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October 14 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: My mother, a very modern midwife

Here is my family on 17 June 1947 sitting in the sun in front of our home in Leicestershire. The large lady is my lovely grandmother, landlady of the White Hart, Nettleham, and known to all as "Ma". To the right is my uncle Geoff, recently returned from serving on HMS Cumberland during the second world war, and in front of him is his pretty Scottish bride, Jean. My parents, Arnold and Dora Greaves, are on the left and my little sister Linda and I sit on our mother's lap.

But this was no ordinary family house, for my mother was matron of a small private maternity hospital and this was our family home too.

During the early stages of the second world war, she was the nurse in charge of a first-aid post, Knighton, Leicester, where schoolboy Richard Attenborough was a volunteer, offering to run errands, including fetching baked beans on toast from the canteen in the hope that he would get a plateful too.

My parents met at a New Year's Eve party in 1941 and married the following September. But after the war, my mother was no longer content with being just a housewife and mother. So, being a single-minded woman, she decided to start her own maternity home and rented a large Victorian pile at Thurmaston near Leicester.

The building was dilapidated and the garden resembled a wilderness, but my mother was undaunted. While my father went off to his nine-to-five office job at the East Midland Electricity Board, she would set to work preparing for the arrival of the first patients, with aunties and cousins drafted in as cleaners and, later, nurses. Finally, after the severe winter of 1946-47, the staff were appointed and the first baby was born at Roundhill nursing home.

She was a conscientious midwife and often stayed up all night with a mum-to-be experiencing difficulties or bringing a baby, that appeared to have died, back to life. She could also be found in the kitchen preparing midday dinner for 40, or outside gardening, growing vegetables, apples and soft fruit. We also kept poultry and pigs, and even at one time a cow and a pony.

In many ways, she was a nurse before her time. Once a day, the gramophone played jolly music such as Let's All Sing Like the Birdies Sing while the women raised and lowered their legs, slowly doing their pelvic-floor exercises. Mums were also encouraged to get out of bed after childbirth rather than, as was common then, staying horizontal. She was advanced in her thinking, allowing fathers at the birth when in most hospitals it was forbidden. She often joked that they hadn't lost a father yet!

She was also sympathetic to unmarried women who came to stay and work until their babies were born; some remained for years joining the domestic workforce.

Eventually she sold out to the NHS in 1963, but remained as matron until 1970. Sometimes she may have delegated her role as a mother but her life was dedicated to her work, bringing babies into the world and improving the lives of many along the way. 

Mother celebrated her 90th birthday on 15 March 2003 with a big party. Family from around the world included two daughters, eight grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren. There was also a very special card from Lord Attenborough. She died a few months later, as she would have wanted, in her own home, having just enjoyed a bowl of raspberries ... grown in her own garden, of course. Helen Warren

Playlist: Celebrating Mum's Polish culture

Ach Spij, Kochanie (Oh, Sleep my Darling) – a lullaby, sort of

My mother sang this around the house in the 50s and 60s, and it passed into the limited repertoire I sang to my children. Even my grandchildren got to hear it, although the Polish words probably meant nothing to them. My mother sang a lot – which was nice – and went on about the songs and virtues of prewar Polish culture. My siblings and I would sooner have watched TV than listen to her reminiscing about the superior talents from her time and complaining about the devil's inventions that superseded prewar media.

You can now find Eugeniusz Bodo and friends performing Ach Spij, Kochanie (1938) on YouTube. Of course, I know the scenario: two would-be drunks trying to go out for the night sing to the daughter of the house but end up falling asleep themselves. The performances are superb. My mother died 30 years ago, but thanks to the devil's inventions, I can finally see where she was coming from. Janina Leitch

We love to eat: Knickerbocker glories

Ingredients

Vanilla ice-cream

Chopped fruit

Your favourite sauce

Sprinkles and paper umbrellas

Tall glasses to serve and long spoons to dive in with

It was my 31st birthday this summer, and in keeping with family tradition, I set the evening menu. For pudding we had knickerbocker glories and I got to tell my three children a little of their family history.

My grandad, a headteacher, retired on the day I was born to become a portrait artist. In the school holidays, he would whisk me off on the train to Liverpool to visit the galleries to share his new-found love of art, imparting an appreciation of it that remains with me. While I enjoyed looking at mysterious paintings, and the special time with Grandad, the real highlight of every trip was what followed.

Grandad would scout out a cafe serving magical knickerbocker glories, served in tall glasses with special long spoons and paper umbrellas on top. In those days, when I was barely able to see over the top of the table, these ices were the ultimate in pudding extravagance, and it seemed Grandad's enjoyment was equal to my own.

He died eight years ago, but his great-grandchildren, two of whom never had the privilege of knowing him, continue to be fascinated by stories about this amazing man. This year, his memory has been celebrated on my birthday – we are still sharing the ultimate ice-cream experience, 25 years after the tradition began. Emily Noble (known as Emilove to Grandad)

We'd love to hear your stories

We will pay £25 for every Letter to, Playlist, Snapshot or We love to eat we publish. Write to Family Life, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU or email family@guardian.co.uk. Please include your address and phone number


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September 09 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: The hop years of our lives

This photograph of hop-picking was taken in 1924 in Paddock Wood in the Weald of Kent, where my gran, Annie, (pictured, on the left) moved after her marriage. Like many generations before her, she was born near Cranbrook, deep in hop‑growing country. Her father and both grandfathers worked on hop farms, and probably their fathers and grandfathers did too.

This is the area where it is thought Flemish weavers first introduced hops to England in the 1300s, and I like to think that our family may have been involved even then. Sadly, the hop-picking tradition in our family finished with my sister and me in the 1960s, when mechanical harvesting was introduced, and there was a new fashion for lager, which needed fewer hops than traditional English beer.

My dad, Bert, at the time of posing for this photograph, wouldn't have known that later on, as a teenager selling sweets to hop-pickers, he would meet his future wife, my mum, as she was picking hops with friends. You could say that I owe my life to hops. Dad never left Paddock Wood, where he was born, and neither did his younger sister, Dorothy, also known as Babs, who is beside him in the photo. As well as hop-picking, one of the jobs she regularly did as an adult with other local women was hop-tying, done in May to train the new bines.

The other hop-picker, their cousin, Ethel, was probably dreaming of a new life as she picked. Not long after this picture was taken, she sailed for a new life in Australia, where she died in 2006, aged 100.

September was hopping month and schools didn't restart after the summer break until all the hops were harvested. My sister and I still refer to those times in late summer, when misty dawns develop into warm sunny days, as "hop-picking weather".

We remember the canvas-covered folding wooden bins, into which we put the picked hops, and the bushel baskets that measured them. We also recall hands blackened with picking, the call of "Pull no more bines!" at the end of the day, and the pay packets collected from the farmer's kitchen at the end of the harvest. It's well known that Londoners flocked to Kent every year at hopping time, crucial to the harvesting of hops, but the farm where we picked just employed local people, so we were surrounded by friends and neighbours. My first new bike was bought with hop-picking money.

I was born in Paddock Wood, too. Then a village, it is now a town, with houses built in the former hop fields. The only reminders of the past are a few roads named after varieties of hops, and oast houses, formerly used to dry hops and now converted into dwellings. Even the Hop Pocket pub, named after the large sacks in which the dried hops were stored, has now gone. My dad's work took him on a daily commute into London, but he remained a country boy at heart. In his last years, he and I made an annual pilgrimage to a hop field, even though it became increasingly hard to find one.

I now live by the Bristol Channel, but in my garden is a hop plant. I only have to crush a hop in my fingers for the familiar scent to transport me back to Kent, the hop gardens and my roots. Liz Youngs

Playlist: Easy money from the Seekers

I'll Never Find Another You by the Seekers

There's a new world somewhere / They call The Promised Land

Many years ago there was a wonderful theatre in Glasgow called the Alhambra. My mother, sister and I had the good fortune to run a snack bar backstage for three years – up until its closure in 1969. During our time there, we met many famous artists such as Frankie Vaughan, Max Bygraves, Marlene Dietrich, Betty Grable, the Shadows and my favourite group, the Seekers. Each night as they performed, I would stand at the back of the wings and listen to their music.

One night, the theatre housekeeper asked if I could help out. Apparently, the Seekers' manager was fogbound at the airport in London and wouldn't be able to get back to Glasgow. The manager usually helped Judith Durham, the lead singer, to change dresses halfway through the act. The housekeeper asked if I could lend a hand. I can remember how excited I felt. I was told to wait until the end of the song I'll Never Find Another You, and then rush along the corridor to the dressing room.

As Judith Durham came off stage, I followed her into the room and opened the wardrobe. There hung three or four beautiful, sparkling evening gowns. I can remember commenting that it must be wonderful to wear such glamorous clothes. She was such a lovely person and very friendly.

I did this for two nights and the housekeeper handed me an envelope with 15 shillings in it as a thank you from Judith. That was quite a lot of money in those days – but I would happily have done it for nothing.

Consequently, every time I hear that song, it brings back memories of the easiest money I ever earned. Elizabeth Nicholson

We love to eat: Doorstep elevenses

Ingredients

One doorstep

A tin of Brasso

Newspapers

Several old rags

Two soft yellow dusters

A good friend (most essential)

In the early 1950s, to get my weekly pocket-money, I had to clean my mother's brass collection – a job I loathed so much that I offered Kathleen from next door half my earnings if she would help me. As she didn't get any pocket money she jumped at the 6d.

The brass collection itself had begun, unwittingly, during the war, when we children one day gleefully picked up from the pavement shell-cases that had rained down from German planes, as we walked to Sunday school – the target was a bus factory opposite Garner's bakery, where we sheltered (a shop with little more than bread on sale in those days). Like a fool, I would go on to give my mother brass knick-knacks for birthdays, Christmases and even holiday souvenirs. There was far too much of it.

Our back doorstep faced Kathleen's, and dividing us was a low wire fence that dipped where Kathleen would climb over and join me once the brass was set out on opened newspapers. From the moment we dipped our rags into the Brasso, while all the time talking and sharing confidences over our week's happenings, this normally loathsome task was transformed into a really pleasant one.

We didn't rush, for we knew that by the time we'd rubbed and polished all the assorted brass objects until we could see our mirror images in them, my mother would return from shopping – her last port of call having been Garner's bakery.

As she pushed her laden bicycle up the path, we knew what was in the greaseproof bag she carried teasingly over our heads and into the kitchen. We heard the kettle boil and cups rattle. Mother then appeared and handed down to each of us a cup of tea and a tea-plate. Spread across the entire surface of the tea-plate was a huge choux pastry cream-filled bun topped with soft, sweet chocolate. One bite and we were in heaven as cream oozed and clung to our lips, cheeks and chin. Should Garner's be out of choux buns, we were just as happy with a many layered, jam and cream-filled vanilla slice topped with pink and white soft icing.

My mother's home-baked cakes were to die for, but these Saturday morning indulgences were actually bought! And somehow that made them special. There was as much pleasure in sharing the hated task with Kathleen as there was in sacrificing half of my one shilling for such a treat. Sheila Isherwood


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September 02 2011

Nazis, needlework and my dad

Not many men belong to a stitching group, but Tony Casdagli picked up his enthusiasm for the craft from his father, who kept himself sane by fashioning subversive messages as a PoW

After six months held by the Nazis in a prisoner of war camp, Major Alexis Casdagli was handed a piece of canvas by a fellow inmate. Pinching red and blue thread from a disintegrating pullover belonging to an elderly Cretan general, Casdagli passed the long hours in captivity by painstakingly creating a sampler in cross-stitch. Around decorative swastikas and a banal inscription saying he completed his work in December 1941, the British officer stitched a border of irregular dots and dashes. Over the next four years his work was displayed at the four camps in Germany where he was imprisoned, and his Nazi captors never once deciphered the messages threaded in Morse code: "God Save the King" and "Fuck Hitler".

This subversive needling of the Nazis was a form of defiance that Casdagli, who was not freed from prison until 1945, believed was the duty of every PoW. "It used to give him pleasure when the Germans were doing their rounds," says his son, Tony, of his father's rebellious stitching. It also stopped him going mad. "He would say after the war that the Red Cross saved his life but his embroidery saved his sanity," says Tony. "If you sit down and stitch you can forget about other things, and it's very calming."

Tony should know. The 79-year-old picked up his father's stitching habit after a lifetime at sea serving in the Royal Navy, and from 6 September two of his pieces will feature in a new exhibition opening at the Victoria and Albert Museum called Power of Making. Tony is thrilled, but the relationship between father, son, needlework and suffering is complex and occasionally ambiguous.

The son of a family of Greek cotton merchants with operations in Manchester and Egypt, Tony and his mother, Joyce, were separated from his father when war broke out. During the disastrous allied campaign in Crete, Casdagli was captured. For a month, Joyce had no idea whether he was alive or dead; for a year, Casdagli did not receive any letters or parcels.

Most of Casdagli's confinement was spent in a German castle. Life for a British officer was not as brutal as it was in Japanese camps but it still involved terror, hunger and deprivation. Casdagli scrupulously wrote down and crossed out every day in pencil in a small black notebook. "He was very meticulous," recalls Tony, more than once. Casdagli made lists of everything – every window pane broken in bombing raids, every letter sent and received. He recorded "Improvisations", such as making a "watch stand" from a "broom handle & incendiary bomb" and "Reflections" on hunger: "Unable to remember in which hand to use knife and fork on arrival of first Red Cross parcel."

Most of all, though, Casdagli recorded his anger and frustration in cross-stitch. He had picked up sewing skills from elderly relatives and, when Red Cross parcels began arriving (containing hairbrushes with secret compartments that concealed maps, which the prisoners annotated with intelligence and smuggled out), he acquired materials. He also borrowed more threads from his old Cretan general friend – this time from his pyjamas.

When Tony was 11, he received a stitched letter through the post. "It is 1,581 days since I saw you last but it will not be long now. Do you remember when I fell down the well? Look after Mummy till I get home again," Casdagli laboriously spelled out with finely stitched letters.

In a bleak, claustrophobic part-map and part-diagram, his father created a needlework of "Room 13, Spangenberg castle". The stitching depicted inmates' cells, a few lumps of coal, a sign saying "bath every 14 days", and a menu: "soup, potatoes, wurst, bread, semolina". At the bottom was a Union flag. National flags were forbidden in the camp, so Casdagli sewed a canvas flap over it with "do not open" written on it in German. "Each week the same officer would open the flap and say, 'This is illegal,' and Pa said, 'You're showing it, I'm not showing it.'"

Captured officers played cricket and other games to pass the time, but needlework proved surprisingly popular: Casdagli ran a class for 40 officers. Was his "Fuck Hitler" gesture a great risk? "It would certainly have been torn down and he would've been put in solitary confinement or worse," says Tony. But he does not believe his father would have been executed. Despite seeing a fellow inmate shot in the back for accidentally tripping an alarm, Casdagli stuck to his policy of being unrelentingly unco-operative. One Christmas, a senior British officer struck a deal with his German counterpart that no one would try to escape, in exchange for a comfortable Christmas. Casdagli stayed in bed and refused to eat. "Pa was very cross about that. One of the few duties a PoW had was to make life as uncomfortable as possible for his captors by trying to escape," says Tony.

Among his father's works hanging above the stairs in the London home that Tony shares with his second wife, Sally, is a small, sad piece. It lists the years 1939 to 1943 alongside Joyce's initials and the words: "Any day now." It was to be another two years before Casdagli saw his wife and son again. In April 1945, in an "absolute daze", he was flown back to Britain, given a cursory medical and £10. Then he caught two buses to find his way home. Joyce had gone to pick up Tony from school. "At 12 noon, they arrived, and my cup of happiness was FULL," wrote Casdagli in his diaries.

Sadly, his joy could not so simply erase four traumatic years in captivity. Tony describes his father as "very frustrated" when he returned. His time in prison unsettled him, and soon afterwards he went to Greece to fight in the civil war. He met his second wife there.

Meanwhile, Tony entered the navy, and hardly saw his father. He "half-heartedly" stitched as a teenager, but at sea he was always too busy to do it. When he retired from the navy, however, he and Sally, with their daughter Lucy, moved to Highgate, north London near where his father kept a flat.

Then on holiday in Cornwall, the retired son and his elderly father began stitching together. "We used to sit alongside each other doing it. Pa didn't talk very much, but we would sit and talk a bit while we did it. There were so many questions I should've asked and didn't," says Tony. "I never asked him why he pinched the old general's wool."

Stitching requires discipline and patience, two qualities Tony must have inherited from his father, but the two men developed unique styles. Tony's father created intricate symmetrical patterns. "He didn't have an enormous imagination, Pa. He liked doing things rather than inventing things," says Tony. In contrast, Tony enjoys designing his needlework. Six years ago, the wife of an old naval friend introduced Tony to the Chelsea Women's Cross-stitch group. Tony became the only male member, mentored by Joyce Conwy Evans, whose work is displayed in Canterbury cathedral and the V&A.

Tony is self-deprecating about his work, but not self-conscious. He used to enjoy stitching while waiting at airports, but cannot any longer because his needles are banned airside. "I'd sit and do my needlework after going through the gate, and people would gradually move away from me," he jokes. Now he tends to stitch in the evenings, when Sally is reading. Most of his works get sent to his five children, who live all around the world. Each grandchild receives a special piece; sons get the poem If by Rudyard Kipling. He is currently stitching one for his latest grandchild, Griffin, which depicts the mythical creature with the body of a lion and an eagle's head and wings.

Major Casdagli died in 1996, aged 90. Did he approve of his son taking on his passion? "Towards the end of his life not quite so much, because he thought we were in competition," says Tony. Having said that, Tony and Sally agree he "would be so thrilled" that Tony's work is to be exhibited alongside the creations of professional craftsmen and women in the V&A. Major Casdagli's stitching was born out of suffering, but later it became a particularly fiercely pursued habit. "He did it for defiance to start with, then he did it because he did it," says Tony. "He hated finishing them because it meant he had to do something else. He loved doing something slavishly. He was a great slave."

Power of Making is at the V&A from Tuesday until 2 January 2012, www.vam.ac.uk. A Stitch in Time: God Save the King – Fu*k Hitler! by Captain A Casdagli, available from lulu.com. Tony Casdagli is participating in a free workshop at the V&A. Crafting the Collection: Power of Making, 17 September, 11am-4pm.


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August 12 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: My dad and Old Pat on their round

A murky Birmingham morning in January 1947: these two characters are Old Pat the horse, age 17, and my usually cheerful dad, Jim. They work for Handsworth Dairies Ltd, ambling the streets, delivering cream-topped and sterilised milk.

Pat knows each call by heart, waiting patiently as Jim chats with his customers and teases the neighbourhood children. My dad is 25, not long returned from five years of war, serving in the Royal Navy on various aircraft carriers in the far east. He smiles for the camera and puts an affectionate arm on his workmate.

Their day starts early. Jim gives Pat his breakfast, puts on the harness, then loads the heavy steel crates on to the cart.

They set off through the wakening streets and this picture captures them about halfway in their round. A girl, bare-legged but wearing a woolly hat, gloves and winter coat, peeks over my dad's shoulder. He wears a shirt and tie, several jumpers and a Mac cinched in with a narrow leather belt. Wool trousers and worn shoes complete his ensemble. He wears no gloves and no hat, despite his thinning hair and the January cold.

My dad will spend his whole working life outdoors, delivering things: milk, bread, mail. He'll retire as a postman in 1991.

Old Pat and Jim will finish before midday. They'll trot back to the depot. After unloading the empties, my dad will unharness Pat, give him a rub-down and his dinner.

Then my dad will walk home for his dinner and a nap. This was Old Pat and Jim's routine seven days a week, including Christmas Day. Not easy postwar times for most people, but I like to think that Old Pat and Jim enjoyed being together. Wendy Harper

Playlist: Björk got me through a tax ordeal

Birthday by the Sugarcubes

"She's painting huge books /And glues them together /They saw a big raven /It glided down the sky /She touched it /Ohh ... "

I spent my gap year working at a tax accountants in Crawley. I hated tax and I hated Crawley, and I hated having to go to work. The people boasted about horses and cars and holiday homes. I sat there, making rich people richer by legally fiddling their returns. A long eight months shuffled by.

Any music I listened to on the commuter train, at lunch breaks, in long trips to the filing room numbed with boredom, is still tainted by that time. I hear Joanna Newsom or My Morning Jacket and am back among the empty office blocks and boarded-up shop fronts of spring 2008. The song that changed it all was on a best of John Peel CD given to me by my dad. One morning, as the train approached Crawley, track 11 came on: Birthday by the Sugarcubes. I decided not to get off the train.

The track has a young Björk singing about a little girl catching things. She shouts her way through bits and sings along to the tune, voice soaring into the almost screamed oh oh ohs. It was enough to take me to Brighton by 8.05 where I was giddy with reckless abandon. I could do anything! I would spend all my money on chips and arcades and run into the sea.

Inevitably, I was back on the train by 8.15am, scared of what the people with horses and holiday homes would say, and the questions they would ask. Dad thought it completely understandable that Björk had driven me to Brighton and demanded I quit the job that I hated so much.

I stuck with the job until the end, playing Birthday on loop in my head as the Excel spreadsheets were finished.

Dad's music recommendations do not always stick, but this one became an anthem in the midst of tax-induced bitterness. I save it now for special occasions when I feel like getting on a train to nowhere. Anonymous

We love to eat: Power-cut pancakes

Ingredients

120g self-raising flour

a pinch of salt

30g sugar

1 egg

1/4 pint milk

Butter for frying

Combine the flour, salt and sugar before adding the egg and beating in the milk to make a thick batter. Melt the butter in a frying pan and ladle in three or four spoonfuls of the mixture to cook a batch. Turn once, dress with golden syrup and consume by candlelight.

During the three-day week of the 70s, the power in our council house was regularly cut as the country was plunged into darkness. As well as there being no light, this meant no TV, and no means of cooking our family dinner.

On these dark evenings, my dad would wheel out an old Calor gas stove that we used when camping. My sister and I used to love these candlelit cooking sessions as the menu was inevitably sweet Scotch pancakes. We'd sit gazing at the spoonfuls of batter that gradually thickened in the frying pan, willing them to cook more quickly. A dollop of Tate & Lyle golden syrup completed the sickly treat.

These were fairly grim times for all of the country, but in our house, at least, the power cuts brought a sense of occasion that made a big impression on a five-year-old. It was a time when we truly were all in it together, but in our house there was a sense of fun and making the most of the situation.

The pancakes were an exercise in culinary slumming for my dad. He fancied himself as a bit of a galloping gourmet. I'm sure he was the first person in our street to cook spaghetti bolognese, and he liked nothing more than to recreate the fancy touches he picked up at the dinner dances he loved to attend with my mum. Folded napkins, flowers in glasses and a rather 70s plastic multipiece candelabra would dress the table on high days and holidays.

For me, though, it's those evenings eating pancakes in the gloom that stay with me. My dad isn't here to pass on the experience to our two boys, but his pancakes are one way they'll get to know about the granddad who would have loved them to bits. Stuart Derrick


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July 08 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Great Uncle Willie, abroad for ever

We found the grave just after 11am. It was easy enough. Ian looked up the register, held in a steel compartment recessed into the cemetery wall, and it directed us to his great uncle Willie. Among the perfect rows of identical white headstones disappearing into the mist on that cold October morning was the one erected to Lance Corporal W Johnston of the Highland Light Infantry, died 1 November 1916. Age 21.

I knew Willie only from an old photograph that Ian had shown us – an Edwardian family group Willie aged about eight with his parents and younger siblings, including Ian's grandmother. He died nearly four decades before any of us were born. Before volunteering, he had never travelled more than a handful of miles beyond the Glasgow boundary. I thought of my own children at home, still kids to me but as old as many of those lying in this or one of the hundreds of war cemeteries around the Somme battlefield.

Ian, a history enthusiast, had long wanted to tour the first world war sites in this area and in particular to visit Great Uncle Willie's grave. No one from his family had yet done so. His masterstroke was to persuade his drinking pals, including myself, that the Somme would be a suitable destination for our annual overseas trip. Somewhat surprisingly, most were up for it.

Ian booked a hotel for the eight of us in Amiens and rented a minibus for the weekend. The plan was to do the historic touring stuff in the mornings, then after parking the minibus at the hotel, tour the bars and restaurants in the town. But that morning, in the Guards' cemetery at Lesboeufs, none of us were talking about food or drink or fun. No one spoke at all. Each thinking their own thoughts, we wandered around individually, pausing here and there to read the inscriptions on the stones. The mist began to recede as the watery sunlight struggled through, revealing the gently rolling farmland stretching to the horizon, utterly silent as though still embarrassed by the outrages perpetrated there all those years ago.

There were 3,000 dead in that cemetery. We were eight tourists on a leisure break, alive in the present. To us, going abroad meant a holiday, enjoyment, a chance to explore, to learn. It was something we did because we wanted to and because we could.

I thought about Willie Johnston and his one and only experience of "abroad". He presumably valued his life as much as I value mine but voluntarily put it at risk in a war that was not of his making, the causes of which must have seemed incomprehensible. I wondered if I would have done the same but soon realised the futility of such thought. A different time, different mindset, different world view. A different world.

After a while, we gathered at the gate, wrote something brief in the visitors' book and drove back to Amiens for some lunch. John Davidson

Playlist: Striking a chord is as easy as ABC

Lord of the Dance by the Dubliners

"Dance, then, wherever you may be / I am the Lord of the Dance, said he"

My dad is a genuine, as well as a self-confessed, guitar hero. Self-taught, he plays "everything in C" with surprising panache. One day, long ago, Dad was warming up his C-chord while my brother and I were in the dining room of our first family home. It was a grand room back then; kept strictly for "best" with Waterford crystal port and sherry decanters that tinkled when you walked past. It was my favourite room as it took on a slightly Vegas feel for the occasions my parents held dinner parties; a time when perfumes, smokiness and laughter would swirl out from behind the frosted glass door.

Ushered to bed early, we would listen to the sound of adult voices playing Trivial Pursuit downstairs and giggle about Dad convincing everyone he was right, even – or especially – when he was wrong. On one such evening, while Mum prepared the feast and before our baths, Dad started playing Lord of the Dance by the Dubliners. An Irishman and born showman, his enthusiastic strumming and Gaelic lilt soon drew my brother and me to him, and we spontaneously began to gallop like horses around the heavy mahogany dining table.

Filled with lightness and joy, jostling with my little brother and hearing the deliciously nerve-racking sounds of the Waterford leaping up and down to the rhythm of our hooves, I felt truly happy. My wonderful family.

Twenty years later, we don't gallop quite so much, but still gather around my precious father whenever he starts strumming that familiar C – "And I lead you all wherever you may be / And I lead you all in the dance said he." Stephanie Thompson

We love to eat: Dad's meat pie with gravy

Ingredients

1 meat pie per person

1 Oxo cube

Boiling water

When I was growing up in the 50s and early 60s, my family had very little money. There was even less when my mother (unusually for that time, the main breadwinner) was killed in a road accident when I was 13.

Around this time, my dad began to show the first symptoms of the cruel disease that forced him to give up his factory job, and would kill him only four years after my mum died. Despite these hardships, he usually managed to have some sort of hot meal for my two brothers and me when we came home from school.

Dad's repertoire was limited – I can remember mince and chips, beef stew (which my brothers called "Dad's gruel") enlivened with a packet of pot herbs from the greengrocer's, but best of all was hot meat pie with gravy.

Dad never mastered the art of thick gravy, it was just an Oxo cube dissolved in boiling water. The meat pie was a from the chip shop or grocer.

A pie on the plate in front of you, fork at the ready, you made a hole in the top crust of the pie. The gravy was poured in and left for a short while until it seeped out on to the plate, then you tasted the lovely, hot, salty savouriness of it. Best of meals on a bitter winter's day.

It's nearly 50 years since I last ate this, but just thinking about it brings back memories of my lovely dad who always tried his best for us. I miss him so much. Sheila Lovelady

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Mike Figgis: My family values

The director talks about his family

Dad was a good writer, a reasonable jazz pianist and my mother was a beautiful woman and a brilliant typist. She worked for Hemingway for a while in Nairobi, and was a great storyteller. When Hemingway had an accident and burned his hands very badly, my mother was sent to do his typing for him and they had this mad ... well, I don't know how far their relationship went, but he wrote beautiful letters to her from Cuba after he'd left. My youngest sister had just been born, so there was always this "Hemingway thing" in the house. He was my sister's godfather.

I've always been fascinated with the internal workings of relationships. You can never presume to understand the secrets of a marriage. Once that door closes, you don't know what goes on. Also I grew up in Africa, then moved back to a very working-class area of England, where I promptly got the shit kicked out of me for the first few months until I learned how to "become one of the lads", though never really. So I always made a habit of watching people and observing them and noticing those moments that give them away. It's all about what's behind the facade.

I went to Kenya when I was six months old. My father was an Irish colonial who had been educated in England. He was a pilot during the war, and became an alcoholic. He tried to pick up the pieces after the war. He was only 17 when he started flying and to please his father, attempted to become a lawyer, like the rest of his family. He went back to Nairobi, where my grandparents were prominent, and at that time Nairobi was this swinging city. I grew up in this environment in a huge house, with servants, and it was just one big party.

My grandfather founded the largest law practice in Nairobi, so Dad got away with murder. He was sort of the black sheep of the family and occasionally worked as a jazz DJ, which is where I got my love of jazz. His record collection is amazing. I've still got it, all the old 78s. He had a very precise ear for music. He'd put on a record and say to me, "OK, just listen to what the bass player is doing. Cut everything else out." If you start at that age, you do develop an ear. Around the time I was 11, they had auditions for a band in school and, from there on, I was a musician.

We moved back to England because of debt. By then, Dad couldn't hold them off any longer. It would be fair to say we fled, leaving unpaid debts with a rich grandmother who refused to pay. I remember going to the airport saying, "But why do we have to hide under a blanket?" Then we arrived back in the north of England, just before Christmas, and I saw my first snow. We stayed with my mother's mother, who was very Christian and disapproving of my father's colonial ways. He was not welcome, but my five siblings, my mother and I bunked down with relatives for a while before getting a council house.

Being a parent can only be a shock of the first order. I was neither strict nor laidback. You take each situation on its merits and deal with it, with love and as much kindness as you can. Finding some sort of balance in family life and working long hours in films on location was trying. But that is the eternal challenge of family. You hope it will work out all right in the end. You try to learn and take the good and avoid the things that were painful to yourself. But ultimately it's about your own kids and who they are as individuals, not to impose your own stuff too much. One of the lessons I learned from my own parents is to never depend on parents.

Mike Figgis: Kate & Other Women, The Little Black Gallery, London SW10 (thelittleblackgallery.com) until 30 July


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July 01 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Fun on the sandhills at Ainsdale

Almost every summer during the 1950s my parents would take myself, my brother and sister on regular day trips to Ainsdale beach in Lancashire. My father would drive the family there in his car, an old Railton, which frequently broke down but was very roomy inside. Before the journey, he would insert a bench in the ample space between the front and back seats, and our young friends were invited to join us.

We all lived in Douglas Grove, a small terraced street in one of the poorer areas of Manchester. Very few families had cars, and there was little money for holidays. Parents were simply happy to see their children have an enjoyable day at the seaside, and did not overly worry about risks. So our friends Christopher, Ann, Christine, Michael, Jacky and Peter were happy, frequent participants on our excursions. On weekends when the weather was good, we would assemble early in the morning, climb into the Railton and with a great cheer begin our journey. We would sing songs, tell jokes and play games such as I Spy. Time passed very quickly.

As an extra treat, we would make a half-way stop at Carmel cafe on the East Lancs Road. Here my parents would buy lemonade and crisps for all the children.

There was always a growing sense of excitement when we reached the level crossing at Ainsdale, for then we knew we were only minutes away from the beach. On arrival, my father would drive along the shore and park in a quiet spot while we decanted to the sandhills. We would remove our shoes and socks to savour the warm sand beneath our feet and chase up the sandhills to much laughter. Our spirits would be soaring.

My parents insisted on one or two basic rules, but we were given a lot of freedom. The day was spent climbing sandhills, playing hide and seek, rounders and other games and, of course, paddling in the sea. As the day drew to a close, we would reluctantly prepare for home, tired but happy.

Today, I think of the generous spirit shown by my parents in giving the children of Douglas Grove those wonderful times at the beach. Jean Hill

Playlist: A sadly prescient track

I Don't Want to Lose You Yet by Steve Earle

"Baby throw your arms around my neck / Lay your pretty head against my chest"

Steve Earle's music has featured in our lives since the late 80s. My late wife, Mary, always loved this track and it was to become sadly prescient. This song (from 2000) was her favourite Steve Earle track and we saw him in concert in Birmingham and Cambridge. Mary wasn't a huge music fan, but Steve Earle's music and songwriting seemed to strike a particular chord with her.

Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer in the autumn of 2002 and bore her illness with a stoicism that was typical of her. In January 2009, the cancer returned with a vengeance and Mary died in June of that year. She spent the last three weeks of her life in our local hospice, and in that time we had the opportunity (along with our two daughters) to discuss her final wishes. As you can imagine, some of these conversations were heartbreaking, but somehow we managed. Mary had decided that the music she wanted was Janis Ian, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and, of course, Steve Earle. It seemed apposite that the funeral directors had decided to print the lyrics (with no influence from us whatsoever) of I Don't Want to Lose You Yet in full on the funeral-service booklet. Ian Jesson

We love to eat: Mum's green fig preserve

Ingredients

1kg green unripe figs

1kg white sugar

Two or three pieces of freshly peeled ginger root

I grew up in the 50s in a mining community outside Heidelberg, in the former Transvaal. It's a dire town on the Reef, from which South Africa's gold is extracted. More felicitously, its fruit is splendid. My mother bottled, jammed and dried a great variety, and to that sweet store, my dad added comb honey extracted from the hives lodged under the stand of blue-gum (eucalyptus) trees. We were not well-off, but what an idyllic childhood my two sisters and I had (before the realities of others' lives dawned).

When we picked the figs, the sap, milky and astringent, stung our hands. The abrading surface of the grater, my dad warned, could hurt finger tips that slipped as they grasped the hard green fruits. The next job around the deal table was my sister's, to cut a cross on the underside of each fig.

The slaked lime in the vat was corrosive: another parental caveat. The chores in preparing the unpromising fruit were long and without reward, until the overnight soaking, repeated washing and long boiling in sugar syrup and ginger root were done.

When Mum sent each of the three of us to the pantry to fetch the sugar from a 25lb cloth bag, we'd look up at the rows of bottled fruit and jams. In each glass ball-jar – why so called, I don't know – were the closely packed figs in their sweet pine-green liquor, the massed jewels of an emerald mine.

The storage jars gleamed for six months from their high shelves, as the contents slowly matured, the exterior of each fruit crisping and the interior becoming mushy, divinely spreadable on toast. The Christmas cake, too, would receive a bounty of four finely chopped figs from the preserving jar.

Both my sisters – one 17 months older, the other younger by the same margin – still live in South Africa with their families. I left the apartheid-riven country in 1973 and live in England. Now, years later, I still find myself longing for this konfyt, the Afrikaans word for jam, or here, more accurately, conserve. But given admonitions about wise eating, and the health and safety constrictions on slaked lime, available – if at all – for £20 a kilo, I must either devise a new means of neutralising that astringent sap or be content to dwell on the memory of green fig conserve. Phil Hoby

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Did you have a secret wedding?

Actors Rachel Weisz and Daniel Craig married in secret last week. Did you marry in secret too? We'd like to hear from you if you've done the same. Tell us in 200 words why and how you did it. State clearly if you want to be anonymous or we will use your name.

Letters should reach us no later than Monday 18 July and be emailed to family@guardian.co.uk, marked Wedding in the subject field.

Entries must include your address and telephone number. If possible, please send a high-resolution photograph of your wedding, as a jpeg or pdf scan. We will pay £50 for each story printed.


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June 10 2011

One house, three women painters

Katharine Holmes lives and works in the house where her mother and grandmother lived and worked too. Tina Jackson meets the latest in a dynasty of artists

Katharine Holmes' house is filled with works of art from three generations of her family. Three women artists whose spirits inhabit the house where they all lived and worked for 70 years – and where Katharine now does the same.

The artwork created by this unique family of painters tells a compelling story about rural life in Yorkshire since the 1930s and the family that created it. Sitting in the kitchen of High Barn Cottage in Malham, North Yorkshire, Katharine says that when she was a child, she vividly remembers going to see her grandmother in the bedroom upstairs. "It was full of paintings, and an easel I still have. It was her bedroom-cum-studio. There was always something on the easel, paintings hung up all over. She used to let me play in there, and squeeze tubes of paint out."

Katharine's grandmother was the noted Dales artist Constance Pearson. Her bedroom, whose window looks out on some of the most breathtaking scenery in Yorkshire, is now Katharine's studio, and Katharine, in her turn a renowned Yorkshire artist, is the third generation of her family not just to live and work as a landscape painter, but to inhabit High Barn Cottage.

The narrative of her family's life is woven into the centuries-old grey stone building set in a harshly beautiful landscape. The house – as much a studio and gallery as it is a home – is filled with paintings by Constance, Katharine and her mother, Philippa Holmes. Its history is the histories of the women who lived and worked there. When Katharine was a child, it was a matriarchal environment where artistic creativity was taken for granted. "If you're a child, growing up with it in a house full of painters, with paintings all over the house, and people going out painting, it was just what you did. It was completely natural to me," says Katharine.

In the 1960s, when all three generations were at High Barn Cottage together, it was very much a house of women. "My father was the lone male," Katharine laughs. "They weren't battleaxes. But he spent quite a lot of his time in the shed, building boats."

Constance died in 1970, when Katharine was eight, but in the way of families, Constance and her life were central to the stories passed on through the generations. Constance Pearson, the matriarch of the family, was born in Leeds in 1886 to Quaker parents. Although she worked in the family grocery shop after leaving school, she won a scholarship to Leeds School of Art. Retaining the artistic links she made as a student, she painted constantly and in the early 1940s, when her schoolmaster husband, Sidney – a fellow student at Leeds School of Art – retired, they moved to Malham, and High Barn Cottage, thus beginning the family association with the place.

Constance quickly became part of the local landscape herself. In 2009, there was an exhibition of work by all three women at Leeds University's Audrey and Stanley Burton Gallery, A Malham Family of Painters. An essay in the catalogue for the exhibitionr describes Constance, who had always sought uninhabited rural scenes for her subjects, becoming a familiar figure in Malham, hungry to paint: "Tramping about in all weathers, her hat bound to her head with a scarf on windy days. She endured rain and snow traipsing out to Malham Cove or Gordale Scar."

Katharine has also painted these very same scenes; unlike her grandmother's gentler paintings, Katharine's pieces show the wild countryside as something more elemental; more sublime. "I paint weather and light," she says. She does not have to look far for either. She can see them from Constance's bedroom window, where she paints. The house and its surroundings are inseparable from Katharine's work. "It's right at the heart of what my paintings are about. It's a very important factor in my work that I've got this attachment – it's the place that I know and have lived in."

Although Katharine has evolved into a very different artist from Constance, she appreciates her grandmother's work for its own sake. Inevitably, though, Katharine's views are coloured by her memories. "I like what her paintings are about – the life going on in the Dales, the people and animals, and houses I knew and was in and out of. As a child, her pictures could have been illustrations in a story."

Constance's work is most numerous on the walls of the house, and Katharine's pieces are the largest and most eye-catching. But what of Philippa Pearson, the third Malham family painter? Born in 1921, Philippa trained as an occupational therapist, and during the second world war, her work involved rehabilitating servicemen through craft work. Later, she trained as a teacher, specialising in art and English at junior-school level.

She inherited her mother's artistic ability. Katharine points out a domestic scene, softly rendered in chalky shades, and the most intimate picture in a house filled with pictures of the landscape just beyond its walls. It faithfully depicts the pantry at High Barn Cottage, which Katharine shows me. Philippa, is seems, was a talented artist sandwiched between two fiercely driven ones. "Grandma had to paint, and so do I," says Katharine fondly, "but for Philippa, I don't think it had that same place. She loved to paint, but she had a very strong sense of family, she was very caring and capable, and it was that side of her that came to the fore."

Katharine loves the house and the strong personalities who have inhabited it. Later this month, the public will be able to enjoy it too, when she throws open her doors as part of the North Yorkshire Open Studios event.

"Sorting everything out, and working towards the exhibition, was quite an emotional process … to go through all this material, and this house, which had two generations before me. Things had been in the same place for years – certain paintings always somewhere – and actually, now, I can put them where I like. It's gradually taken a few years to feel that it's my home, and they don't mind any more. It's taken quite a while for that to sink in. But it's kind of lovely to have all these reminders of them."

Katharine Holmes's work is on display at High Barn Cottage as part of North Yorkshire Open Studios today and tomorrow and 18-19 June, nyos.org.uk


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Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: My earliest memory, 1963

I will be 50 this August. I am one and a half years old in this picture, my chubby face framed by a fur-trimmed hood. Whenever I am asked what my earliest memory is, a scene I truly believe I can still remember – I say that this moment in the snow is it. We lived in a Wiltshire village on Salisbury Plain – Mum, Dad, my elder sister, Julie, me and our newborn baby brother, Robert, whose arrival only a year and 21 days after mine had been a very happy surprise.

Dad was the third of five children and a driver at the experimental airbase on nearby Boscombe Down. Mum was the elder daughter of a major in the Royal Engineers and a real beauty.

The picture was taken in January 1963 when our small village was typical of many places across the UK cut off by deep snowdrifts. The snow had started with blizzards at Christmas 1962 and lasted through to early March, when it finally started to thaw. With temperatures as low as -16C, it was the coldest it had been for 223 years.

We are standing at the top of our front path; Dad has cleared it of snow. To the right of my sister, who is clutching her doll, you can see beech saplings poking through the snow – these now form a well-trimmed, 8ft-tall hedge. Out of view, at the foot of the path, stands our three-bedroomed house, which had no central heating. Dad would light the open fire in the sitting room and there was a paraffin stove in the kitchen. I don't remember ever being cold in the house and in later years proudly called myself a latch-key kid, because by then Mum worked as a school secretary and had taught me how to lay and light the open fire when I got home from school and let myself in, using my own key.

Dad's job at the airbase included towing out and driving a snow plough to clear snow and ice from the surrounding area. He was a strong man and had lots of jet black hair, which was always handsomely slicked back with Brylcreem. He is wearing his black donkey jacket, which had a leather panel that stopped his shoulders getting wet as he worked. When I look at this picture, my memory is of his big hands, shielded from the bitter cold by brown leather gloves, wrapped around my tubby little waist, giving me a sure feeling of being safe and secure in the world. Somehow I understood that Dad was there to protect me.

Capturing half of our young family in the snow, this black and white moment in time seems a million miles away from a life-defining moment for Dad when, 13 years earlier, having fallen in love with my mother, he was called up to fight in the Korean war. It was often called the "forgotten war" because it was sandwiched between the second world war and Vietnam. President Kim Il Sung had risen to power in North Korea, amassed an army of 135,000 and by force attempted to reunify the north and south.

Although Dad has talked about his national service and always enjoys the reunions with his surviving mates, I can still only try to imagine how he must have felt; leaving behind his sweetheart and everyone else he loved; being so far away from them all for such an extended period of time and not knowing if he would make it back.

Dad faced even greater heartache when my beautiful, brave mother fought two types of cancer over a period of 14 years. Passing away at only 45 years old, she had had a brief, but very happy life with Dad and just enough time to raise their three children in the way she wanted to. I know that in the intervening years, having learned to live with the sadness, Dad feels he is a very lucky man to have found so much happiness with Mum's best friend in the world, Margaret.

Christopher Doris

Playlist: My DJ-kit birthday present

Heart of Glass by Blondie

"Once I had a love and it was a gas / Soon turned out, had a heart of glass"

Music refreshes parts of my childhood I'm sure I would have otherwise forgotten. I distinctly remember, a few days after I turned three, Brotherhood of Man singing in the Eurovision song contest, in a relative's house, while my mum was in the maternity hospital, having just given birth to my brother.

There were plenty of Dad's LPs around the house, and seeing album covers of the 70s was a window into another, very strange, world; discovering the cover and inlay of a 12in record is a wonder children of later generations have been deprived of.

By the end of the 70s, when I was about six, music had improved, and I still remember hearing Hit Me with your Rhythm Stick by Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and Oliver's Army by Elvis Costello and the Attractions on the kitchen radio. I may not have understood what the songs were about then, but it is great music I own now, and still listen to.

Around the same time, I was given a little DJ kit as a birthday present: a child-sized turntable and headphones, with a couple of 45s to play. One single was by Darts, the other was Blondie's Heart of Glass. I played it to death then, and I still play it today when I do a bit of DJ-ing at events and in bars.

I suppose it was luck I was bought that record, when it could have been Showaddywaddy or Leo Sayer instead, both of whom were big at the time. When I play it now I may be thinking about fitting it in seamlessly with New Order, Hot Chip or La Roux, but it will always remind me of a family life enriched by music. Mel Gomes

We love to eat: Migsie's cheese muffins

Ingredients

Three quarters of a cup of milk

1 cup of grated cheddar cheese

1 cup of flour

1 huge dessertspoon of baking powder

These can be whipped up in minutes. Just mix together – milk last – to make a sticky mixture. Put into greased muffin tins, about a dessertspoon in each. Bake for 15 minutes at 200C/gas mark six. They are delicious when still warm and spread with butter.

When I was a student at the Johannesburg teachers training college, I shared a room with my good friend Migsie Relph. She gave me this recipe, which has now been a favourite with three generations of our family.

Fifty years ago the only snag to getting them speedily into the oven when an unexpected visitor arrived, was having to use an old-fashioned cheese grater. My children would help with the grating, warned beforehand not to grate their fingers. Eventually, they were able to make Migsie's muffins on their own, which they did when we moved to America and later the UK.

Thirty years after she gave me the recipe, I started making Migsie's muffins with my six grandchildren. They loved them warm, just out of the oven. Hopefully, my great-grandson will soon be able to help his mum make the muffins too – that's three generations now.

Migsie still lives in South Africa. I treasure her handwritten recipe in my torn and tattered college cookery book. Margaret Pleming

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June 03 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Greenwich Mum Time

It was only last year, following the sudden death of my mum (pictured right) that I saw this photograph for the first time. My brother, two sisters and I asked friends and family for memories of her and this was one of the many old pictures that materialised. The friend in question was not exactly sure when and where it was taken but thinks it was during the summer of 1973 – so my mum would have been 26 – in a small garden behind the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.

What strikes me most about this picture is how young, beautiful and, as silly as it might sound, very much alive she looks. In the wake of her death it breaks and warms my heart simultaneously, and I have come to treasure it. In 2004, my mum was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which slowly robbed her of her capability to ride a bike (something she did religiously), ramble, hold her grandchild and speak clearly – things she loved dearly.

Watching someone you love decline like this is naturally very painful, but she continued to be her lovely, infuriating and eclectic self despite all she was going through.

My mum was a devoted mother, not only to the four of us, but also the scores of teenage friends who took refuge at our house over the years.

She was also loyal, kind, principled, determined, eccentric (she had a habit of wearing bits of clothing she found in hedgerows and on cliff walks), incredibly bright and knew pretty much everything about everything, from the works of Ovid and Shakespeare to the films of Aaron Sorkin and Mel Brooks.

She was a classics scholar, a fervent breastfeeder and an expert cat's cradler. She was unjudgmental, enjoyed the simple things in life and had a memory that was second to none. A devoted fan of Waitrose, TGI Friday's, Center Parcs and the South Hams, she was bossy and pig-headed and could talk the hind legs off a donkey, but she was simply wonderful. We all miss her dreadfully. Helen Pravda

Playlist: Aunt Betty's inappropriate gifts

Wild Life by Wings

I am writing this as I listen to an album 40 years after Aunt Betty gave it to me. I was only eight when she brought Wild Life for me and Beaucoups of Blues by Ringo Starr for my younger brother, when she came to visit – she lived abroad at the time. These were strange presents to give me and my brother, and our faces must have shown our disappointment that the pressies weren't sweets or toys that would have lasted 10 minutes before being eaten or discarded. I am sorry for that. I recently revisited my vinyl collection and that got me thinking about Betty and these inappropriate gifts.

She was my dad's sister but they never got on. This should have warmed me to Betty because, unfortunately, I have never got on with my dad either. But just as she had no idea what to buy for eight- and six-year-old boys back then, I had no idea what she was really like. I believe she was an alcoholic (as my dad is now) and suffered at the hands of an abusive husband (which my dad also was) back then. Luckily, she found an escape and her next husband was a kind and gentle type who could look after her.

I tried to connect with Betty when we, coincidentally, lived near each other for a few years but, again like my dad, she wasn't comfortable with family contact. I would imagine she didn't have any real friends either. The personality traits on that side of my family are strange to me, and I struggled with Betty's lack of interest in being in touch with my family at that time. Maybe if she was still alive she would be as sorry about that as I am for my ingratitude towards her gift in 1971.

Betty's later gifts to us were of money enclosed in greetings cards; perhaps she decided that was less likely to cause disappointment to ungrateful boys.

If I had been able to get to know her better, would it have helped me to better understand my dad? Probably not, but you never know. What would she have told me? Maybe only that time generally sorts things out, at least to some extent, that I would never be close to either her or him, but that ageing would calm everything down so that we could at least pass the time of day without an argument or worse.

Thanks for the record, Betty – it's still playing today, even though you are not. Roger

We love to eat: My mother's masala chai

Ingredients

Masala chai – readymade blend available from most Indian shops (quarter teaspoon per cup)

Or use whole ingredients – cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, black peppercorns and ginger powder

Black tea (loose or tea bags)

Sugar (optional)

Fresh ginger

Mint leaves (optional)

Milk

Place boiled water in saucepan, add chai masala and all optional ingredients. Bring to boil and add milk. Then add tea. One spoon/bag per person. Simmer for a few minutes. Strain and enjoy!

Ever since I remember, our day always started with the smell of masala chai wafting from the kitchen. My mother made it for my father, from when they were married in 1939, in Kampala, Uganda. Since moving to England in 1972, this tradition continues. My mother used to make her own mix of masala chai – cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, black peppercorns and ginger powder were all ground with a pestle and mortar before the arrival of the electric coffee grinder.  

Later, she started buying readymade masala and we have all followed suit. My father was an early riser and when he retired he was given lessons and performed his duty aptly. Now, every time I visit my mother in London, I usually make chai for her. Nowadays, she likes me to add fresh mint from the garden and fresh ginger for that extra zing.

My sister and brother-in-law also followed the habit. He makes chai for my sister and they always drink it in bed. This chai-in-bed ritual is one of the hallmarks of their 35-year marriage. I met my Dutch partner 10 years ago in Zimbabwe and we, too, have adopted this tradition in our relationship. Dolar Vasani

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May 27 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: A flash of the old Nan

This is my nan, pictured on the facing page, on the beach at Hunstanton, Norfolk, sometime in the 1950s. I think she's in her late 30s. She's 94 now and still has those distinctive high cheekbones.I found the shot flicking through a photograph album on my last visit to see Nan. It stood out among all the pictures of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and one cherished great-great-grandchild. Christmas parties with paper hats, coach trips, birthdays, gardens, the tulip parade. – even one, bizarrely, of Auntie Betty's grave stone.

There's a similar shot of my sister and her daughter taken on the same beach, but almost 60 years later, and pictures of my own children riding ponies on the same stretch of sand.

"You see, I was slim once," says Nan, whose hearing aid whistles and whirrs as she chuckles at the injustice of growing old. I see a flash of the old Nan. The one who would put on her blue nylon house coat and heat the chip pan, a cigarette hanging precariously from her mouth, ash threatening to drop into the hot oil at any moment. Sausage, egg and chips for tea, followed by chocolate sponge pudding and pink custard.

I remember, when I was much younger, waiting for Nan to come into the living room for our lunch-time nap. She'd ease her way through the door with a shovel piled high with coal, trade-mark cigarette in the corner of her mouth, balancing the shovel carefully as she closed the door on the cold of the lino floor. She'd throw the coal on the fire and frown as pieces scattered and escaped into the hearth. Nan would sit heavily into the soft, wide chair and I would leap on to her knee. She'd wrap her right arm around me and throw the cigarette into the fire, swiftly with her left hand. I'd snuggle my head into her shoulder.

Today, Nan thrusts a five-pound note at each of the children as we part company. "Here's some pocket money. I've got more than I can spend. I wish I had this much money when mine were youngsters."

"Thanks, Nan!"

We leave, promising to write and come again in the holidays. I'm struck by guilt as I realise how these brief, inadequate visits pale into insignificance compared with our wonderful teas of chocolate pudding and pink custard 35 years ago. Sally Wheatman

Playlist: Tilting at Windmills

The Windmills of Your Mind by Noel Harrison

"Like a spiral in a circle / Like a wheel within a wheel"

Four years ago, in a desperate attempt to bring an increasingly technology-dependent family closer together, my parents started Saturday Cinema. Every Saturday, my parents, younger sister and I would settle down to a film and a box of chocolates. Sometimes it was a film we'd all seen before and enjoyed, sometimes a new one and sometimes a film one of us wanted the others to watch. But we were all required to sit down and give it a chance. We also started rating the films on a dodginess scale from one to 10, according to how cheesy they were.

Last December, I came home for Christmas from university so we revived Saturday Cinema – it was my mother's turn to choose. She picked The Thomas Crown Affair, which she had watched in her youth and remembered little of, other than the theme tune – The Windmills of Your Mind by Noel Harrison. We settled down together for the first time in months. We all enjoyed it, but for my sister and me, the main thing was that the theme song became lodged in our minds, as it had in my mother's.

We were hoping the annual rock'n'roll pantomime at our local theatre later that week would get it out of our heads – it was Sleeping Beauty. But guess which song made a major appearance ... Anna Box Power

We love to eat: Mum's bread dip

Ingredients

White bread

Leftover fried tomatoes

Oil or dripping

When we were children in the early 1970s, my sister and I were allowed to choose what we wanted for breakfast and my lovely Mum would make it for us before school. I don't know how she managed to find the time but, for me, every morning was an adventure in taste and texture that set the pattern for the rest of my life. I loved the combinations of sweet and salty; plain and spicy; creamy and crisp; and inevitably fried in some part.

My sister nearly always had something simple, but I went the whole hog and would have baked beans and bacon, fried bread with brown sauce, fried egg on toast, or dripping on toast, or even warmed-up chips from tea the night before if I was lucky. Needless to say, and probably rightly so, my sister thought I was spoilt and a little bit disgusting.

Despite her views of me as a brother, our favourite breakfast was bread dip, which used the oil and bits of tomato left in the pan from the previous night's tea of fried tomatoes on toast. Mum would add some extra oil or dripping and fry the tomato fragments on a low heat until they started to caramelise. Then she laid slices of white bread in the hot, orangey oil for a couple of minutes, cooking one side till it was slightly crisp. The bread underneath became soft as it warmed through and the surface absorbed the oily tomato essence. Flecks of tomato pulp bursting with sweet intense flavour stuck to the bread and we ate it sprinkled with salt. As Mum cooked more slices, they got darker and we sat there smacking greasy, salty lips with our tongues.

I've never lost the taste for this dish, though now I use olive oil and more tomato than just the leftovers Mum used to use. It has a bit of a Mediterranean feel to it now and I'd like to think it wouldn't look out of place in some tapas bar or on the table at a big Italian family meal. Despite my attempt to update bread dip for the 21st century, it still reminds me of Mum in her apron on damp weekday mornings before school, with Noel Edmonds playing in the background. It never made school easier, but what a way to start the day. Mike Pym

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May 13 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Dad's pink and blue greenhouse

Greenhouse was not quite the right word for the thing Dad built. It was a patchwork of corrugated plastic in rather hectic shades of blue and pink – discarded offcuts from a builders' yard. My mother, who had taken little interest in the project, was mortified by the colour scheme. She went round to the neighbours to apologise and made Dad promise to replace the panels with transparent plastic, which he did – 17 years later.

In the corner of the photograph (on the facing page) you can see his beloved grapevine. Hidden behind it, without fail, would be a dusty bottle of homemade wine, of indeterminate strength. Sometimes, when he was called in for tea, his progress down the garden path lacked definition.

In my teens, I used to escape to the greenhouse for a sneaky cigarette. Dad would frown disapprovingly but then find, to his great surprise, an unopened cigar among the seed packets. We would light up in quiet complicity.

When he retired, he put his old typewriter in there and took up writing, just for the pleasure of it. In the pots he planted the seeds of his imagination, sheets of paper rolled in elastic bands.

After I moved up north, my mother took to sitting in the greenhouse as well, reading papers and library books. Either she had finally forgiven him for the original blue and pink monstrosity, or she was keeping an eye on the bottle behind the vine. I went to stay with them in the spring of 1989, taking my toddler son with me. We all crowded into the greenhouse, popped a cork (which bounced safely off the corrugated plastic) and dined on fish fingers, eaten straight from the grill tray. It's my son's only recollection of his grandfather, who died that summer, aged 72.

I think this snapshot shows a man at ease with himself, enjoying the simple pleasures of life. That was my father, Kenneth Ellis. Kay Ellis

Playlist: When the sun always shines

Take on Me by A-ha

"Take on me / Take me on ..."

I'm an ex-farmer's wife, but not a farmer's ex-wife, and at the time this song was released in 1985 I lived on a farm in Kent. My second son had just been born, a bonny baby. The sun was shining through a long Indian summer, the fruit harvest was just about gathered in and I was back in the car, cruising through the lanes for the first time since the birth, windows down, when the first UK hit single by A-ha came on the radio, bringing a breath of fresh air.

There was Morten Harket, with his amazing vocal range, from rumbling masculine bass to soaring soprano, interspersed with 80s electro keyboard riffs. The music chimed with my rampant post-natal hormones and reminded me that my body was my own again after nine months of co-habiting with a foetus. Ah, what joy – every time I hear this song it takes me back to that fleeting moment of wind-in-my-hair freedom. Fiona Neame

We love to eat: Whiteley's Yorkshire parkin

Ingredients

54lb margarine

212lb golden syrup

35lb brown sugar

132lb fine oatmeal

95lb plain flour

2lb ground ginger

1lb salt

Those quantities need scaling down a bit for home use. I use, in the same order: 162g, 636g, 105g, 396g, 285g, 2tsp, 1tsp. Line a deepish tin of about 300 square centimetres. Tin size is important – the recipe doesn't work if the mixture is too shallow or too deep. In a large pan on a low heat, melt the margarine and then add the syrup. Remove from the heat and add the other ingredients one at a time, stirring well. Pour the mixture into the tin and cover it with greaseproof paper. Bake in a very low-temperature oven for three to four hours. I use a gas oven on the "S" (slow) setting.

Whiteley's baked theirs in the residual heat of the bread ovens after the bread had been removed. The parkin is best stored for a couple of weeks before eating, wrapped in paper. Don't use a tin or plastic.

Whiteley's were bakers in Huddersfield but they closed decades ago. My memories begin with their ginger buns because that was what Auntie Sis brought with her every Thursday when she came for the day. She had no children of her own, which is probably why she gave me a lot of attention – which, of course, I liked. She was not a real aunt, but the widow of my great uncle Charlie who died before I was born. Although a prosperous professional man, he died in debt and with no life insurance, leaving his relatives to supplement the meagre provision for widows made by the embryonic welfare state of the 1930s. When I was old enough to understand, it was made very clear to me that it was a husband's job to ensure that his widow would be provided for.

In the early days of the ginger-bun visits, it was war-time and I liked to examine the special torch auntie used in the black-out on her dark evening walk to the bus stop. It had been made by a clever teenage boy from a cough sweet tin.

Parkin, which was sold at the same shop as the buns, in Market Walk, became a favourite later. My father said it was so delicious that Whiteley's ought to promote it as a speciality, like Kendal Mint Cake or Grasmere Gingerbread. But they never did. Jim Haigh

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April 29 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Dad's sporting life

My father, Robert Henry Parker, was born in 1904, the sixth of 11 children. He was a slight, timid lad, with bigger older brothers. In those days, such families struggled and when his father died a few years later, it was even harder. Two of his older brothers must have decided that Bob needed toughening up because they put him into some local sports clubs.

First, they taught him to swim. He took to the water like the proverbial duck and became an excellent swimmer and diver. He won medals for picking up coins from the floor of the deep end, and others for various races.

Next, his brothers took him along to a boxing club, held at the rear of a pub. He soon learned the ropes and boxed as a featherweight. He took on 14 fights – with his brothers no doubt yelling from the floor – and won all except one, which was declared a draw. He had medals for these, too.

Later, he joined a football club. In this photograph, he is on the far left in the front row. His team won the cup in the 1925-26 season and as the captain he is holding the medals. On the extreme right, second row, is one of his brothers, who supported him. My father played for a number of years – until he met my mother.

Up to then, this good-looking, sporty young man had never had a girlfriend. He worked in a factory, was very shy, and sport did not hold the glamour it does today. One evening, his mate took him to the local hop on a blind date and he met Daisy. She loved to dance but, despite his active life, Bob seemed to have two left feet. Still, he fell for Daisy.

There was just one snag. Daisy, like most young women of her day, had no interest in sport and did not like him "wasting his time" away from her. They courted for three years and once the wedding date was set, Bob gave up all his sport. He must have missed it, but he consoled himself with indoor sports – cards, darts, billiards and, later, snooker.

They married at the village church in 1927. A honeymoon in Hastings was followed eventually by three daughters. War was declared in 1939. Bob was too old for the call-up, but he made munitions, joined the works fire brigade and grew vegetables and kept chickens to feed his family.

Two years after the end of the war, Daisy became pregnant with their last child. Bob had quietly hoped for a son. He had never lost his love of sport, and imagined showing a boy how to manoeuvre the ball into the net, taking him to matches and teaching him to swim – Daisy produced another girl. But with the advent of television, Bob was in his element. In retirement, he spent hours watching all the sports, even snooker, in black and white.

In 1972, he and Daisy went on a pensioners' holiday, where they met friends they hadn't seen since their schooldays. Daisy sat outside, reminiscing with the ladies, while Bob played snooker with his old mates. One afternoon, one of them came out to fetch Daisy, telling her Bob wasn't well. When she went inside, her husband was on the floor beside the snooker table. She bent down to him, but it was too late.

Bob had been cueing the ball when he died – and winning, too. Marion Aley-Parker

Playlist: My excellent American adventure

I Will Follow Him by Little Peggy March

I love him, I love him, I love him / And where he goes I'll follow, I'll follow, I'll follow

Dad worked for IBM and in 1963, when I was 12, he was posted to America for the best part of a year. He was based in Poughkeepsie, New York, and Mum, my brother Richard and I joined him from April to September.

He met us at New York after our five- day Atlantic voyage on the Queen Elizabeth, and we drove up the New York State Thruway – my first experience of a motorway. I Will Follow Him was in the charts, and whenever I hear the lines "There isn't an ocean too deep, a mountain so high it can keep me away", I can see the wide open spaces of America rolling past the car window.

I grew to love my adopted country during our stay and remember not just where I was when I heard the news of John F Kennedy's death, in the November after we returned to the UK, but also that I felt distraught.

There was a happier aftermath to our American adventure. My sister Janet was born the following May, and basic maths revealed that the act had occurred after we had given up our house in Poughkeepsie and were living in a one-room chalet just before sailing home. Mum would be mortified to know that this is being revealed to Guardian readers; Dad would have loved it. Dave Atkinson

We love to eat: Dad's Bahrain beans

Ingredients

A tin of baked beans

A handful of raisins and sultanas

Curry powder

Milk

Empty one large tin of baked beans into a pot and heat gently. Add a large handful of raisins and sultanas. As the mixture begins to simmer, add curry powder and stir. Warm through and serve in a bowl with a glass of cold milk. Perfect on a cold day or after a late night!

Dad was the cook in our house. He could do straightforward things such as Scotch broth, sausages, mince and potatoes with carrots and onions, gigot chops and stews – with dumplings if my sister and I could persuade him. Once or twice a year, in late June we would have "Dad salad", made with tomatoes, carrots, boiled egg, syboes (spring onions) and lettuce, which we never saw for the rest of the year. He cut it all up into piles with a pair of scissors and you got a little pile of whatever you wanted and salad cream.

His speciality, though, was Bahrain beans. He had worked in the Gulf in the 1950s, and we like to think that this was a special recipe he had learned there. Simple, nutritious, tasty and a little bit exotic. James Pringle

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March 12 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: My father surveying the Niger

This is a photograph of my father, John Dunkley, surveying the Niger river in 1949 (he's the one holding the map). I found it in a faded blue cardboard album recording his flying career during the war, and afterwards with West African Airways Corporation. This picture was taken in Sokoto, north-west Nigeria. In the course of their work, routes were planned and planes were delivered – De Havilland Doves and Bristol Wayfarers.

My father joined the RAF at the age of 18, in 1941, and trained to fly in Terrell, Texas. The newly qualified pilots returned home and assembled at Lord's cricket ground, where my father joined 31 Squadron. During the war, he dropped supplies in Burma and released British and Dutch prisoners of war from the Japanese camps. Two quotes were found in his album. The Squadron Song: "Rotting in the jungle, on Ramree's marshy shores, with dysentery, malaria and bags of jungle sores," and on what was expected of the men: "The forecast is atrocious – in fact the outlook's grim. The CO says we have to fly, get up them stairs and have a try."

As my father was standing on the wing of a Dakota, supervising the refuelling, he received a telegram informing him of my birth.

In the 60s, he flew BOAC VC10s across the Atlantic. He returned home from America laden with stiffened nylon frilly petticoats, paper dolls and lollipops on strings, to the delight of my sister and myself. LPs of Rock Around the Clock, Mack the Knife, High Society and Come Fly with Me would envelope the house excitingly. My mother would make Shirley Temple cocktails from grenadine and lemonade, and bake blueberry pies and Betty Crocker white-frosted cakes.

From east Africa, he brought woven baskets of avocados and pineapples, back scratchers and wooden carvings. He proudly brought back a gold watch given to him by the Sheikh of Bahrain.

He had to retire at 50, due to a heart problem. Cruelly, he received another letter the same day – he had been accepted to fly Concorde.

His vision remained skywards, and at dawn he would point out Venus and at dusk, Jupiter. "There is Orion and the Corona Borealis," he would enthuse. "Can you see the belt?" We tried to share in his awe of the magnitude of space. His love of astronomy and his wish to share its wonder was channelled into preserving the Norman Lockyer observatory, near Sidmouth in Devon, and lecturing in the planetarium against a background of Holst's The Planet Suite. His love of flying was summed up at his funeral, in the Flyer's Prayer by Patrick J Phillips, read by my son:

"The hours logged, the status reached / The ratings will not matter / He'll ask me if I saw the rays / And how he made them scatter // How fast, how far, how much, how high? / He'll ask me not these things / But did I take the time to watch the moonbeams wash my wings? // So when these things are asked of me / And I can reach no higher / My prayer this day – His hand extends / To welcome home a Flyer."

His idea of uncharted territory skyward was for ever there. Jane Tipping

Playlist: Thank you for the music

Love Minus Zero/No Limit by Bob Dylan

"My love she speaks like silence / Without ideals or violence / She doesn't have to say she's faithful / Yet she's true, like ice, like fire."

I came out of an all-girls school and only had sisters. It was 1969, and I was 16. Boys were an alien species. I walked into the college common room and saw someone playing the guitar. Male – but I could only tell by his lower half because the face was covered by long, straight white-blond hair.

He was playing Love Minus Zero/No Limit by Bob Dylan, but I only found that out later, when I heard him play it many times again at the folk club we ran together. He was my first real male friend.

After college we lost touch and I married another amazing guitarist – someone I'd recommended we book for the folk club! He, too, played "My love she speaks like silence, without ideals or violence", sadly, I think, remembering a past love. We divorced after 13 years.

Then after another relationship (a country music fan – a bit of a musical hiatus for me) and 30 years since we had last seen each other, my college friend with the long blond hair and I made contact again. He still sings Love Minus Zero/No Limit, only now he has short hair and a range of guitars to choose from – and he's my beloved husband.

I really want to say thank you to these two exceptional guys for the music they've brought into my life. Jo Fallon

We love to eat: Our secret breakfasts

Ingredients

170g mushrooms, wiped and sliced

Butter

Four eggs

One packet of smoked salmon

Two muffins

One bottle of sparkling wine (optional)

Scramble the eggs, fry the mushrooms in butter, toast the muffins and serve with slices of smoked salmon.

With stressful full-time jobs, three school-age children and two dogs we didn't get much time to ourselves. So once in a while my husband and I would skip a day from work (usually a Friday, to relax at the end of a busy week) and after getting the kids off to school and walking the dogs we'd eat our special breakfast while reading the morning papers – in peace, phones switched off, no interruptions from small voices asking for more toast or quarrels over the last of the cereal.

If we could get someone to pick the kids up from school, we'd enjoy a glass or two of sparkling wine with our breakfast. And even better – take it all back to bed and enjoy the decadence. Total bliss.

My husband retires soon and hopefully we will spend many leisurely breakfasts together. If you're reading this husb – I can't wait. Anonymous


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March 08 2011

March 05 2011

The rise and rise of family photographs

Sinking under an ever-growing pile of family photos? You're not alone, says Michael Hewitt – we're all suffering the legacy of too many snap-happy generations

Why do we so value images from our past, and how much of a genuine loss would it be if many of them simply disappeared? Certainly, the world would be a worse place without, say, Yousuf Karsh's portrait of Churchill or Robert Capa's war photographs. But my grandmother holidaying on the Isle of Man? My father's disastrous attempts at home movies? Even if these are worth preserving, how should we go about it?

Archiving family photos used to mean simply sticking them in a hard-backed album. Today, however, we all seem to need something approaching an information technology degree. It's a problem that will become increasingly common as we gradually entrust all our photos and home movies to digital media. Not just because of disk crashes. Format obsolescence won't help either. For example, if you saved your pictures to 5¼in disks (remember them?), good luck finding a computer that will now read them. Even if you had the foresight to transfer everything to DVDs, who is to say this format will be around in 10 or 20 years?

American Scientist recently dubbed this potential loss of generations' worth of photos and home movies the "digital dark age". We should, it says, all make an effort now to preserve them before it's too late.

This seemingly atavistic urge to produce and preserve family pictures is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Before photography, the only way to get a portrait was, of course, to have one painted. Though, even if you could book them, Holbein and Gainsborough didn't come cheap, so this tended to restrict the practice to the very rich. Then came the 1850s, the photographic revolution and Queen Victoria.

The Queen and her consort embraced the new technology with the same enthusiasm that today's teenagers have for Facebook. Every regal minutia was faithfully recorded. When the middle classes saw this, they wanted in on the act as well. Throughout the land, professional photographers opened up to cash in on the trend, and people stumped up hefty sums to be immortalised in sepia. It was expensive, because a photographic portrait was still a laborious, technical procedure.

But something curious happened: ordinary working people with hardly a penny to rub together suddenly wanted to be preserved for posterity, too, regardless of the financial sacrifices they'd have to make. My mother's side of the family, for instance, who'd taken the boat from County Mayo to England in 1851 (and from whom I seem to have inherited what people complain is my apparently permanent scowl). In that "no dogs or Irish" age, they had to settle for pretty menial jobs and money. Yet, in the early 1860s, my great-great-grandmother, Catherine Gavin, somehow scraped together what must have been a week's wages to have her wedding portrait taken. It's a rather curious wedding portrait in that she's the only one in it. From a purely economic point of view, wouldn't two-for-the-price-of-one with great-great-grandfather Edward have made more sense?

Without some sort of back story, such photographs can be meaningless. So I dug one up, revealing a little more. It turns out that this was Catherine's second marriage, hence the first wedding ring, prominently displayed on her right hand. According to family sources, she was making a couple of statements here.

First, she was letting the world know that she was still considered a catch. Second, she was telling us that number one was her true love, and the second chap, Edward, something of a compromise. Perhaps the fact that Edward had been born outside of marriage – not something you'd shout about back then – was a factor. Interestingly, the image of Catherine's right hand on the original silver Daguerreotype has been damaged, as if someone had tried to erase it with sandpaper. (I'd like to think Edward did it in a fit of pique.) It was later rather crudely restored by hand, suggesting that the marriage was not without friction.

Such symbolism and flaunting of status seeking was often the raison d'être of early photography. For example, recent immigrants would tog up in the best clothes and send back pictures to their families in the old country to show that they were doing well, even if they weren't. Families who could only afford a couple of pictures would put them into an album, to which other family members would add theirs. This would then be circulated, picking up more along the way. It worked in almost exactly the same way as Facebook friends: the more you had in the album, the greater the kudos.

Then there were photographs of children. The concept of childhood itself went hand-in-hand with the development of photography. In fact, some maintain it was largely created by it. Before then, children were regarded as a sort of grub stage. However, photography froze them in time, serving two distinct functions. First, it showed them as part of one big happy family. And, of course, in the days when the childhood mortality rate was tragically high, it preserved their memory as insurance against a worst-case scenario. Indeed, if the worst did happen, a rather sad, specialist sub-group – funeral photographers – was on hand to picture the deceased little one on his or her deathbed.

My family were lucky in that respect: most made it through from the stiff and expensive Daguerreotype age to Kodak's affordable "You push the button, we do the rest" era of cheap photography for all. Photos on the beach, and happy, smiling family snapshots became the norm. Then, in 1914, this was put on hold, giving way to an entirely different sort of snapshot.

My grandfather, Arthur Enoch Hewitt, served in the Royal Fusiliers. In common with many soldiers of the time, he collected postcard-size photographs of his comrades, stored in a dedicated album. His is full of fresh-faced young men, looking as if they're on the threshold of an awfully big adventure, all seemingly cheery, maybe convinced it will all be over by Christmas. None of them are dated later than 1916.

Probably the most significant part of this collection, however, has nothing to do with Grandpa Hewitt or his mates. In among them, standing out like Everton supporters at the Kop end of Anfield, is a picture of a German army unit. Unlike all the other photographs, it's not labelled. What's it doing there?

My grandfather evidently didn't like to talk much about "his war". Yet I recall family stories of an impromptu truce round about Christmas time, a football match between the lines, carols being sung, and photographs swapped. Was this one of them: unidentified German boys in caricature pointed helmets, nonchalantly puffing cigarettes in some unknown woodland, lost in a foreigner's photo album, itself almost lost to the skip?

While we only have a few dozen photographs from my grandparents' and great-grandparents' time, pictures from my own childhood are somewhat more abundant. Thanks to my father, there are several thousand of the damned things. He was an enthusiastic amateur photographer and movie-maker, but, unfortunately, possessed no skill whatsoever in their execution, a trait inherited by my brother, who's keeping the Hewitt lineage (and pictorial output) going with two boys.

But whereas my father was able to inflict just three minutes' worth of his home movies on anyone at any given time, and only a couple of hundred photographs a year, modern digital technology permits Peter to produce almost infinite amounts of poorly shot tedium, very cheaply. He's even transferred the old home movies to DVD, potentially immortalising their awfulness. Will future generations be willing to sit through this sort of stuff? If so, they'll need more patience than I have. Maybe a major culling exercise is in order.

Sometimes I think I'd be happy to junk the lot in exchange of what has been lost: Great-great-grandma Gavin laid out in her coffin, pennies over her eyes, for instance; the only video recording of my father, taken a couple of days before he died (my mother wore through the tape by constantly replaying it); or a vox pop BBC interview with Grandad Alfred Farrell, circa 1961, where he says how he'd like to be locked in a windowless room with "that bastard" Harold Macmillan.

But then I'd never know if I was getting rid of something really valuable. No doubt whoever threw away that picture of Catherine Gavin thought it to be merely rubbish. The only answer, therefore, is to hang on to all of it, and let our descendents do the sifting.

All well and good, but how can we be sure that there'll be anything for them to sift through? Photos fade, home movies disintegrate, hard drives crash, and PCs end up in the skip, photos still on board. CD and DVD backups can't be trusted either: experts reckon they may well become unreadable within 20 years as their surfaces deteriorate. These days you have to preserve, not just the medium, but the machine on which it was produced, if only to transfer it to a newer, more resilient one.

Fortunately, there are now organisations and services that have formed with the goal of doing just this: preserving old formats and gradually transferring from one to another if obsolescence threatens. Home Movie Day (homemovieday.com) holds worldwide celebrations to commemorate amateur film-making and provide venues where families can screen their old home movies to catch a glimpse of their heritage.

And heritage is what it's all about. Not just our own, but for all others who are interested in social history and would like to preserve the knowledge of what made us who we are. Even if it does means that Great-great-grandma Catherine is for ever sticking it to Edward.


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January 30 2011

Goldie interview: The alchemist

Abandoned as a toddler, Goldie couldn't have had a worse start in life. But today the street-art pioneer, drum 'n' bass supremo, and TV star is an infectiously happy man. In a candid interview he talks about learning to love his mother, inspiring the next generation and why he'd rather dine with Kim Jong-il than Simon Cowell

Has Goldie ever had an unexpressed thought? I'm not entirely sure. He's just such a talker. He can talk and talk and talk, and two weeks after interviewing him, he rings me up when I'm in the supermarket, and for reasons that escape me, I agree to accompany him to a darkened basement off Oxford Street where, for the best part of 90 minutes, I feel like I'm about to die. Bikram, the extreme version of yoga, performed in a room heated to more than 100F, is Goldie's latest enthusiasm, and although I do at one point wonder whether I'm having a cardiac episode, I come to understand why he does it: afterwards he's strangely quiet and calm, like he's been stunned by a tranquilliser dart. (I'm catatonic, but that's another story.)

It's a relief, actually, to see that he can sit still, because interviewing him is not unlike spending several hours in the company of a toddler who's been overdoing the orange squash. When I arrive at his house he tells me he'd been up until 2am the night before, painting, before starting again at 8am; he's already done the photo shoot and is now showing the awed photographer his trainers collection while simultaneously consulting with Chris, the engineer who works for his record label, Metalheadz, who is waiting patiently to get to work on their latest project, an orchestral arrangement of "Timeless", the title track from his 1995 debut album. Mika, his wife of a year, is in the kitchen baking scones and within 30 seconds of walking through the door, he thrusts one towards me: "Taste that! Isn't that scontastic!" before whisking me off up the stairs to show me the love letters he wrote to her, a great big box of them, all hand-written and intricately designed.

Then it's back downstairs and into the kitchen, talking all the time, bouncing off the walls practically. "Did you feel comfortable when you arrived here today?" he asks me later. And I did. He can still look pretty menacing with the gold teeth and the tattoos and the bling, but he's also the perfect host, warm, friendly, generous with the scones (and the trainers – the photographer leaves with a pair and looks like he might burst with joy) and prone to spontaneous outbursts of hugging.

"I can't believe you ever needed to do drugs," I say, because he's 45 now, but in his younger days, hanging out with the likes of Noel Gallagher, he used to "toot for England". In his case, he says, the drugs literally didn't work. "They had a polarising effect. Cocaine would make me go very quiet and into myself." These days, Goldie says, he has just "one vice left" – he smokes – and for the most part lives quietly in a small village in the Hertfordshire commuter belt (just past the golf course, before the church), as unlikely a spot as you could ever think of to find the man who pioneered graffiti art in the UK and was one of the founding fathers of drum 'n' bass. His daughter Chance ("12 going on 26") lives with him during the week, and although he still flies around the world DJing, he's also, since the BBC2 series Maestro, in which he learned to conduct an orchestra, reinvented himself as a mainstream television performer, the latest incarnation of which can be seen in a new BBC2 series, Goldie's Band: By Royal Appointment.

According to the BBC, it's about "the transformative power of music in young people's lives", and in it he takes 12 youths aged 17 to 24, matches them up with musical mentors including Soweto Kinch and Cerys Matthews, and after three days of hothousing makes them perform a grand finale at Buckingham Palace in front of Prince Harry. It's a perfect piece of casting, because if anybody knows what it is to be a troubled, directionless teenager, it's Goldie.

"When I think about these kids and look at them it's like a clock turning back," he says. "It's like looking in a mirror and having all these reflections of all these young kids. And I also think how fucking lucky that I am, how blessed that I am to be in this position."

THIS ISN'T HYPERBOLE. He was born Clifford Joseph Price in Walsall; his mother, Margaret, was a Scottish pub singer, and his father, Clement, an itinerant Jamaican, disappeared shortly after he was born. When he was three his mother put him into care, while his half-brothers remained at home. For the rest of his childhood he was bounced between foster carers and children's homes as, he says, "this kid, Cliff, who no one paid much attention to".

He could barely remember his mother, nor did he have any contact with her. "But I knew what she smelled like. And I remember down to the day when the social worker came to take me away. Me and my brother rolled down this hill on a trolley, all the way to the bottom and we fell off and were laughing, and then we went back up the hill, and this car pulled up and a woman got out with a guy and they took me away."

The fact he has such a vivid recall for events in his childhood – the smells and the sounds of it – and is able to conjure it up, decades on, means it's really not a stretch to empathise with the kids in the programme, whose lives, he believes, will be changed by the experience. "It's like the opposite of the X Factor," he says. "Think about the people who aren't making it on there. Think about how dysfunctional they feel, how failed they feel, a panel of people going: 'Sorry, you're going to fail.' I find it quite crushing. I can't watch it. I actually physically want to vomit. It's a circus. Simon Cowell is the George Bush of the music industry.

"He doesn't know fuck all about music, I'll tell you that for a fact," he continues. "I'd rather sit down and have dinner with that guy from Korea, what's his name?"

"Kim Jong-il?"

"With Kim Jong-il. I'd rather have dinner with him. I find the whole thing like the Nuremberg Rallies."

But then if Goldie is sensitive to the idea of kids being treated like failures, it's hardly surprising. Outcomes for children brought up in care are unremittingly bleak, and there was nobody in his life who expected anything of him, who thought he'd ever amount to anything. Apart from one lone art teacher. "In the programme we go back and I surprise him at his retirement party. It was such a poignant moment. It was the first time I'd seen him since I was a teenager. He was completely in shock, and I just burst into tears. I felt you just need that one person. That one person who goes: 'C'mon, man.'"

It was because of that teacher that he got into art and because of art that he discovered graffiti and because of graffiti that he got into drum 'n' bass and went on to have a major hit with his first album, and then founded his record label, Metalheadz. There was a time in the 1990s when he was on the cover of every magazine, he dated Naomi Campbell, was engaged to Björk, played a Bond villain in The World is Not Enough and appeared in Guy Ritchie's Snatch. It all dates back to when he was 16 and ran away from the children's home to live with his mother on a high-rise estate in Walsall; by the time he was 17, he'd become one of the most accomplished graffiti artists in the UK, covering the walls of his estate with 60 different murals.

There's a curious circularity at work in his latest show, because it was a Channel 4 documentary made when he was still a teenager that had a profound and lasting effect upon his life. Bombin', a film by Dick Fontaine, brought some of the Bronx-based pioneers of hip hop, a culture that went on to conquer the world, to the UK, including the influential street artist Brim Fuentes, and then took a group which included Goldie and 3D (who went on to form Massive Attack) to New York.

Brim became Goldie's artistic mentor, New York was the place that lifted his horizons, and America was where he would later become "Goldie". What's more, the cameraman on the documentary, Gus Corral, became a substitute father figure: at one stage Goldie ended up living with him for several years. There's a record of all this: look on YouTube and you can find a rather sweet and sensitive-looking Clifford Price, age 16, holding a spray can and being interviewed on Pebble Mill. "But is it art?" the reporter asks him. "Or is it vandalism?" Then there he is, aged 17, on Bombin', still quiet and softly spoken and very obviously in awe of Brim and co. Fast forward 15 years and he shows up in another Channel 4 documentary, The Saturn Returnz, in which, at the height of his drum 'n' bass fame, he goes in search of his roots.

"I was talking to [Goldie's Band director] Craig Blackhurst and he said to me: 'Has it ever occurred to you that your life has been like a reality TV show?' And I said: 'How do you mean?' And he said: 'Your life has been like The Truman Show.' From the age of three, my life has been documented by social workers. There's a file somewhere in Walsall Social Services saying: 'He was a bit difficult today; he was trying to find out about his parents.' Or: 'He locked himself in his room and is collecting beer mats.'"

There is something slightly The Lives of Others about how his life has been officially recorded, and the documentaries themselves make compelling viewing. In The Saturn Returnz, he's a grown man, 33 years of age, but watching him find his father in Miami and ask him about why he abandoned him, he looks like a bewildered adolescent. In another sequence he goes and visits one of his foster carers, Mrs Newell, with whom he lived for three years. "What went wrong?" he asks her. "You hated women," she says matter-of-factly. It was an epiphanic moment, he says. "It was like this big bell in my head just went: 'Gong!' And suddenly everything made sense."

He had to leave Mrs Newell's because "you started on Rita", her adopted daughter. "I drove her mad," he says. "She couldn't breathe. This thing appeared in her throat and she had to go and have an operation on it. I'd just whisper, whisper, whisper at her."

But then it was during this period, he tells me, that other stuff happened, too. It's not something he's ever talked about before, that he didn't even acknowledge to himself until a few years ago, when he was in therapy at the Hoffman Institute, but between the ages of 10 and 12 he was sexually abused by an older girl.

"I think, in this awful Freudian way, that when this abuse was going on, I just wanted to be loved. I felt like I was climbing up inside her vagina, trying to get back into the belly. I remember pubic hairs being stuck in my teeth. I know it's gross. That's gross, right? And afterwards, I remember suckling her breast, and then when she sent me away, I felt completely rejected. It was fucking awful, when I think about it."

In spite of everything, he believes he was better off in care. Jo-Jo, the half-brother who stayed with his mother, "does nothing". And Melvin, the other half-brother? "Nothing." Although this is an improvement on when Melvin was doing something, namely armed robbery, for which he did various stints in jail. Goldie found a different outlet. "I honestly believe art and music saved me," he says. "Art and music saved my life. I am blessed."

SADLY, IT COULDN'T SAVE HIS SON. Last September, Jamie Price was jailed for life for stabbing and killing a rival gang member outside a Wolverhampton nightclub. It's incredibly difficult trying to get the story about Jamie's childhood straight. Goldie has had four children by four different women: "We all ended up banging this bird one night, and my lucky number came up." And while there's no doubt that he's an attentive father to Chance, who's at a private girl's school down the road, it doesn't sound like he's played the biggest of roles in his older sons' upbringing.

Jamie was his second son by his then girlfriend Michelle, who he describes as "my first love". Nine weeks after Jamie was born, "Melvin [Goldie's brother] fucked her. There was nothing I could do. I just left to go to America. He was the guy who everyone was scared of. I'd come back and found my family and then got fucked over by them again."

He had little contact with Jamie as a child. "They wouldn't let me. And then when he came of age, I said: 'Come and stay with me', and he came down here and stayed here, and I was trying to replace the lost years. But it just wouldn't stick. He started stealing. He took a car and crashed it and lied blatantly. And I said: 'That's it; it's time for you to go. I've tried.' And then I let him back in again. I got him back here and he started doing the same thing. I told him: 'You have to be responsible for your actions.'"

"Some people would say the same, though, of the parents," I say. "That you have to take responsibility for your children."

"I'm bearing responsibility. But look: when they're young and they kick the ball next door and break the window, you go round and apologise. When they get to a certain age, they've got to be responsible for the window that they've broken. He rang me last week and apologised. And I said: 'Thank you, son, but you don't need to be sorry to me. You need to look inside yourself. Don't be sorry for me. Be sorry for that mother who woke up without a kid.'"

One of the saddest things, I think, is that Goldie has the wit and talent to engage with street culture intelligently; to take the best parts and do something interesting with it, and ultimately he has brought it to a wider audience. Whereas Jamie engaged with street culture, too, but was simply seduced by the macho violence of it.

"I sat with my daughter Chance and I made her read the story about Jamie, and she was in fucking bits," Goldie says. "And people can say that's cruel, but she'd already heard about it. And I told her: 'That's what happens when you throw your life away.'"

Goldie managed to escape the streets and the casual gang violence of his youth. His life is stable now, he says – and Mika, a designer, who's half-Japanese and grew up in Canada, seems to be as smart and sensible as they come – but it's taken him an awfully long time to get here. "I had so much anger. So much anger. Particularly towards my mother. I was a really, really angry person, and it was ruining me."

"A lot of people would say that you had a lot to be angry about," I say.

"The thing is that it's all about empathy. I thought: I've just got to find empathy. Because I went through all these things, but so did she. And I love her. I love her in a different way from someone who grew up with her. I love her in a certain way. It's an understanding."

HIS MOTHER WAS HERE, staying with him a month ago, in this house, and it seems as if he's finally managed to bring all the parts of his life together. "Your house," I say, "reminds me of the kind of house a child would draw: it's square and solid, with a red door right in the middle of it and a pointed roof."

"You know, you're the first person who's said that. But it's exactly that."

"Is this the kind of family house you dreamed of as a child?"

"It is. I wanted a happy home somewhere in the countryside. Somewhere I could play. And I've kind of created that."

At another point Goldie says he wanted somewhere "to grow up". Growing up the first time around, without a mother or a father, in an institution, perpetually the new boy at a new school, was so painful that he seems to be doing it all over again. When he tells me the story of how he met Mika, in Shanghai, he says: "We were like two 12-year-olds. We were literally 12 for the next six months."

"Do you think you were having your adolescence again, but having it properly? "

"Yes! I'd never thought of it like that. But that's exactly what it was. It was like me finally getting to grow, healthily. We did the courtship, the whole six months, and then she came to London, and we still didn't sleep together."

Really? Is this really the same Goldie who once told an interviewer that he'd lost count of the number of women he'd slept with?

"Yeah really, swear to God. And then she came back again, and it was like: this is going to be awkward, let's just get it out the way. And we did it and we were like: 'There's all this gooey stuff!' We were like kids. It was so teenage. I'd never had that. I'd never had a real relationship."

He's so open, Goldie, guileless in so many ways and when I say that to him, he says: "The part of me you don't know is the part of me that hasn't happened yet." He did Celebrity Come Dine With Me recently, "and they were saying to me: 'You're supposed to have your TV version of you and then you have your other version'".

"That's what celebs do!" I say. "Don't you even know that?"

"There's only one version. There's only me."

"Maybe it's because you have never had privacy," I say.

"I know. That's what I'm learning now with Mika. We have our own language, and it's ours. It's us."

It seems like finally, perhaps, Goldie's very own Truman Show might just be over.

Goldie's Band: By Royal Appointment starts on BBC 2 on 22 February. Goldie is speaking at TEDx Observer on 19 March (observer.co.uk/tedx)


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December 02 2010

Artist of the week 116: Tim Gardner

This Canadian artist's photorealist watercolours show a melancholy wit, lavishing painterly skill on mundane, mass-produced scenes

Nature doesn't exactly overwhelm the leisure-seekers in Tim Gardner's photorealist watercolours. Based on snapshots, his work depicts a North American world where suburban life continues, oblivious to the great outdoors all around. If a lone skier pauses, it's not to gasp at the view but to smile for the camera before undertaking yet another plunge down the side of a snowy mountain. The youths wandering over plains and hills are not troubled poets or future heroes but jocks swilling beer. At the edge of looming wild woods, families break out deckchairs and light the barbecue.

Yet while the banality undercuts the element of the sublime, this artist's work is full of a sense of longing for what's been lost. In a literal sense, this goes back to when he first left his Canadian hometown in the 1990s and began creating paintings from his photos his brother sent him – images of the life he was missing. In these early works, the tension between the youngsters hanging out and their grandiose surroundings is echoed by Gardner's medium as he turned to delicate watercolour to depict rambunctious masculinity.

In 2004, Gardner took a brief departure from watercolour landscapes for a series of pastel portraits based on images from his family album – graduation photos or group shots specially commissioned from the photographer at the local mall. His painstaking transformations are funny and thoughtful, preserving both the awkwardness of the photo booth and the techniques of old-master portraitists.

Gardner's latest series of watercolours, currently on show in London, offers a melancholy wit, pairing images of lone men surfing or skateboarding with depictions of trees as they journey from forest to logger's truck to picnic bench. It also has some serious things to say about consumer culture and our messy relationship with nature: in one work, logos on an ice-cream board dominate a seafront sunset. In another, used cars are lined up outside a Los Angeles garage. In a third – a particularly melancholy painting – a digger stands atop a desert of trash just outside the same smog-shrouded city.

Why we like him: For the nuanced interplay of cliches and ideals in his 2010 watercolour Biker in Revelstoke. Is the man cruising through this chainstore-dominated town an easy-riding rebel or a guy showing off his wheels to the neighbours?

Gang of thaw: Gardner studied at Winnipeg's celebrated School of Art in the 1990s, alongside other notable talents including Marcel Dzama and Jon Pylypchuk of Royal Art Lodge fame. He attributes the city's creative reputation to the freezing winters: "People are forced to stay inside and find something to do."

Where can I see him? At Modern Art, London, until 18 December.


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November 20 2010

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: A bomb just missed my mother

Seventy-three years ago, my mother, Dorothy Arthur, was 15 in this snapshot in her garden in Duncan Road, Southsea. Just three years later, the second world war came to town. What happened on 14 November is told by her:

"On Thursday evening the air-raid warning went, and at about 10pm we could hear the familiar drone of a German plane overhead, circling round and round. I wanted to go to bed but my room was over the living room, and my mother insisted I stayed down until the all-clear. So I sat in the chair by the fire and dropped off. I woke to hear my mother scream "bombs". I thought she was panicking, and that it was the whine of an anti-aircraft shell. But my next thought came extremely fast: my goodness, she's right!

"The whining scream was coming nearer – very fast. I sprang out of the chair, but as I tried to cross the room there was a tremendous crash; the light went out and something thumped my back. I slipped backwards into a hole that had appeared in the floor. I heaved myself out of the hole and went into the passage at the foot of the stairs.

"My mother appeared; she had fetched a candle from the bedroom. She was shaking and screaming, so I put out my hand to stroke her forehead and reassure her. I saw blood streaming down her face and almost screamed myself – but suddenly realised the blood was coming from my hand. My mother noticed that our little dog, Bindy (pictured), was missing. She was a crossbred, silky black, and in the confusion had run off. Someone found her, and, like me, she was covered in plaster dust. She was very frightened and became unpredictable with strangers. As we couldn't go back to our house because the bomb hadn't exploded, the next day she had to be put down.

"Later, I discovered that the thump on my back when the bomb landed must have been a glancing blow from its fin, as there was a vertical tear down the back of the jacket I was wearing. I had slipped into the hole on top of the bomb. It couldn't have been any closer, or it would have killed me, even though it didn't explode. It was exceptionally lucky that – thanks to my mother – I hadn't gone to bed because the bomb had come through the bathroom ceiling and the partition wall between the bathroom and my bedroom, smashing the head of my bed and going through my pillow, before ending up beneath the living-room floor." Judy Cretney

Playlist: My macho music with a drumbeat

Teen Beat by Sandy Nelson

In September 1959 I was given a Dansette record player for my birthday. At 14 I was a real teenager and my two younger sisters looked on with envy.

The Dansette was the must-have gift for every teenager in the late 1950s, and vinyl 45rpm discs were being mass-produced to a clamouring teenage market. The tedious days of piling enormous 78s on to your parents' old radiogram were over. Teenagers could head to their own rooms and play their own choice of music without the tut-tutting of disgruntled parents.

I was into instrumental rock, the "macho" music of guitar and drums. Duane Eddy was my guitar hero and Sandy Nelson could hit a mean drum solo. With my birthday money and a well-paid paper round, I would be able to buy my own discs – and my first vinyl would have to be special. My sisters pleaded with me to buy the latest release by Elvis or Cliff but I resisted. No girlie lyrics for me.

Teen Beat by Sandy Nelson was simply a superb drum solo interspersed with guitar chords starting slowly and building, Bolero style, to a loud rock'n'roll climax. For me this was the music of teenage youth … loud, angry and out of control.

I would sit with my sisters and play it over and over again until the day dawned when we couldn't stand it and had to move on. However, I still loved Nelson's drum skills – as did his contemporaries. He featured on many pop hits of the era, including several with leather-clad rock rebel Gene Vincent.

Nelson is alive and well, courtesy of YouTube, and last night I downloaded Teen Beat and Let There Be Drums, his other major hit, just for old times sake.

However, the sting in my tale comes from my brother, who was born in 1960. On telling him I was submitting Teen Beat to the Guardian Playlist, he told me he still had the very scratched, original disc that I bought in 1959. That disc is older than my brother, and that's scary. John Bookless

We love to eat: Mum's banana sarnies

Ingredients

2 slices white bread

1 large ripe banana

2 tbsp light soft brown sugar

½ oz (15g) salted butter, softened

Butter the bread, leaving the crusts on. Slice the banana lengthways into six or seven syrupy ovals. Arrange them on one slice of bread in a single layer, then trickle the sugar into the interstices and top with the other slice. Press down gently, cut into four triangles, and serve to your impatient offspring.

Four o'clock on a grey winter afternoon, hours since lunch, hours more until Dad's Saturday pizza would be ready. Mum's answer was this rib-sticking wodge of a "snack", best eaten in front of a black-and-white film with the fire roaring. Our bread was always white then, and slathered in butter, but this sandwich was lifted to gastronomic heights by the lumpy, fudgy sugar that Mum kept in a jar for months until it resembled wet sand. If you were lucky, your sandwich hid clumps the size of shingle.

No worries then about carbs or eating between meals. Mum's banana sarnie was guilt-free, the sweetest, chewiest comfort food in the world. My own children refused to try it until they came in starving one day from a long, cold weekend walk. Soon they were murmuring with rapture just like we did when Mum produced her sarnies along with her catchphrase "This'll put you on until suppertime."

I don't even need to eat the real thing to taste it: damp processed bread with not a speck of fibre in sight, sticky bananas and that delectably past-its-best sugar, prised from the jar with a long-handled spoon. Andrew Mortlock

We'd love to hear your stories

We will pay £25 for every Letter to, Playlist, Snapshot or We Love to Eat we publish. Write to Family Life, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU or email family@guardian.co.uk. Please include your address and phone number
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November 13 2010

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot A life we never really knew

After my mother died recently at the age of 90, we had the terrible task of searching through her belongings. Hidden among the spare toilet rolls and boxes of soap we found many hints and indications of a life we had no knowledge of. Not just the exciting things such as the newspaper clippings of my father's return from India as a war hero, and of my great-great-uncle's VC from Rorke's Drift – it was the little things that were much more powerful.

Her father's mechanical engineering slide rule and a picture of him by huge old-fashioned electrical turbines. We knew he had been mixed race and we were proud of the fact, but here was the photographic evidence of his difference from other people around him in the early days of the 20th century.

We found her ration book, pictures of her wedding, a photograph of her trying on my father's army uniform in the back garden of our house and pretending to salute. Best of all, however, were the everyday pictures of her childhood, especially this one of her when she was almost three, playing in the sand at Rhyl, north Wales.

It is 1922 and she has a floppy ribbon in her hair and an expression of fierce concentration, so intent on the moment. The union flag flutters in the breeze beside her, resplendent and important in those postwar years. Is it the stars and stripes you can see in front of it? Further off, there is a woman in severe black. Is this my great-grandmother, still in mourning after the death of her only son in the trenches?

Strangely, I cannot link the quiet old lady we knew with this determined little girl, frozen in her own historical context.

I used the picture as a present for my daughter, who is expecting her first child – but both of us feel this is not the grandma we knew. This is an unknown child in a completely different setting to one we ever thought of her inhabiting. We somehow thought of her as always grown-up. I suppose no one can ever really know the whole of another human being – even your own mother. Tina Wakefield

Playlist Fade to black one last time

Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd

"There is no pain you are receding / A distant ship's smoke on the horizon / You are only coming through in waves / Your lips move / But I can't hear what you're saying … I have become comfortably numb"

The critics differ on whether this is a song about drugs, but there is no doubt you can read the lyrics that way if you choose. My brother certainly did. It was his favourite track, played time and time again as a young man and throughout his shortened life. The words speak to alienation and self-destruction, and the sweet embrace of narcotics, but the music – especially David Gilmour's unsurpassed guitar solo – offers something more elevated, more hopeful: redemption even. Yet the drugs win in the end.

We played Comfortably Numb at my brother's funeral. His widow to the fore, we played it all: every last bar, despite an attempt by the clock-watching priest at the crematorium to fade it out early. Angry words as the curtain closed. It was my brother's first and only victory over authority. Stephen Shaw

We love to eat Meatballs

Ingredients

500g lamb mince

1 finely chopped onion

1 clove of garlic

1 tsp each ground cumin, coriander and paprika

400g chopped tomatoes

300ml vegetable stock

Lemon zest

Fresh coriander

As a working mother of a two-year-old, I felt particularly smug that my son would scoff these down, no questions asked. Easy to make in bulk, they were great. Pride inevitably comes before a fall, especially when feeding small children, but I could never have anticipated how these meatballs would come to haunt me. In February 2006, my son was diagnosed with leukaemia. He was two and a quarter. I was six months pregnant with my second child, working four days a week. After a nightmare two weeks in hospital, we were home and subjected to an exhausting schedule of chemotherapy and blood tests.

Then there were the side effects of the treatment. In particular, the steroids that accompanied the chemotherapy made him constantly ravenous, and craving for food in a way that made my pregnant desire for goats cheese look silly. He would wake up hungry and eat until about 2.30pm when he would have a little break, and then start again around 4pm in the afternoon until bedtime. Kilos of Shreddies, cheddar cheese (extra mature), cherry tomatoes, cocktail sausages – and these meatballs. His first words in the morning would often be "I'm feeling like meatballs today", and he meant it. As cooking was practically one of the only things I could do for him in those first dreadful months of the disease, I cooked them.

There are many better things to be doing at 6.30am on a Sunday morning than frying onions with garlic, cumin, paprika and coriander. But fry I did. Once fried and cooled, half the onions are mixed with the mince and then formed into balls. The meatballs are then browned and set aside. Into the same pan, add the remaining onion mix, the chopped tomatoes and stock. Bring to the boil, return the meatballs to the pan and simmer for 30 minutes.

I must have made thousands of these over the course of his treatment. The local butcher got used to seeing me loitering as he opened up and started to keep a stash of lamb mince aside for me. When George was in the deepest grip of the steroids, I once used 3lbs of mince in a weekend – all for him.

George is now nearly seven, and has been off chemotherapy since June 2009. He is healthy and lively – but he still loves his meatballs, as does my daughter who was born three months after George was diagnosed. Sally Sellwood


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