The Book That Made Me: Bali Rai

Published on: 18 December 2019 Author: Bali Rai

What's the childhood book that made you who you are today?

For author Bali Rai, it was reading Sue Townsend's Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. Now, here was an writer that he could finally relate to: funny, down to earth and putting Leicester on the map!

From left to right: front cover The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend; Bali Rai as a teenager

As a young reader, I loved Roald Dahl, C S Lewis and many other great writers. However, I also longed for characters that spoke to me about Leicester – my home city. Becoming an author, although a dream, appeared distant and exotic. Besides, Roald Dahl seemed posh and rich and out of reach. He was never going to visit my school, was he?

So, when I discovered The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, it changed my life. Sue Townsend was a regular woman, the kind I saw on the bus or walking through Leicester Market, and she had done it. She rose from the streets I knew and become a bestselling author, with an army of adoring fans, from across the social spectrum. Suddenly the doorway into writing as a career fell open, and she was responsible. If Sue Townsend can do it, I said to my teenage self, so can I.

Role model for everyone

During my regular school events, I highlight the importance of role models that young people can really connect to. Not the out-of-touch “celebrities” more famous for money and looks than talent – I mean real, ordinary folk who are just like them.

That was the effect Sue’s success had on me, and many others too. Sue Townsend felt real in a way that Dahl and the others never could (with all due respect to those human beings). I wanted to follow in her footsteps. I had a “distant dream of becoming the next Sue Townsend”, as my first publisher put it.

Not a word was untrue. She wasn’t just a role model, either. Reading her books taught me about creating and fleshing out characters, and making them come alive within the pages. She taught me how a novel worked and gave me the confidence to write about Leicester. And I’d never even met her. That was the power of her writing.

Leicester, warts and all

Sue Townsend put Leicester on the literary map. Around the world, a legion of fans snapped up Sue’s books, and took Adrian, Pandora and the rest to their hearts. She became a proud standard bearer for real, everyday voices. From Nepal to Australia to Brazil, I’ve met people who adore her writing. She achieved that with a style and a humour that remain unchallenged.

The Leicester she wrote about was the real city, warts and all. Her characters were honest and warm and down-to-earth. They were voices we didn’t really hear from until she gave them a platform. Adrian was a geek with a heart – a lovelorn teenager who grew into an awkward and shy man, alongside my peers and me. He felt like just another boy in our class. We all knew parents like his, too, or young women like Pandora. 

That was part of the charm. Sue had an eye for the humour and absurdities of everyday life. From Adrian’s mum smoking a cigarette in the hospital grounds to the supposed social death of life in a cul-de-sac, she picked apart British life outside of London, and got it dead right. That was the genius in her work. Sue was writing about the neighbours. It was a lesson I never forgot.

She also charted Leicester’s social history, from the Thatcher years to New Labour and beyond. When riverside redevelopment created a glut of overpriced flats, Sue gave Adrian a flat on Rat Wharf. I remember moaning about the state of Leicester at the time. Sue wrote about it. 

See our best diary books for how it feels to be a teenager

Ditto, the diehard republican views we shared. I complained, she wrote The Queen & I. She was brilliantly sharp in her observations, occasionally savagely so, but never mean-spirited. Warmth and affection for her fellow human beings underpinned her writing and her political beliefs. 

Inclusive, never snobbish

Sue’s influence went beyond awards and platitudes, too. She was a truly popular writer, occupying the heart of modern British literature. People actually read her books, by the bucket load. Forget the big literary prizes for books we’re all supposed to read. Sue’s books were genuinely popular. From the builder to the politician to the single mum, her writing was always accessible, always inclusive. It was never snobbish. 

My own style drew on this. I aspired to be a writer read by anyone. I didn’t want to be literary in that traditional sense. Just accessible to anyone, regardless of their reading ability. My view of reading as something everyone should be able to enjoy is entirely influenced by Sue Townsend and always will be.

I met her properly at a literary event some years ago. I already knew her sons, and her eldest daughter, but was surprised to learn that some of her grandchildren read my books. Astounded that she knew who I was and what I wrote about. That was just the start.

There’s another cliché about being careful when you meet your heroes. Sue gave no cause for caution. She was genuinely warm and friendly. And I jabbered on and on. At another event, after giving a speech, she worried that she might have rambled and told me so. I told her that no one cared. She could have told us anything. She was a national treasure but remained humble until she died.

Sue had a presence. A way of engaging with everyone who spoke to her. She was brilliant and funny, and clever and warm. When I last saw her, she was at a street fair and obviously suffering ill health. Yet, as people spoke to her, she was charm personified. And it was no act. No public show for her fans. 

I was honoured to call her a friend, even if only for a time. The woman who made me dream about writing, who unwittingly opened that door all those years ago, was exactly what I’d hoped she would be. No – she was even better. Even more amazing. Her first novel certainly changed my life. Her friendship even more so.

See the other features in The Book That Made Me series

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