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."

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015

TV

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
Arts and Entertainment
The episode saw the surprise return of shifty caravan owner Susan Wright, played by a Pauline Quirke (ITV)

Review: Broadchurch

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore