Anne Fine: The caring champion of childhood

Nicholas Tucker shares tea and sympathy with the writer, creator of Madame Doubtfire, as she talks about her most contentious novel yet

The author of over 50 children's books, Anne Fine has now produced possibly her most contentious novel yet. Aimed at young adults, but reaching out to older readers too, Blood Family describes how young Eddie, along with his mentally destroyed mother, is locked away for four of his first seven years by his sadistic drunken father. It's strong stuff from a writer who is never afraid to be outspoken, and our interview could go anywhere. A still youthful 65-year-old, she has travelled to London from Barnard Castle in County Durham, where she lives with her long-term partner Dick Warren. Settling down in a dark tea room on Kings Cross Station, within a moment she is on her feet again when a neighbouring baby half-tips out of his pram. Would that some of the onlookers in her novel had shown a similar state of concern.

She has written other novels featuring neglected children. Where does this particular interest come from? "Oh, be fair! My novels only mirror the way life is statistically at the moment. There have been plenty of stories about perfectly happy children too."

This is true. Many of Fine 's novels are extremely funny, with Madame Doubtfire the most famous but numbers of others equally good. So what sort of childhood did she have herself? The better or the worse kind? "It was a very secure childhood. But the family was a bit of a nest of competing anxieties. Hardly surprising, with my poor mother having to cope with triplets when my older sister was six and I was three.

"She became something of a professional worrier, and some of that inevitably rubbed off on me, even to this day. My father was a Post Office engineer, most days climbing up telegraph poles, so there was little money coming in. And on the whole we were reared with criticism rather than encouragement. Adults then tended to behave as if they somehow lost points by being pleasant or polite to children. But there were also many rewarding, distracting, curious and enlightening interests that made me happy through childhood and particularly at school."

A concerned policeman in her novel says at one stage: "Sometimes I hate this country." He can't bear the fact that hardly anyone had tried to help little Eddie when he was still a virtual prisoner. Does this reflect her own view?

"A lot of feeling certainly went into that sentence. I do believe that we have a huge capacity to ignore what we know is wrong about childhood. And I can't bear that awful combination of sentimentality and aggression with which we treat children, so that when they get murdered they become little angels but when you see them hanging around the streets the reaction can be so different. But on another level, I also hate the way that we have weeded out the things that I remember made my heart lift in primary school, and were transforming in my secondary education. I mean, we did so much singing when I was at school – folk songs, hymns, we sang everything. But now that seems to have gone, along with the language of the Book of Common Prayer and so much classic poetry. And school days are horrifically long if pretty well everything you are doing lacks colour and style, just for the sake of 'relevance' and 'accessibility'".

Eddie is eventually adopted by a loving couple but still finds holding himself together too much as he grows older. He reminds me of Oliver Twist with the addition of a heavy psychological agenda. Does Fine think that his downfall was inevitable?

"Not really. He starts off with his new family simply grateful to be safe, while wanting to be done with all that stuff in his past. But he is not allowed to leave it behind. The training for the kind and decent professional adults from Social Services now in his life lead them to insist, for example, that he would be better off occasionally seeing his mentally ill mother even though she no longer recognises him. So by the time he is of an age to be free of his old psychic claims they've sort of reclamped themselves around him. And there is also the shock of recognising his father's face so clearly in his own as Eddie himself changes through adolescence. But I think with better luck he might have just got through without any traumas at all."

When Eddie starts going really haywire he finds relief in drugs and alcohol. Did she worry that another child reading the book and going through an equally bad time might decide to try something similar?

"If you worried all the time about any specific effect you might be having you would probably never write a novel again. But children aren't idiots – they can see the effects drinking or drugs have on others around them. And Eddie still manages to come good in the end even though it is a struggle. I do know about the power of addiction, and would never play it down. I smoked for 13 years before stopping. When children in schools ask me what I am proudest of, I find it difficult to choose between either winning the Carnegie Medal twice or giving up fags."

But now it is time for Anne to go. Next day, she tells me, she will meet the new Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman, "totally the right one for the job". In 2001 Anne was appointed the second Children's Laureate herself, a position she filled with the same fierce desire to get everything right that she brings to her writing. Thankfully there are still more novels planned for young readers plus another one for adults. All will be highly individual and on previous form all will be utterly worth reading.

Blood Family, By Anne Fine

Doubleday Children's £12.99

"I pushed my back against the wall and up, till I was on my feet. I saw him staring at the greasy black smudge behind me on the wallpaper, and I realized for the very first time how many hundreds of times I must have cowered against that wall till, desperate not to call attention to myself, I dared slide up it in that quiet way."

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