ROBBIE LOW INTERVIEWS ANNE ATKINS
FOOTBALL, as one of its more erudite pundits once remarked, is a game
of two halves. London, as any Londoner will tell you, is much the
same. Those born, raised, imported, adopted on opposing banks of England’s
great waterway occupy different worlds and bring to the challenges
of urban living a wholly dissimilar mind set.
Part of the difficulty, of course, is the distance. What to the visitor
is the mere crossing of an ancient bridge, is to the resident little
short of a minor emigration. The green sloping hill of Greenwich and
the old docklands gaze across at each other with mutual incomprehension.
The great wedding cake of the National Liberal Club, the F.O., and
the House, in all its restored glory, contrast starkly with the grimy
denizens of Waterloo and the concrete culture bunker of the National
Theatre.
A man beginning his journey at the furthest point of the Northern
or Jubilee lines may discover that his motor car would have more easily
and expeditiously delivered him to Bristol or Birmingham long before
he could reasonably expect to sight the great prairies of Clapham
Common.
It was, therefore, on a hot and steamy afternoon in high summer, that
I abandoned the car and consigned myself to the delights of the underground
railway all the way to the darkest depths of Parsons Green to meet
Anne Atkins, actress, author, “Thought for the Day” controversialist
and “Agony Aunt” for “The Daily Telegraph”.
Emerging from the tube I made the mistake of asking directions to
the church. Try it as an exercise in any urban area. The middle aged,
middle class generally exhibit a degree of embarrassment about their
ignorance and mumble something about not having been for a long time.
Most others respond with a look of astonishment that might otherwise
be reserved for an indecent suggestion. Mercifully the lady at the
Co-Op Funerals put me right and, in a minute or two, I was past a
narrow mews, alongside the Jolly Brewers, opposite The Green filled
with bustling men erecting stalls and platforms for the annual fair
under the benevolent but exacting supervision of their womenfolk.
The church of St. Dionis is on Parson's Green. Next to it is an attractive
and spacious house with tall chimneys and wreathed in wisteria. It
is the kind of house that elderly archdeacons and short-sighted property
committees have dispensed with wholesale in the last thirty years
in the quest for short term profit and cheaper maintenance. The subsequent
property markets and modern building standards of the replacement
accommodation units (separate study, entrance and W.C.) have proved
both a delusion and provided an icon of the institutional retreat
from the ministry of the public house which was the vicarage.
Quite remarkably this is still the vicarage. Saved by the simple fact
that it is bolted on by corridor and office to the church itself.
I am unforgivably early. Five minutes - but in a busy vicarage it
is enough. Anne greets me warmly, swiftly and deposits me in the kitchen.
She is strung out between two phones - one on her literary work, the
other one of her offspring, lost ‘phone card, lift home etc. The doorbell
rings - a parishioner - something else, then another one, then the
phone again. Home from home. Twenty minutes late we settle down in
the conservatory looking out onto the quiet garden and catch our breath.
Anne’s tousled fair curls fall over her grey blue eyes. Her light
frame is swathed in a floppy, jumper rugby shirt, T shirt, blue jeans
and non-designer trainers. 	I asked her:
Where did you begin?
	“Dorset, Dorchester. My father was a classics master at Bryanston.
My mother was a maths teacher. She had come from Australia to Girton
and met dad when he was at Kings. We lived in a converted pig sty
and a gypsy caravan then.”
Any brothers or sisters?
	“Two brothers, one sister. Johnnie has a small holding in Wales.
Andrew is a physics don (metallurgy) at Oxford and Catherine was a
missionary in Iran and India but now married to a priest.”
Was it a Christian family?
“Oh yes. When Dad became Headmaster in Cambridge we went to Holy Trinity.
There was no Sunday School - sermons were for the whole family. I
still remember them. The vicar was a man called Tucker, who became
a bishop later. One sermon was illustrated by a sponge in water -
we’re in Jesus, Jesus is in us - simple but effective to children
and adults alike. There was a lot of good teaching and prayer on hand.
The other place of great importance throughout my childhood and teenage
years was Kings College Chapel with the great choral music.”
(At this point, as if in response to the word teenager, Serena, the
14 year old daughter bursts in - partly to inspect the strange clerical
creature cloistered in the conservatory with mum, but more importantly
to enthuse us with the feeding of dead mice to her pet Californian
King Snake.)
Schools! what were you good at?
“Byron House. Cambridge High. Perse. I was not good at anything! One
year my father was persuaded to be Father Christmas at school. The
children all wanted to know whose Dad it was. So eventually he said
simply “I’m the father of the naughtiest girl in the school” and was
horrified to be greeted by an instant unanimous chorus of my name.
I hated authority - wanted to study and do only the things I chose.”
Which were?
	“Plays, balls and parties!”
So no university?
	“Oh yes. I actually worked for the important exam which was the Oxbridge
entrance and duly failed to get into Lady Margaret Hall, which was
a blessing as I then tried again and got accepted by Brasenose.
My brother gave me the best advice. You have time for 3˝ activities
at college - work, church and 1˝ others, so I did acting, coxing and
playing the harp.”
(None of this really adds up but you get the drift.)
When did you start acting?
	“14. Gratiano in Merchant of Venice. There is nothing like the rapport
with the live audience - especially in a comic role”.
(Other roles follow thick and fast. Hermia, Viola, Bianca, Julia,
Maud Gonne at university. Footlights, Panto with Griff Rhys Jones
and Clive Anderson playing Buttons to Anne’s Maid Marian - no you
haven’t misread it - and the Edinburgh Fringe with Rowan Atkinson
and Richard Curtis.)
What was your degree?
	“English. 2nd class but I never went to collect it. My mother didn’t
collect hers either but nobody’s ever asked.”
(This almost certainly disqualifies Anne from eating the right number
of dinners to qualify for her M.A.!).
When did you meet Shaun?
	“Shaun thinks we met in the first year in “The Nosebag”. I don’t
remember it. The second time I ignored him apparently and the third
time a friend brought him up to my rooms and I went off to write an
essay. He took my furniture to pieces and left it in a pile in the
middle of my room. Then he invited me “water coursing”, picked me
up and threw me in a muddy stream. I thought this was interesting
and went to see him. He said “You do realise I’m in love with you
and we must never see each other again”.
We must have broken up about ten times before he proposed. He was
up for Presidency of the Oxford Christian Union and under terrific
pressure to drop me as a most unsuitable woman.”
How did you decide?
"	During a long vac. I went to work at a mission hospital in Nepal.
We’d had a row - I wanted equal partnership - one roof; separate careers.
Shaun wanted a wife at home making flapjacks! I concluded, very painfully,
that it was a non-starter. I was passionate about acting.
That evening God spoke to me in a very direct way - theatre was no
longer to be the priority, marriage was. As a sign of that changed
priority we got engaged.”
What then?
"	Shaun had long term plans for ordination but no immediate plans.
I got a place at drama school, Shaun as a teacher. Then it was Ridley
Hall for three years while Shaun trained. It was a miserable, depressing
time for me. He was absorbed in his degree but I was out of work for
two years and Ridley was no fun.
Then suddenly I got two seasons Shakespeare at St. Georges’, Tuffnell
Park and it was great. I loved being in work.”
And then children?
“Shaun said he wanted children. I really didn’t feel ready but took
Ephesians 5 very seriously. Years later I discover that many evangelical
wives are astonished at my response!”
There are four children Serena 14, already met, Bink 12 - playing
violin in the front room and later to astonish me with a piece of
Vivaldi she has learnt in a mere three hours, Alexander 11 and Benjamin
9).
When did you start writing?
	“When I was pregnant with Serena. My Dad suggested I act when I was
14 and when I was 18 he said I should write. The first book was criticised
as “too feminist” or “not feminist enough”. I got letters saying things
like, “I bought it for my husband” and “it changed my life”. It’s
going to be reissued next year.”
(Anne has written 3 novels and one non-fiction - our interview had
to be put back two weeks as she was chasing her latest deadline. I
made the mistake of asking her if she had made it and then changed
the subject before I could cause further distress. You don’t try to
book a christening date with a woman in labour.)
How did “Thought for the Day” come about?
	“I was first asked five or six years ago. My sample scripts were
pulled to pieces. Then a year or so ago David Winter suggested me
again - we’d done some work together on Premier Radio. I told them
I wasn’t interested in being mealy mouthed and they said, you can
be as outspoken as you like.”
(Her debut was extraordinary. I remember leaning over to turn it off
- expecting another blood pressure raising draught of Sr.Lavinia or
Bishop Jim - when suddenly there was a Christian woman speaking powerfully
in defence of the unborn child.)
Any response?
	“Considerable. The “Daily Mail” phoned up. Shaun told me about it
three days later! 	The next one was on prostitution and the “Telegraph”
commissioned an article.”
(Abortion is a key issue for Anne - one of her novels revolves around
its agony).
How do you regard abortion?
“The foremost social issue of our time. Nothing else comes close.
It is an abuse of human rights on the scale of the holocaust. Future
generations will be incredulous that we have let this happen. The
1967 Act was bad enough but that is scarcely observed. People simply
do not know what is going on, what it involves.
You noticed at the last election that while the extreme right were
allowed a broadcast, the pro-life broadcast was banned. In a democracy
this beggars belief.”
How do you manage to write in a busy vicarage?
	“Very difficult. But I was brought up with no privacy so I’m used
to it. Shaun is very good at switching off, hiding, ignoring things,
disappearing. But he’s very good at prioritising and getting what
needs to be done I’m quite bolshy and so is he in a different
granite like way. We set the boundaries, keep the day off, restrict
the previously unrestricted parish use of the house.”
How does Shaun cope with your sudden fame?
	“Delighted that I’m earning my keep after all these years and glad
it’s not him on T.V.”
(Anne came to fame after the “Homosexuality” Thought for the Day before
the Southwark Cathedral day. She suddenly found herself a standard
bearer for some and a bęte noire for others.)
Have you thought of standing for Synod?
	“No. I think it’s a totally stupid invention. Too many nutters and
lobby groups. Anyone doing real Christian work wouldn’t have time
for all that.”
(Anne’s experiences around the Southwark event gave her serious cause
for concern as to the direction and leadership of the Anglican church).
Are you confident of the Anglican future?
	“I was quite despairing so I went to see Owen Chadwick. He simply
reminded me that God has not promised to keep the Church of England
faithful and we are not commanded to save the Church of England. Our
task is to be used by God for the Gospel.”
What are you up to at present?
"	I’m trying for the part of the Wicked Witch in Panto. So many people
think I am already, that my agent is quite hopeful. Finishing the
book, planning a book on improvising with Shakespeare...... Agony
Aunting, articles.....”
(Anne has just caused great hilarity in evangelical circles by responding
to a frustratedly celibate correspondent commending the example of
a noted clergyman who, she observed, could not be without temptation
as he was a bit of a dish! How, I wondered, had he responded to this
naughtiness? She assured me, with a chuckle, he wouldn’t have seen
it as he was away on holiday. So there’ll just be the three hundred
or so cuttings through his letterbox from members of his congregation
when he returns home then!
The doorbell rings. Cakes for various stalls are deposited on the
vicar’s desk. One parishioner needs a key, another needs instructions.
Shaun has temporarily returned from erecting stalls on the green.
Anne is reminding him about “the platform for the musicians”. Shaun
is reminding Anne that this is the first he has heard of it. The children
and the violin tutor are nobly suggesting that they don’t mind going
to “Macdonalds” if this would help mum and dad.
Aren’t children wonderful!
Just another busy day in the life of Anne Atkins, actress, broadcaster,
journalist, controversialist - but above all mother and wife.)
Robbie Low is the Vicar of St. Peter's, Bushey Heath in the diocese
of St Alban's.
Anne Atkins's latest book "On Our Own" .is now available in paperback,
price Ł5.99p. from Sceptre

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