Unveiling her first novel in 20 years
By Colin Blakely
ANNE ATKINS is back. Her first novel in 20 years has just been published and mixes mystery with Bitcoin and a plot to blow up an iconic Christmas carol service.
Well-known in Anglican circles, she is a frequent contributor to Thought for the Day and has a wide following for her ‘Agony Atkins’ problem page on the Daily Telegraph.
But why has she been silent for the last two decades?
“We actually went through three terrible traumas,” she told me. The first concerned her son, whose story forms the background of the main character in her new book, An Elegant Solution. However, she adds” “The next two traumas were far, far, far worse.”
Her son, Alexander, was at boarding school and Anne, who unusually was home alone on a Friday night, received a call from the school’s headmaster. Her son had tried to commit suicide, but she was more puzzled that the headmaster was so surprised.
Although they didn’t know it at the time, her son was affected by Asperger’s Syndrome. She knew that he was clever, but knowledge about the syndrome, or even autism, was sparse then.
We actually went through three terrible traumas
“He had been diagnosed with semantic pragmatic disorder, and we’ve never heard of Asperger’s syndrome. He had been in schools with an integration policy on special needs where he was very, very happy and then he got this music scholarship to St George’s, Windsor.
“We went to see the head and said our son is quite unusual. In layman’s terms that means using language very precisely (which my husband said is not unusual at all). However he didn’t tell any of the staff that there was anything unusual about Alex at all.”
This meant that, to Anne’s alarm, Alex was put in the bottom set for everything.
“For six months he was so desperately unhappy. He nearly killed himself by climbing up onto the school roof to throw himself off because he kept being told to do things he couldn’t do. They kept punishing him for not being able to conform.” But although it was a difficult time, it was at that point that people first started mentioning Asperger’s syndrome, although he wasn’t diagnosed properly.
She herself was unsure about what this syndrome was. “I remember picking up a few leaflets in a GP’s surgery that said there are 10 symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome and he seemed to have about three of them.”
Further unhappiness ensued. “Eventually, when he was 18 I was in such despair and so worried about him — he was doing so badly — that I wrote to Simon Baron-Cohen out of the blue. He is the director of the autism research centre at Cambridge.”
The professor recommended the Atkins family discussing it with their GP, which prompted the reply that they had been doing just that for several years. “Very sweetly he invited Alex to go and meet him. For the first time Alex felt understood and appreciated and respected.”
So for Alex things changed after that meeting. “They did in that Alex had at last met somebody who understood him. It wasn’t the first time he’d ever met anybody who appreciated him because he had two or three teachers who said that he is very clever and very unusual, but most teachers just punished him.”
She points out that many people think that Asperger’s syndrome is a sort of disability, but she maintains that it is in fact a privilege.
Now an adult, Alex works for Goldman Sachs in London, but Anne recalls the trauma the family experienced then.
“It felt so much worse than if a child had been run over by a car or something, which would just be an accident. The fact that our child could have got to such a terrible point that he would actually choose to kill himself was a very, very shocking thing to experience.”
But it was while dealing with this trauma that the Atkins family were hit with two more.
“I need to emphasise that the next two traumas we went through were far worse. Our daughter was then diagnosed with a terrible mental illness and then the worst horror was that my husband’s employing Church made us homeless.”
This last trauma almost proved too much.
“What I felt with those three traumas was that the first two I could cope with because they were given to us by God. The third one I couldn’t cope with because it was inflicted on us by man, and that somehow made it far worse to bear because it felt so wrong.”
In contrast, she could cope with Alex’s condition because ‘God made Alex to be who he is and that’s something to be celebrated.’
The third one I couldn’t cope with because it was inflicted on us by man, and that somehow made it far worse to bear because it felt so wrong
But now, just when she thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did.
Her husband was presented with a “trumped-up, full-page charge of gross misconduct”.
“That was a complete load of nonsense and if that had stuck we were facing being permanently homeless for the rest of our lives and split up forever.”
This happened while her husband was on sick leave. “Because he was in the middle of a breakdown he wasn’t functioning at all,so it was all down to me,” she recalls.
Anne Atkins is known within and beyond the church as a woman of faith. How did that affect her?
“I remember saying something to my husband like ‘why should we bother to keep going, or why should we bother to keep believing? God doesn’t answer prayer and Christians behave worse than anyone else.
“And he said to me ‘look at the character of Jesus: who else do you think he could have been’. That summed it up really.”
However, although her faith had been battered, she found it difficult to go back to church. When her husband got a job as a school chaplain she found refuge in the school chapel, but the wounds were still deep.
“At the moment I can’t feel at home in a church — it just hurts too much, and it partly hurts so much because of losing the church we loved so much in London.
“Funnily enough we went back to our daughter and son’s church two or three years ago. They found a lovely Church inLondon and the first time I went with them I was just completely in pieces for the whole of the rest of the day.
“I just couldn’t stop sobbing all the way through the service and afterwards — it was Mothering Sunday — they took us out for lunch and I was just sobbing all the way through.
“My daughter said it was because this church is like our church in Parsons Green that we all missed so much.”
She added: “Things that hurt can go on hurting even when you’ve got through them.”
But although the hurt remains, she is now rekindling that creative streak that has driven her through her professional career.
An Elegant Solution by Anne Atkins is published by Malcolm Down.