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.”
“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.”
" 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.)
“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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