prostate cancer in Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years (2009).

The glory of Mole is his inability to see the funny side, his self-importance and the way in which his diaries unwittingly accommodate his creator’s social commentary. The first book, which in the 80s made Townsend the decade’s bestselling novelist, took a shrewd look at Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. In Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years (1999) she took on New Labour with equivalent relish. Mole was a hapless Blairite, in love with Pandora Braithwaite, on-message MP. By the time of his last sighting he was living with his dissatisfied wife, Daisy, in a converted pigsty.

The Mole books have been translated into 48 languages and sold more than 10million copies. Adrian’s career has extended to radio and television adaptations and he has been a smash hit in the West End. “Adrian Mole, c’est moi,” Townsend said when I interviewed her in 2010.

Unlike Adrian, she could spot a joke a mile off. Her ability to entertain without compromising her integrity was a gift that defined her and her writing. And she was not in the least self-important.

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Sue Townsend in 2000
Susan Lillian Townsend, writer, born 2 April 1946; died 10 April 2014.
Photograph: Rob Judges/Rex

Townsend was born in Leicester, the eldest of five sisters. Her father worked in a jet-engine factory and became a postman when it closed. Her mother worked in the factory canteen. At Glen Hills primary school, Townsend was terrorised by a teacher who, when children had failed to master their lessons, would slap their legs and make them do handstands.

She could not read until she was eight. It was her mother who taught her, with Richmal Crompton’s William books – the inspiration for Adrian. After failing the 11-plus, she went to a secondary modern, South Wigston high school. She left at 15 but kept reading. She devoured Woolworth’s Classics (Jane Eyre, Heidi and co) and moved on to Russian and American literature.

Sue Townsend in 2000. Photograph: Rob Judges/Rex

As a chain-smoking teenager, dressed in black, she was fired from a job in a clothes shop for reading Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol in the changing rooms. From the age of 14 she was also writing in secret.

By the time she was 18, she had married a sheet-metal worker and, by 22, had three children under five: Sean, Daniel and Victoria. She lived on the Saffron Lane estate, not far from the house in which the playwright Joe Orton – another of Leicester’s claims to literary fame – had grown up. When, after seven years, her marriage ended, she worked in assorted part-time jobs: at a petrol station, as a receptionist and for Birds Eye foods.

The toughness of that time was something she never underplayed. She remembered making pea soup for her children out of one Oxo cube and a tin of garden peas. Although her books later made her fortune, she said that no amount of balsamic vinegar or Prada handbags would make her forget what it was like to be poor.

Through one of her many jobs, at an adventure playground, she enrolled on a canoeing course, where she found herself attracted to the man running it – initially by the way he tried to take off a jumper while simultaneously smoking a Woodbine. This was Colin Broadway, who was to become her second husband and father of her fourth child, Elizabeth. It was he who encouraged her, in 1975, to join a local writers’ group at the Phoenix arts theatre in Leicester.

There she wrote her first play, Womberang, set in a gynaecology clinic, which won the 1979 Thames Television Playwright award and gave her a bursary at the theatre. Soon afterwards she dug out Adrian – or Nigel, as he was in his earliest incarnation – from the cupboard in which he had, for years, been snoozing.

She showed the script to the actor Nigel Bennett, who recommended it to John Tydeman, then deputy head of radio drama at the BBC. It was first broadcast on Radio 4 and its success as a radio drama led Methuen to offer to publish the novel, insisting that Nigel be renamed Adrian (to avoid clashing with Ronald Searle and Geoffrey Willans’s Nigel Molesworth).

For some years, in Who’s Who Townsend listed her interests as “mooching about, reading, looking at pictures, canoeing”. But all these, apart from the mooching, were to be sabotaged by illness. She had TB peritonitis at 23, a heart attack in her 30s, and Charcot joint degenerative arthritis, which meant she had to use a wheelchair. She described herself as the “world’s worst diabetic” – finding the disease hard to manage. In the 1990s, she started to lose her sight. In 2001, she was registered blind and although, characteristically, she made jokes about it, she also wrote about the sense of loss, the disappearance of detail, the misery of suddenly finding she could no longer distinguish between a daffodil and a tulip.

She talked about what it felt like to “throw words into the dark”. She dictated all her later books – usually to her son Sean. In 2007, she suffered kidney failure (also diabetes-related) and was put on dialysis. In 2009, after a two-year wait for a donor, she had a transplant when Sean donated a kidney. In 2013, she suffered a stroke.

She did not appreciate being hailed as “brave” – pointing out that she had no choice about her blindness. But her writerly staying power and the continuing buoyancy of her prose were remarkable. She used her poor health and failing sight in the novels (Adrian’s cancer and his friend Nigel’s blindness, for starters). In addition to the Mole books, she wrote half a dozen novels, most notably Ghost Children (1997) about the psychological effects of abortion, The Queen and I (1992) in which the Queen, after a revolution, is compelled to live on benefits (the novel became a play in 1994, starring Pam Ferris and directed by Max Stafford-Clark) and its sequel, Queen Camilla (2006), in which Britain is run by Jack Barker’s Cromwell party and talking corgis provide the commentary.

She wrote a dozen plays and two works of non-fiction, and was a prolific journalist, writing for the Observer, the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail, and contributing an Adrian Mole column to the Guardian, “The Secret Diary of a Provincial Man” (1999-2001).

A lifelong socialist, Townsend made no secret of her disappointment in New Labour. She wrote repeatedly about the way ordinary lives are disfigured by politics. While her books made her fortune, the money did not bring about any change of heart. She lived in a Victorian vicarage outside Leicester and championed the city; she also bought two pubs that would otherwise have closed down. She enthusiastically backed Leicester’s bid to become City of Culture in 2017 (it did not succeed, but gave rise to a programme of events starting this summer).

In 2009, she was given the freedom of Leicester. She was an honorary fellow at its university, a doctor of letters at Loughborough University and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Townsend’s last novel, The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year (2012), was her darkest. It is about a middle-aged librarian who, when her children leave for university, climbs between the sheets, and stays there. She has her bedroom painted luminously white (in contrast to Adrian’s all-black teenage bolt hole) and decides to shed all her possessions. It is a fresh start – of sorts. And as Townsend had done in the Mole books, she made an invisible character visible.

She is survived by Colin, her four children and 10 grandchildren.

Kate Kellaway, The Guardian (London)
Friday 11 April 2014
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