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August 17 2012

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: My dad's last step on Burmese land

My father, Wilfred Carroll, left his homeland of Burma twice. First in 1942, when the Japanese army forced a retreat of allied troops into India, and then in 1951 when, having retained his British nationality after independence, he made the momentous decision to emigrate to England.

This picture captures his very last step on Burmese land, as he boarded the SS Salween in Rangoon on 21 March, holding my brother Michael's hand and carrying me. Also with us were my mother, Norma, and two-month-old sister, Denise, ready to sail to Bristol and a new life.

I can only imagine the first culture shock, departing in tropical heat and disembarking, four weeks later, into the cold and damp of Avonmouth. My father was never to return, or to see his parents again, but he always believed he made the right choice for his family, despite the hardships endured in establishing a home and a career in postwar London. He worked at the head offices of the Co-operative Wholesale Society for 30 years, and helped to raise seven children, spending eight years of his retirement in Western Australia. He died in Sidcup, Kent in 2004.

I was two and a half when this picture was taken, so I have no memories of that day on the dockside.

As we grew up, my parents made us aware of our diverse ethnic background, which was half-Irish mixed with Burmese and southern European, frequently recounting stories of strict Catholic schooling and a hectic social life in prewar Rangoon, and keeping their Asian culinary skills very much alive in the kitchen of our council house in Essex.

The one thing my father did not speak of was his experiences as a Chindit in the jungles of Burma.

So it was with much excitement and fascination that in February 2012, 61 years after this photograph was taken that I returned for the first time to the street in which I was born in October 1948. We managed to deviate from our package holiday tour long enough to track down my parents' house, their schools, the church where they were married and the hospital where my older brother and sister were born.

Places had been renamed and there we saw some crumbling facades, but these were still the unmistakable edifices of my family's colonial past that I had seen in many a photograph album. At the docks in Rangoon, I conjured up a vivid image of my father taking that nervous step into the unknown, against the best advice of friends and relations.

When the aircraft wheels lifted off the Rangoon Tarmac, I had that sense of abandoning something that was dear to me, forever lost in the past. I knew then how my father had felt in 1951, and I cried. Patricia Perrin

Playlist: My grandad's financial dealings

Pop! goes the Weasel (nursery rhyme)

"Half a pound of tuppenny rice / Half a pound of treacle / That's the way the money goes / Pop! goes the weasel"

As a small child, whenever we visited (or were visited by) my nana and grandad, I could expect to be lifted up on to a knee and sung to. I am sure there were lots of songs, but the one that is clearest in my memory was a favourite of Grandad's.

I am unsure now, as I was then, what the song is all about, and a Google search hasn't enlightened me. Of one thing we can be sure though, "that's the way the money goes".

My grandad's financial dealings are something I wasn't aware of until later in life. As a nipper, when I was told he was popping out to the Salvation Army, I believed that was where he was headed. It would be many years until I found out that this was code for the bookies. One such trip, long before my time, resulted in a winning accumulator bet that eventually (after much debate with the company involved) came through and pretty much paid for their family home.

There is a photograph in my home of me as a toddler on Grandad's lap, and this song always drifts through my head when I see it – complete with index finger in cheek "pop" sound effect. I hope my little niece, Alice, will also treasure memories of having this sung to her by Great-Grandad.

My grandad would have been 100 this year, but sadly missed this landmark by a few years. To mark the occasion, the extended family is meeting on his birthday this month for a reunion. There will be lots of tales of Tom (or Thomas on Sundays) to be told and I suspect this tune will be sung. Ruth Goodwin

We love to eat: Fairy sandwiches

Ingredients

Sugar sprinkles/hundreds and thousands

Sliced white bread (sliced pan, preferably)

Soft butter

 

Butter the bread, cover with the sprinkles and cut into tiny, dainty triangles, fit for a fairy. Be sure to take the crusts off – neither fairies nor children like them!

I used to love fairies, especially the flower fairy books of Cicely Mary Barker. I would dress as a fairy and hide at the bottom of my grandparents' woodland garden in the hope of catching a glimpse of these magical creatures.

After one such adventure I asked my mother: What do fairies eat? Why, fairy sandwiches and flower tea, was her swift response, which she probably lived to regret. Soon I was demanding fairy sandwiches for birthday parties and afternoon teas on the lawn.

I have no idea if she got the recipe from somewhere or created them from her own imagination. The bread (sliced pan as we called it, according to Irish custom) was thickly buttered and sprinkled with multi-coloured hundreds and thousands. The soft, savoury bread, rich butter and crunchy sweetness of the sprinkles was magic itself.

I still get to enjoy fairies through my three young children. My seven-year-old son doesn't believe in fairies – but still requests these. And I am only too happy to sprinkle a little magic on them. Lucy Pearce

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August 10 2012

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Laura's wedding challenge

This is a picture of my daughter Laura and her husband Jamie about two hours after they had promised to love and cherish each other in 2006.

I am not keen on weddings. Having been happily unmarried to my partner Eileen for 33 years, I am not sure I see the point. The cheesy commercialism, extravagance and stupid cupidity surrounding many marriages these days does not endear me to the custom. So when my eldest daughter announced her intended nuptials, perhaps I was not as enthusiastic as I could have been; even less so when a small family affair escalated into an event for around 100 guests.

Fortunately, others involved saw it as an opportunity, a challenge even, to have a good old shindig without bankrupting families and friends alike. And so we all (even me) sat around a table with Maureen, Laura's mum, and made a plan.

It went like this: hire a beautiful but dilapidated castle on the banks of the River Tyne, usually used by youth groups, for three days. Spend a day cleaning and decorating it. Have enough food delivered from a supermarket to provide two breakfasts, lunch and an evening buffet. Prepare the food ourselves. Ask guests for a small contribution per night for basic dormitory accommodation and meals. Ask them to bring their own alcohol.

Book a local register office for the ceremony and use our own cars for transport. After the vows, arrange a mass game of football back at the castle. Do not hire a disco. The bride and groom will concoct a playlist.

Ask for volunteers among family and friends to help in the organisation.

What could go wrong? Er … that might have required another, much longer list! Fortunately, though, we pulled it off.

The football game was not that incongruous because the bride and groom had met while he was coach of her football team, who were all guests. One of my personal highlights was sneaking away from kitchen duties (briefly) to join in the football just long enough to nod in a cheeky far-post header. Other games, scenic riverside walks and fishing were available for footyphobes. Asking for help was also a masterstroke. People I had never met were clamouring to join in our collective effort.

At times we thought we had taken on too much, especially with the food, but when the weekend was over and the bleary-eyed guests made their various ways home, there was a definite feeling that we had all shared in something special, something personal, getting to know people in a way that wouldn't have happened at a "normal" wedding.

Oh, and I almost forgot, the last ingredient: a warm September weekend with cerulean skies, after a week of rain. Perfect. Anthony Peacock

Playlist: Now I can hear what I didn't before

Wow by Kate Bush

"Ooh, yeah, you're amazing! / We think you're incredible"

This song reminds me of visiting Crystal Palace park in south London during my early years. My childhood memories are of outings to parks and museums, and we often went to Crystal Palace park, with its fake dinosaurs and open spaces for riding bikes.  

My parents had a blue Vauxhall Astra estate and there was always a tape playing in it. Kate Bush is the soundtrack to my early childhood in the mid- to late 80s and this must be one of my earliest memories – in the car, staring out of the window at the tall south London terraces of Norwood and Beulah Hill while Kate shrieked in the background.

I have started listening to Kate Bush again and the memories come hurtling through time. The lyrics of Wow are about being "alone on the stage", the lone actor in your own story, the selfishness of the human condition.  

Music is a significant part of my life and listening to this again is also an exercise in reinterpretation. At four or five, I just heard the tune, but now that I'm 30 I hear the meaning of the words.   Frances Hawkins

We love to eat: Granny's chocolate pudding

Ingredients

2 tbsp cornflour

1 dessertspoonful cocoa

1 dessertspoonful sugar

1 pint full-fat milk

Place the cornflour, cocoa and sugar in a saucepan and add the cold milk a little at a time, stirring until it blends. When all the milk is added, put the pan on a medium heat. Stir slowly and continuously until the sauce thickens smoothly, making sure it doesn't catch on the bottom. As soon it starts to boil, take off the heat and pour into bowls. On a cold evening, eat straight away, like thick, hot chocolate, or wait until it cools and a delicious thick, rubbery skin appears on top.

Granny used to make this for my sister and me when we were children. We adored staying at her little cottage in a bleak coal-mining valley in County Durham. As Mum drove us over, we would watch for the smoke from her chimney and then chant, "I can see Granny's house! I can see Granny's house!" all the way down the fell until we arrived.

Her house was a ramshackle treasure trove of adventures. Mum despaired at the fact that she had no fridge, there were cobwebs in the larder, and she never brushed our hair, but my sister and I loved the wildness of it.

At Granny's house, preparing lunch involved a scramble up the bank to "South America" to dig up potatoes. Bread was toasted on a fork in front of the fire while we guzzled "pink drink", a homemade elderflower brew, which, looking back at the increased zest it gave us for handstands in the garden, must have had a bit of a poke to it.

I love to remember my special Granny by making her chocolate pudding for my small children now. These days you can buy a hundred varieties of chocolate pudding from the supermarket, but there is something special about putting a few store-cupboard ingredients together to make a simple teatime treat. Holly McEnaney

We'd love to hear your stories

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August 03 2012

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: My trip to the 1936 Olympics

In the summer of 1936, when I was nine, my grandfather, mother and I made a trip to eastern Europe that I will never forget. My grandfather, Aaron Schindler, was a member of numerous Jewish charities and followed the activities of European politics as he had quite a few relatives living in various European cities. He had been hearing about Germany's escalating campaign against its Jewish and minority populations, and felt he should see for himself what was happening and took my mother and me – much to my delight.

We crossed the Channel in July and headed by train to Vienna, Krakow and Warsaw, where we met lots of relatives. Getting them to understand me was quite difficult, but with the help of my grandfather translating from Yiddish to English, we managed. My grandfather, who could see signs of uncertainty and unrest throughout the region, was trying to persuade various members of the family to consider leaving their homes and businesses to start a new life in London. He could offer them jobs, as he owned a successful ladies clothing business in Bow, east London.

Our journey continued to Hamburg and then on to our final destination, Berlin, where we met more relatives. There, my grandfather surprised me. As a special treat, he asked me to accompany him to the XIth Olympiad as he had managed to get two tickets in the main stadium.

With my pocket money, I bought two Olympic brooches from one of the shops outside the stadium.

Inside, I saw a mass of people waving flags – more than 45 countries were taking part. I also saw quite a few men in uniform waving flags I did not recognise. Later, I found out that they were swastikas.

Almost opposite our seats was a row of boxes, and we could see a group of men sitting in them. The German couple beside us told my grandfather that some of the men were Olympic officials and the man seated next to them was Chancellor Adolf Hitler. I was too young to understand the importance of Hitler's presence at this great non-political sporting event with the sea of swastikas and military uniforms but, years later, the 1936 Games were often referred to as the "Nazi Olympics" and I realised that I had witnessed an historic occasion.

One of my most memorable recollections of that day was watching Jessie Owens, the great American athlete, win one of his four Olympic gold medals. I can't remember whether it was the 100m or 200m, but there was a lot of noise in the stadium. Owens made history as the first athlete to win four gold medals at the Olympic Games, a feat not equalled until 48 years later when Carl Lewis won gold in the same events at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. As Hitler had intended the Games to showcase his Aryan ideals and superiority, it is both ironic and poignant that Owens, a black athlete, turned out to be the most successful Olympian that year.

I wish I had been old enough to fully appreciate what took place that day in Berlin, but, still, I knew it was a very special occasion.

After our visit, my grandfather managed to get only one relative out of Vienna and another from Poland. Fortunately, some managed to get to the United States. Sadly, the others perished in the Holocaust.

Now the 30th Olympic Games are being held in London and it is bringing back many memories of that trip. I am so glad I was able to be a  part of history and to share my story now.

Anita Silberstein, nee Zerman

Playlist: In memory of my true love

Blow the Wind Southerly (traditional English folk song)

Blow the wind southerly, southerly, southerly/Blow the wind south o'er the bonny blue sea/Blow the wind southerly, southerly, southerly/Blow bonny breeze my lover to me

In 1957 I was filled with excitement at the thought of singing this folk song in a junior school choir festival at a Norfolk secondary school, which at the time seemed many miles away, although in reality it was just six miles. In the spirit of inclusion, all the class were to sing, although, as the teacher moved along the line to hear us, some were asked to mime. I was terrified at the thought that I would be one of them; in the event, not being chosen to mime gave me misplaced confidence in my singing voice. Since then, I have always felt free to sing loudly, despite comments from my unappreciative family.

We were dressed in our finest clothes and it was a day to savour. In later years, I could always remember the words to this song when other memories failed me.

My lover did come, although not by boat, and regrettably he died young. I think of him as I sing the song to rock my new grandson to sleep. When he is being particularly fractious, my daughter will phone up and ask me to sing it to him down the phone, in the knowledge that it calms him. When he has been in my charge, I have played him a better version on my phone. I regret that he will never know his wonderful granddad. If only his grandad could be blown over the horizon to meet the little soul and, of course, me. Any direction of wind would do.

Rosie Penna

We love to eat Ayrshire: tatties by theirsels

Ingredients

Ayrshire potatoes

Water to boil

A bunch of syboes

The cooking is simplicity itself. Scrub and boil for 20 minutes in their skins and serve with melted butter and syboes (spring onions)

A few weeks ago, I read the long-awaited notice in my local greengrocer's window: "Ayrshire tatties now in."

To all Scots, the arrival of this uniquely flavoured "pomme de terre" is greeted with as much gusto as the wine lover's first bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau.

In season for a matter of weeks, the crop is devoured by the nation as quickly as the potatoes are pulled from the ground. First batches are initially sold at a premium in suburban shops and local markets, prompting me to comment to my salesman that he balanced my produce as if trading in gold – to, which he replied, "I am, sir, I am."

I lived abroad for many years and invariably my trips back home were out of season, leaving my taste buds deprived of this national delicacy. My sister would invariably tease me by describing how she had savoured the current year's crop and telling me it was the best she had ever tasted.

One of the distinct summer memories I have of childhood is returning home after marathon games of football to enormous plates of butter-slicked Ayrshires heaped high and washed down with a glass of cold milk. My taste buds tingle as I write. With four hungry mouths to feed, my mother would buy a daily supply when stocks became plentiful and much cheaper, knowing there would be no complaints from her brood. "Is there any more Ayrshires, Ma, just by theirsels?" was the constant request in too short a season.

In 1990 I returned to the UK to live and work in London. On phoning my sister, I was told the Ayrshires were in season and, to my delight, she sent two pounds of the nuggets by parcel post. I don't think I have ever received a tastier welcome-home gift.

Now resident in my native land, there is no need to wait for the post. I just keep the pot boiling until, sadly, the season is over for another year.

John Bookless

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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July 27 2012

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Why I'm lucky to be alive

I was born in Glasgow on 8 June 1942 and this photograph of me, with my 18-year-old mother, Bridget Devlin McIvor, was taken on 21 July. I feel duty bound to inform you – because it meant a lot to my mother, who lamented the fact every time she looked at this photograph – that we had been caught in a heavy downpour just before we reached the studio and the, "dead mean photographer" would not give her enough time to fix her hair.

A lot had happened between my birth and the day of this photograph. On 14 June, Glasgow's medical officer of health had sent a letter to all the city's GPs notifying them that six crewmen of the TSS Awatea, a troopship that had docked from Bombay, had been diagnosed with smallpox.

Just over a fortnight after I was born, Glasgow's first smallpox case was diagnosed. The following week, smallpox vaccination centres opened all over the city – but not in time for my mother's visit to Clackmannan, taking me to stay with her mother and grandmother for a few days. At the bus station, the Red Cross would not let her board the bus as I hadn't been vaccinated against the disease.

We returned home and I was duly vaccinated a day or so later, with the certificate to prove it. We set off again to Clackmannan. At the very beginning of our visit, I cried and cried. The vaccination site on my upper left arm had become swollen and inflamed and I had a slight fever. At her grandmother's urging, my mother rushed me back to Glasgow and I was admitted to our local general hospital.

My mother was told that I was not expected to live and there was nothing they could do. My father was given immediate compassionate leave from the Highland Light Infantry. I was dying of general septicaemia caused by a "dirty vaccination needle", as my mother later described it. Courtesy of the army, my father arrived in Glasgow in record time. By then I had been transferred to Yorkhill (Glasgow's Royal Hospital for Sick Children).

In all, 36 people caught smallpox during this outbreak, 11 ship cases, two of whom died, and 25 people in Glasgow cases, six of whom died. In August 2009, when I watched a BBC4 film, Breaking the Mould: the Story of Penicillin, I was astonished by what I learned. When I was a child my mother had told me that a consultant paediatrician at Yorkhill had arranged my rushed hospital transfer. He had a son – an army doctor – who had somehow got hold of penicillin and given it to his father to give to me. I loved this story and heard it many times as I was growing up. I also have a reminder – a large vaccination scar and slight muscle wasting of the upper left arm.

Until I saw that film three years ago, I never knew how very lucky I had been. I later discovered that in the summer of 1942 there was only enough penicillin in the world to treat a couple of hundred people or so. Penicillin was not mass-produced until 1943-44.

So how did an infant-sized course of the antibiotic become available to me, a child from a single-end in Lyon Street, just off the Garscube Road, Glasgow? Was I part of a clinical trial, I wondered?

As you can see from this photograph, by 21 July I was fully restored to health. I can imagine the awe that the experienced nurses and doctors caring for me in Yorkhill must have felt when, for the first time, they witnessed the power of penicillin.

For me, what was truly miraculous was that two Glasgow doctors, a father and son, cared enough to put themselves in the firing-line. I wish I knew who they were. I remember asking my mother, when I was about 14, what their name was – she thought it might have been Cowan but could not remember. I think that was the last time we ever discussed it.

I wish she could have been there to watch that documentary with me all those years later. Mary McIvor

Playlist: The day I found music

I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For by U2

"... But I still haven't found what I'm looking for"

It is an older brother's job to pass music down to his younger siblings. In his room, my brother hoarded dozens of plastic cassettes mysteriously marked in ink. The handwritten words were strange, words like Echo and the Bunnymen and The Sisters of Mercy. They made little sense to me as a nine-year-old, but Nick was obsessed with them – and with one cassette in particular. One with just two letters: U2.

When he heard U2 were coming to Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, he began a relentless campaign to go to see them. He was 14 and my parents thought him too young, but there was no way he was going to miss out. After days of silences and bickering, a solution was reached – we would all go.

Early on in the day, none of it made much sense: queuing in the pouring rain for hours, flanked by smelly hamburger vans and strangers necking cans of Tennent's lager. As soon as we got there, I wanted to go home.

So I waited, moodily, as the sky darkened and the seats filled. Then the lights came on and the sound of a slow organ began to creep around the ground, followed by a jangly, building guitar and a tremendous, deafening cheer as Bono and The Edge walked out on stage. It was electric.

The sounds were the same as those that came from my brother's room, but much louder. My bad mood evaporated as thousands of people clapped, sang, cheered and climbed dangerously on to the thin plastic backs of the stadium seating to be just an inch higher, to see U2 play. Now I was one of them, albeit a very small one who couldn't see much. But I could see Nick, in awe, singing.

That moment, U2's Joshua Tree tour, August 1987, watching my brother sing "... But I still haven't found what I'm looking for" was when I began to love music. My brother did his job well. Adam Dewar

We love to eat: Avgolemoni soup

Ingredients (serves two to three)

3 oz rice

1½ pints chicken stock

2 eggs

Juice of ½ lemon

Gently boil the rice in the chicken stock until it is almost cooked. Beat the eggs and mix with the lemon juice and a ladleful of stock. Very slowly, add the egg mixture to the stock, stirring all the time over a low heat. Season and heat until slightly thick.

Avgolemoni is Greek for "egg and lemon," and this soup is the most traditional of Cypriot meals. When I taste and smell it – two senses so fragile yet so enduring and faithful – I am instantly transported to my childhood in Cyprus. Tearing up the stairs to my Cypriot grandmother's flat and running into her arms, as she hugs me with one and stirs with the other. Too short to see into the pot, I wait impatiently, leaning against her. Warmth, safety and soup.

Before she died, she taught my mother to make the soup. My mother is Welsh, lived in Cyprus for 54 years and knows how to cook only one Cypriot dish: avgolemoni soup. That's how important it is. It is there on cold nights, when I'm upset, when my team have lost. It's even become medicinal. Got a cough? Soup. Scratched your leg? Soup. My first night in England for university, staying with relatives, disorientated and nervous: guess what my Cypriot aunty cooked? "Everything's going to be fine."

When I cook avgolemoni now, often it is because I need to feel its restorative power. There is something beautiful in its simplicity, yet equally complex in the feelings it creates. It connects me to my past, giving continuity, redolent of my Cypriotness and youth, and in the present it binds me to a community that I live far away from.

Now, in full circle, when I serve it to my family I know exactly what is coming. The ritual I never tire of. The sharp intake of breath as it appears, hot and steaming: Dad will slurp, sister will tell him off. Mum will sip. I'll dive in, dipping mountains of bread. And then, always, a few seconds of complete silence – my favourite part – as minds drift and memories roll in. I really don't know where everyone is at that point, but I know we are bonded.

Proust famously recounts the moment he tasted a madeleine dipped in tea, and the profound memories it gave him. "Whence could it have come to me, this all powerful joy? … It is plain that the truth I am seeking lies not in the cup, but in myself …" He wrote seven volumes based on this experience. I can't do that, but I do know that avgolemoni is more than just a bowl of soup. It is identity, nation, tradition. It is home. Paris Christofides

We'd love to hear your stories

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June 29 2012

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Memories of Glasgow

We didn't have a camera when I was a child, so all my memories are stored in my mind. This picture is of me with my husband and two grandchildren, who are growing up in a very different world. I was a first-generation Asian Sikh, born and raised in the Oatlands area of Glasgow, an experience that still lives with me 50 years on.

Oatlands people were working-class, but with real hearts: we went shopping for the old women who lived alone, knocked on doors and ran away, and held concerts on the stair-landings where you paid with "wallies" – broken china. We lived opposite Richmond Park on the other side of Glasgow Green. To me, it was a magical place where each summer holiday the "shows" would arrive.

I was fascinated by the caravans, with their beautiful lace curtains and lanterns hanging outside. Looking up the steps, you could see inside to vases of flowers on the tables, bright rugs and cushions on the sofas. To a seven-year-old girl, it was magical, watching the Gypsy women with their big skirts and earrings, and the handsome Gypsy boys, who always winked when you walked past.

My parents would take us on one supervised visit to the shows and we were allowed on the safe rides, swings and roundabouts. Waltzers, motorbikes and the big wheel were forbidden because the Gypsy boys stood at the back of the waltzers and swung the cars round as they speeded up. They swaggered about, chatting up the girls.

We were warned not to go to the shows on our own and told the Gypsies would take us away and make us work like slaves in their camps. But we never listened and sneaked across through the park and over the bridge on to the green to explore the shows.

All the latest music blared out from the roundabouts, swings, waltzers, the big wheel and the helter-skelter. The sweet smell of candyfloss and toffee apples and the screams of the girls on the big wheel with their boyfriends made me want to be "white", too, like them – why couldn't I go on the big wheel and stay out late? I used to dream of being kidnapped by the Gypsies so I could work the stalls in big earrings and skirts that made me want to dance. But no one kidnapped me, and every year the shows would come and go. Trishna Singh

Playlist: Me, Dad and County Down

Coney Island by Van Morrison

"I look at the side of your face as the sunlight comes / Streaming through the window … / And all the time going to Coney Island I'm thinking, / Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time?"

I walked into the hospital ward and saw my father sitting in the chair, Yeats-like, "old and grey and full of sleep" – a few days short of his 90th birthday. "Dad, I've been on Desert Island Discs."

While I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, Radio 4 rang through our house: Just a Minute, Thought for the Day, The Archers and, my favourite, Desert Island Discs. I loved the music and the romance of the island – and had always wanted to be on the programme.

Years ago, long after I had moved from Northern Ireland to England, I discovered Van Morrison's poem-song Coney Island. As he sang about the places I had visited as a nipper, memories flooded back.

I sat on Dad's hospital bed, pulled out the CD player and pressed play. I wasn't a Desert Island celebrity – I had been invited to tell my story on Radio Derby in celebration of 70 years of Desert Island Discs. Coney Island was my song and this was my story. My dad worked long hours in his own grocery business, hauling heavy bags of flour, serving in his shop and delivering boxes of groceries along narrow, high-hedged lanes around the town where we lived. But come Saturday lunchtime, we would pack a few sandwiches, throw a rug into the Morris Minor and hit the road. Our stamping ground was mainly the coast of County Down.

We whiled away many a summer afternoon digging in the sand, playing cricket, roaming the sand dunes, climbing rocks, eating sandy sandwiches and swimming in the rain. Like Van Morrison, we too were charmed by Strangford Lough. Waiting for the little ferry to take our car across from Strangford to Portaferry was thrilling. Pleasures were simple in those days.

"On and on over the hill to Ardglass." Morrison bought "mussels and some potted herrings" there; we'd head over the hill from Tyrella to Ardglass so that Mum could buy whiting for tea. The fresh fish cooked in butter tasted delicious after a day out in the sea air.

I had told my story and the song was coming to an end. I looked at the side of my father's face as the sunlight came streaming through the hospital window: he had dozed off. It was with great poignancy that I listened to Van Morrison sing: "Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time?"

Time waits for no man and my father's days of roaming the County Down coast have probably come to an end. But the places and memories he gave me, captured in Coney Island, are locked inside my head. Helen Moat

We love to eat: Eliza's birthday cake

Ingredients

225g (8oz) butter

225g (8oz) sugar

170g (6oz) self-raising flour

57g (2oz) cocoa

Four medium eggs

Vanilla extract

Fresh cream and raspberries to fill

Weigh the ingredients and line two 21cm circular cake tins. Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark four. Call the midwife.Cream the butter and sugar together between contractions. When the butter and sugar are light and fluffy, hand to your birth partner, who should gradually add the remaining ingredients and split the mixture between the two tins, baking for 20 minutes.

Early one Thursday morning, it was clear the new baby was coming. I woke my husband Neil and 19-month-old son, Wilfie, and together we walked the dog, then dropped Wilfie off with my mother-in-law. Once back at home, it took a while to get through to the midwife, but finally she was on her way.

As the contractions grew longer and more frequent, Neil filled the birth pool. Between contractions, I began weighing out ingredients for a cake. It would be a nice treat for after labour. I got as far as creaming the butter and sugar when the midwife arrived.

She checked me straight away and surprised me by saying I was 7cm-8cm dilated, so quite far along, but still many hours to go if my first labour was anything to go by. I got in the pool, which was bliss. Neil picked up the cake-making where I had left it, adding flour, cocoa, eggs and vanilla extract.

After a little while, he came in to say the cake had gone in the oven. It was 11.50. We calculated it would be ready at ten past. The midwife asked if he had set a timer, but we don't have one, and I laughed as I couldn't see much would happen in the next 20 minutes.

But it wasn't long before I felt a brief "pushy" sensation, which subsided quickly and was followed by a blissful few contraction-free minutes. As I floated in the pool, I could smell the cake and was suddenly starving. Neil leant over the edge to feed me two chocolate chip cookies, bought for the midwives.

Perhaps fuelled by the sugar, I suddenly had an urge to lean forward, and, with a big, quick contraction, the baby's head emerged. A few moments later, the rest of her followed ... Eliza arrived at 12.09 – just in time for cake. Dawn Todd

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June 22 2012

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Waving the red cloth on our roof

I moved away from home about five years ago to my wife's country, Denmark. After three tough years starting a new life, I finally managed to visit my family back on the Aegean island of Chios. in September 2010. It was a healing visit. I took many photos and this is one of my most cherished. This is my mother, Mary, on our roof, waving at my brother who was working on the passing ferry.

I have a Greek father and an Irish mother. After my little brother was born in the late 70s, we moved to Greece from Castlecomer, Kilkenny.

My dad was a seaman, the son of a seaman. He travelled all over the world and sometimes we joined him, but mostly not. He would be gone for 12 to 18 months at a time. It seemed an eternity to us. We were so sad every time he left, so happy on his return and anxious in between.

Luck had it that my dad sailed by the island just in front of our home, three times in his long career. He would call us on a satellite phone and let us know a month before. I can't describe how much we all looked forward to it and when he finally arrived, it was like winning the world cup!

Two of us would go up to the roof and wave to him with our red cloths – the most visible colour – while the third would be downstairs talking to him via satellite. Then we'd take turns.

He would blow the ship's loud horn, while the bells of nearby St Nicholas church were greeting him and wishing happy sailings. I said to him, "Make a circle, Dad" – and he did. Since then, that has become a custom for the island's large naval community.

The boat in the background is the Nissos Chios (Isle of Chios), which my brother was working on. It connects the island to the port of Piraeus, in Athens. He passed by every second day and my mother always went up to the roof and waved a red cloth to him.

My brother lost his job and is now unemployed – he has been for two years. The crisis is hard. But yesterday, I heard he could be sailing again by the end of this month – what great news! Now those red cloths might wave happily again. Michael Patronas

Playlist: Betty, they are playing our tune ...

God Bless our Native Land! (Sung to the tune of the national anthem)

"God bless our native land! / May heaven's protecting hand / Still guard her shore."

There was a television sketch many years ago in which the Queen, hearing the national anthem played, turned to her husband and said "Philip, they are playing our tune."

My wife, Betty, and I feel much the same about that very familiar tune, as it was played at our wedding 62 years ago. In fact, it was the same tune with different words. Betty and I were married on 14 September 1950 in Rothwell, a small boot-and-shoe town in Northamptonshire. We hadn't wanted a church wedding or anything fancy and would have been happy with a small, quiet ceremony in a register office. There certainly wasn't the money for anything big. But, after some debate, Betty's mother got her way, and we had the wedding in the Congregational chapel with the wedding breakfast in the Co-op Rooms.

We did get to choose our own hymns, rather unusual ones for a wedding, the minister thought. In addition to God Bless our Native Land!, we had The People's Anthem.

The hymn-singing over, we walked, man and wife, with our relatives and friends to the Co-op Rooms for lunch. We didn't run to champagne. In fact there was no alcohol at all, just cups of Co-op tea, as Betty's father and grandfather were leading lights in the local branch of the Sons of Temperance.

But we all enjoyed the meal and the speeches. There are no photographs of the happy day: we could not afford a professional photographer, and none of our guests had a camera. Betty and I have lived happily ever after. Chris Birch

We love to eat: Mum's spotted dog

Ingredients

Self-raising flour

Suet

Raisins or sultanas

White sugar

Milk or water to mix

Ingredients, quantities and cooking time are all approximate. Individual slices freeze really well and only need to be zapped in the microwave for a short time to make an instant dessert. Mix all the dry ingredients with the milk and form the dough into a chunky sausage shape. Wrap in greaseproof paper, with a pleat to allow for expansion, wrap the dough in a cloth (any piece of clean cotton will do) and tie each end with string. Place the spotted dog in a large pan of boiling water and simmer for at least two hours. Unwrap, slice and serve topped with butter and demerara sugar.

In our house, it was always spotted dog, never spotted dick. Why? My sister and I have no idea. Maybe it was something to do with our mother's sensibilities. (When we were growing up, she didn't think it was nice for girls and women to wear trousers with a zip opening at the front.)

Whatever the name, the pudding has always been greeted with delight, even if there are those who would rather it was served with custard.

Spotted dog was a significant part of our growing up, possibly because in the postwar austerity of the late 40s/early 50s the ingredients were inexpensive. Nearing retirement, my sister recently made her very first spotted dog and used this recipe. She reported that it tasted OK but was rather solid. It seems she had used plain flour by mistake, instead of self-raising. Her subsequent effort was successful: "Just like Mum made." Jane Clark

We'd love to hear your stories

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June 08 2012

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Dad and the coronation scarf

The handsome glossy-haired young man in the picture is my dad, Brian Nicholls. He is applying gold leaf to a silk coronation scarf designed by Oliver Messel, the stage designer. Dad worked for Cresta Silks (previously Crysede), mainly as a block printer, in St Ives, Cornwall in the early 1950s. Cresta Silks fabrics were sold to Liberty and others, from the 1920s to the 1960s, and the coronation scarf was a limited edition – the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret were each given one.

This image is from a photo session of crafts and artistic traditions of Cornwall, taken for an Australian magazine produced for homesick expats to remind them of good old Blighty. Asked why he had been chosen out of all the workers for the photograph, Dad replied, "I was the best-looking, of course."

Dad was taken on as a scholarship boy from the grammar school. His father had been a dyer under the manager, Tom Heron – father of the artist Patrick Heron.

The Cresta Silks factory was based in Hayle, a 14-mile return journey, which Dad made daily on his long saved for bike. Interviewed recently by textile artist Vivian Prideaux for a book on Cresta/Crysede, she asked what happened when he was late, dad was nonplussed and asked what she meant. "Well, if you were late for work," Vivian clarified.

I intervened: "Oh no, he would never be late – Dad is never late."

And he isn't. Dad is 80 this year and you can still set your watch by him. He loved his work and the connection with the great artists who designed for the company: Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash and Heron himself. His energy and enthusiasm for life is undimmed, he twinkles. His hair now a wispy white and a smile is perpetually breaking. At a recent dinner party, an old friend said he didn't know anyone who was truly happy, I said I did: my dad.

Dad worked at the Hayle factory until 1954. A year later, he met our mother to whom he was happily married until her death in 1986. Together they had three children: myself, my sister Karen and my brother Stephen. We were loved and adored. He remarried, again happily, to Jean and she suffers his competitiveness over Countdown, crosswords and sudoku with tolerance and good humour. I am now a fabric designer (I named the company Betty Boyns, after our mother) and Dad couldn't be more delighted. But that is his nature – he is proud of us all and lets us know.

During the interview, Vivien showed us the original Oliver Messel scarf. The design is stunning, embodying 1950s style, and the gold leaf sparkles even after 60 years, as does our dad. Happy coronation year, Brian. Paula Nicholls

Playlist: Uncle Jack, star of the Gaumont

La Vie en Rose, played on the cinema organ

Uncle Jack had taught himself to play the organ to a professional standard. When I was very young he lived in a flat opposite the Gaumont cinema and supplemented his pay from the electricity board by playing for the picture-goers in the interval. I often think that his life would have been perfect if those days had continued.

Like most cinemas, the Gaumont parted with its organ and Uncle Jack had to travel further for musical engagements. Once he appeared on television, accompanying the rollerskating at Alexandra Palace. He and Auntie Joan now lived in a small house with their two children and a cat called Tibia, the name of an organ stop. In pride of place in their sitting room was a cinema organ, and on visits we would listen to him playing popular tunes. "Play La Vie en Rose, Jack!" Auntie Joan would say, and we would listen contentedly to the sentimental tune.

But life was not always rosy for Jack and his family. The evening gigs were getting further away, in distant pubs, sometimes at seaside resorts. As the travelling increased he gave up his steady day job to concentrate on his music. There was a streak of extravagance in both aunt and uncle, and in his case it generally involved buying second-hand organs. Finally they separated and he settled in a seaside resort. We saw him less often, but a recording of a cinema organ or the tune La Vie en Rose would revive childhood memories. Uncle Jack died suddenly after a brief illness. At his funeral they played his own recording of popular tunes on the cinema organ. It was the way he would have wanted it. Rosemary Goodacre

We love to eat: Garage chicken

Ingredients

A roast chicken

Lots of crispy roast potatoes sprinkled with sea salt (Maris Pipers preferably)

Assorted salad items & dressings

A garage

When the days get longer and warmer, our Sunday-night roast gives way to Garage Chicken. Buying a dartboard last year inspired us to transform our garage into what we now call the social club. It is no glamorous affair, but complete with a couple of optics, makeshift bar area and soon to be installed woodburning stove, it is the ideal spot to sit and shelter from cool winds, enjoying the last few rays of the day's sun.

On evenings that are too sunny to eat inside, but slightly too chilly to warrant a barbecue, the four of us can be found running backwards and forwards from kitchen to garage, assembling our feast of a simple roast chicken, roast potatoes sprinkled liberally with sea salt and whatever salad and dressings we can pull together. We eat at an old garden table in mis-matched chairs, pulling every last scrap of chicken from the bones and licking our salty fingers. Who cares if food gets on the floor or if we spill wine on the table … as my nine-year-old son says: "I don't know why, but the food always tastes better out here." Sabia Morrison


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Conjoined twins through Annabel Clark's lens - in pictures

For four years, Annabel Clark has been photographing sisters Lupita and Carmen Andrade. Her aim? To change the way people look at conjoined twins. Simon Hattenstone reports



May 25 2012

The Saturday interview: Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin, who opens one of the biggest shows of her career today, talks about swapping sex for stargazing, why she likes David Cameron, and wanting her art to make people feel better

Demanding artist, selfish (her words) seeks an intelligent man with good sense of humour, probably not for sex because she's going through the menopause and has lost the urge, but definitely for laughs and companionship.

"I want love," says Tracey Emin. "I want to spend my life with someone and do nice things and go on adventures, read books and have nice food and celebrate things. I don't want to spend the rest of my life in the bedroom like some people who just go to bed and never get out again."

Emin is approaching 50 and she is worried about the possibility of a lonely, gentle descent to death. "I am going through the menopause and I have been for ages," she says. "It is a nightmare, an absolute nightmare. It's horrible. And I don't look like that kind of person; you don't put menopause on top of my head, it doesn't associate with me."

Emin is talking as she finishes the installation of a show that she regards as one of the most important of her career, because it is in her home town of Margate.

The works going on public display from today are almost all new or never previously exhibited. They explore themes of love and eroticism, but overwhelmingly, they mark a farewell to the old Emin – the wild child, the one that got drunk all the time, the sex, the bed, the tent. Her "animal" lust has gone. Now there is the new Emin.

"People don't talk about it, but the menopause, for me, makes you feel slightly dead, so you have to start using the other things – using your mind more, read more, you have to be more enlightened, you have to take on new things, think of new ideas, discover new things, start looking at the stars, understand astronomy … just wake yourself up, otherwise it's a gentle decline.

"For women, it is the beginning of dying. It is a sign. I've got to start using my brain more – I've got to be more ethereal and more enlightened."

Emin is 48. In 2008 she told Piers Morgan she wanted to adopt children – an idea she scoffs at now. "I have friends who have adopted, and they had to radically change their life, their homes, the way they dressed – everything, to get through the adoption agencies. I am not going to change anything."

She's not even sure she'd make a good mother. "I'd make a good friend, not mother. I'm too selfish. I think a lot of mothers are selfish and they end up having children, but I don't want to put some small tiny person through that. I don't want to be Joan Crawford.

"I would really like the idea of someone small and cute to dress up, we all do, but that's not what it's about, is it? I don't want a mini-me."

The truth is she has now made a conscious decision not to have children, and finds herself something of a role model for other similarly minded women. "I'm never going to have children, I'm never going to be a grandmother, I'm probably never going to get married. I'm nearly 50, and it is not happening. I've got too much on the other side now, and I understand that."

But being childless can be difficult. "You're treated like a witch. And I'm not a witch, it is just that I have chosen to do things in another way. It is not by accident."

There are some stunningly beautiful works in her latest show, and much to get hearts singing, especially in the first room, which features a series of blue drawings bathed in exceptional light. "This room is about not being alone, and there's a nice feeling in this room. It's uplifting."

We look at some drawings of her in bed with a friend reading Daphne du Maurier short stories to her. "It was such a nice, cosy thing. No sex, just a really good story." Emin suddenly seems downbeat. "I've thought I experienced love, and now I'm nearly 50 I'm saying, have I? Maybe I haven't. Maybe I don't know what love is. Maybe what I thought was love was a kind of greed, or desire, or something? I think there's different kinds of love – that's where I'm at at the moment. But I don't think I've experienced love."

Emin came closest in her five-year relationship with fellow YBA (the so-called Young British Artists who emerged in the late 1980s) Mat Collishaw, which ended 10 years ago (they are still good friends). In 2010 she split up with boyfriend Scott Douglas, and her closest relationship now, she says, is with her cat, Docket.

"When you have a really good friend and they're reading you a book in bed and it's all cosy and all snuggly, that can be love, too. It doesn't have to be hardcore. There's different kinds of love, and I'd never experienced that kind of totally platonic love. All the love I've experienced has always been a kind of deal, and now, as I get older, I realise that there's this other love out there."

At the other side of the room we look at some works she has never shown before, from when she was in Australia in 2007. "I was in Sydney on my own for two months, trying to work out why I felt so ill. I went on this complete health thing – I stopped drinking, I cycled every day, I walked about 10km every day, I swam every day, went on a really strict diet. My legs and arms went completely skinny, but my stomach was just getting bigger and bigger, because I was ill, and didn't understand why. What I was trying to do with these drawings was try and make myself feel sexy again, but it was difficult. It was almost there, but wasn't."

What was her illness? "I had a tapeworm."

We move on to works she did in Carrara, Tuscany, when she was looking at marble with a friend. "It was the first time I'd been really happy in a long time. You know when you wake up and you feel good? I realised then I'd been low for a long time."

One is a simple drawing of a heart, which Emin now wants to make in pink alabaster. "I'm sure the first alabaster heart will be a disaster, I'd have to keep working at it, but it's about me being driven by myself," she says. "Whether people like my work or not, I want to show people I can do things. I look at this show and I'm enthusiastic. It makes me want to do things."

Emin's path to art superstardom began when she opened The Shop in Bethnal Green with YBA Sarah Lucas in 1993, cashing in on Damien Hirst's new fame by selling ashtrays with his face on. People began to sit up and take notice with works such as her tent (Everyone I Ever Slept With, from 1963 to 1995) that was bought by Charles Saatchi and shown at the Royal Academy's Sensation show in 1997 – the same year that she so memorably appeared on a late-night Channel 4 discussion show completely hammered. Two years later, Emin was shortlisted for the Turner prize, exhibiting her unmade bed complete with stains, condoms and dirty underwear.

Unlike some other YBAs, her success has endured. She represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2007, staged an enormously successful mid-career retrospective at London's Hayward gallery last year, and not long after that was voted by her peers as Eranda professor of drawing at the Royal Academy, the first woman to occupy the role.

Critics generally warm to her these days. Reviewing the Hayward show, Rachel Campbell-Johnston of the Times wrote: "I would love to hate Tracey Emin," but she left "a convert". The Guardian's Adrian Searle called her art touching and surprising and said "the cumulative effect is extremely powerful".

She may shake her head at the suggestion, but Emin, once "Mad Trace from Margate", is now firmly part of the establishment. She's even a Tory. "I like David Cameron because I think he is fair compared to a lot of politicians in history," she says. "He's in the centre. Probably more centre than someone in Labour, not mentioning any names, who's actually Opus Dei – that is extreme right-wing thinking."

She is baffled by all the political fighting that goes on. One work in the show, The Vanishing Lake, is a rusting metal bath with a scrunched-up union flag in it, and is a comment on Britain – "politically, socially, morally". The flag is a scar. "I don't understand why people don't pull together. I don't understand why there's so much disunity. I don't understand why people can't just say: 'It's a mess, let's pull together.' Why is everyone so angry with each other on everything? It's so easy – if everyone relaxed and said we should work together, rather than against each other."

The Margate show is at Turner Contemporary, the David Chipperfield-designed gallery that opened in April last year and is helping to spearhead the town's desperately needed regeneration. Emin has been a staunch supporter, and she was the obvious choice for a major show in Olympic year (the exhibition is part of the London 2012 festival). It is clearly a big deal for her, and she's written an open letter to Margate, asking people to come. "I do feel really positive about this show, because even if people don't like it, I like it. And that is the most important thing. I didn't know that I would, because there's so much new work, and I thought I was setting myself up for a fall, but I've done it. I wanted to do something exceptional because it is Margate.

"I'm always anxious with a show, but more so with this one. I've been tearing myself to pieces … chronic nerves."

Reassuringly, there is a bed in the show. Or a Heal's mattress at least – quite astonishingly stained – on which Emin has placed a bronzed dead branch. The mattress saw service between 2000 and 2003, and is called Dead Sea. But how did it get into such a state? "I'm not going to go into the gory details. Believe me, it was all naturally made. It wasn't all on my own, I can assure you.

"It goes back to that thing of being over." She's talking about sex again. "It's over. This explains it very well. It was there, but it's gone."

And though she's one of the most successful and feted artists of her generation, is rich and has beautiful houses in east London and the south of France, where she spends around four months a year, it's still not easy finding a man. "I don't think it helps," Emin says. "Any woman who is successful and top of their game will tell you that it is not attractive to men."

She says she has not had many close relationships in recent years, and her friends "have seriously stopped" any attempts at matchmaking. "I say to them, 'Would you give him a blow job? No you wouldn't, so don't expect me to.'"

A flash of the old Emin – full-on, confrontational, up yours. Now she simply wants people to come to her show and enjoy it. "A lot of my shows generally make people feel worse," she says. "I'd like it if people came and left feeling better."

She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea: Tracey Emin at Turner Contemporary opens today, until 23 September. Details: turnercontemporary.org


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May 18 2012

Bob Carlos Clarke, husband and father

Bob Carlos Clarke was a famous fashion photographer who killed himself six years ago leaving behind his wife Lindsey and their daughter Scarlett, now 20. But, they tell Britt Collins, they have been determined not to let it 'take them to hell'

Sometimes Lindsey Carlos Clarke was so angry with her late husband that she wanted to burn all his work, change her name and disappear. Instead, she opened a gallery and is consumed by keeping the legacy of his "dark genius" burning. "Bob was the most exciting man I ever met. He was wild, dangerous, sexy and out of control," she says, sitting in her immaculate white living room, with its one violet-painted wall, a perfect backdrop for his striking black-and-white photographs. "When we were young in the 70s, before Bob was famous, we made a romantic pact that we'd kill ourselves when we looked too old in the mirror."

Lindsey was never serious, but on 25 March 2006, her husband of 30 years, the celebrated fashion and glamour photographer Bob Carlos Clarke, walked a mile to Barnes station in south-west London and jumped in front of a train. Aged 55, he left behind Lindsey and their teenage daughter, Scarlett. Three weeks earlier, he had checked into the Priory rehab centre – not for the usual celebrity reasons of drugs, drink or exhaustion, but severe clinical depression.

A prolific but troubled provocateur, the Irish-born Bob Carlos Clarke was known for his pictures of rock stars and erotic, sometimes shocking, images of glamorous women. Often referred to as the British Helmut Newton, he shot Dita von Teese in a corset and stilettos, holding knives; Rachel Weisz in an oil-slick rubber catsuit; a naked and pregnant Yasmin Le Bon. But the most extraordinary images were for Marco Pierre White's White Heat, looking like a rock star in his white-hot kitchens.

"Sometimes I can't come to terms with the fact that he's not coming back," says Lindsey, who is in her late 50s. "One of the things that happens to grieving people is they secretly think they're crazy. I have moments when I don't feel sane. I had a terrible desire to set fire to his whole archive and I think: Oh God, is this ever going to go away? The violence of his death was hard to deal with. When the police appeared that afternoon, I knew it was over. Scarlett rushed to the door and burst into tears before anything was even said. I couldn't allow myself to fall apart because I didn't want her to feel she'd lost both parents." 

She stops and looks away, her eyes misting. "It was terrible for Scarlett. That night, she got into bed with me and started rifling through pictures of Bob and me, and asking incredibly searching questions. I told her, 'You can make a decision, you can either let this terrible thing take you to hell or you can let it empower you.'"

For Scarlett, now 20, the pain of losing her father is still raw and she is struggling to make sense of it. "I don't think you ever get over something like that," she says. "I never had anyone close to me die so I hadn't ever had to deal with that sort of grief. There are times when I feel really low, but it comes and goes. It's not something you can control. I'm dealing with it every day and probably will for ever."

She misses him terribly, but never felt abandoned or betrayed as people often do after a loved one kills themself. "I'm just pissed off that I didn't get to hang out with him as an adult," she says without a hint of anger or bitterness. "We would have had a lot of fun. I grew up with someone who would spend a week setting up a prank just for his own amusement and [who] could also be very cruel, so black humour is a big thing in our family. My last memories of Dad are from going to see him on a Sunday night in the Priory and having dinner together."

She knew her father was a wildly unconventional character but was unaware how fragile and unstable he was.

Her mother – who tried to protect Scarlett – had been quietly enduring his erratic behaviour. "It was a long time before I realised Bob wasn't right," Lindsey admits. "When you're used to dealing with someone who's dysfunctional you become dysfunctional yourself. Months before his death, he had successful shows in London and Madrid, but seemed uninterested, distracted and joyless.

"By September 2005, he had begun to behave oddly. He moved into our basement flat and every morning I'd go down and find the front door open. He would go missing and I'd find him in his van, just sitting. I'd say, 'Hello, darling.' And he'd say, 'I don't know what I'm doing.' He became fearful of everything. The doctors said he was psychotic, but who knows?

"The death of our friend [the photographer] Patrick Lichfield was a further blow. He was crushed and said he envied Patrick. When I went to Patrick's memorial in November 2005, Bob was already in the Priory."

Bob and Lindsey met in London in the summer of 1976, when she was working as a model, and she was drawn to his dark humour and playfulness. "The first shoot we did was the pictures on a motorbike for his book Obsession and we became friends."

They were both married and started a heated and obsessive two-year affair before eventually leaving their partners. For a while during the 1980s, they were a golden couple, with a starry circle of friends, from Marco Pierre White to Keith Richards. Flitting around the world for shoots and shows, there were exotic holidays in Mustique, parties with the Rolling Stones.

"Bob was very entertaining, moody and cruel," she says, describing his constant obsessions with models, infidelities and disappearances. All the while Lindsey looked after Bob's business and their daughter. As she said in an interview three years ago: "I told him, 'You can have your girls in your studio but don't ever bring them back here.' The beach house was supposed to be pure as well, but that didn't last long. He said to me, 'I don't enjoy sex unless it's secret.' 

"I felt depressed and asked him to see a therapist and he said, 'But I like being a shit.' I thought about leaving him, but ultimately I had taken it upon myself to be with somebody who was complicated."

As Bob's career took off, and with a baby, Lindsey hoped her husband would be happier. In 1997, five years after Scarlett was born, the couple were married. "I know Bob loved me, but he had a difficult time giving back because he was so damaged and never came to terms with the big, dark mess of his childhood. He couldn't be there for me because he could hardly be there for himself."

Sometime in the late 90s, her husband grew disillusioned with everything. "Nothing was ever good enough for Bob," says Lindsey. "He wanted to be a legend, but he became depressed about his work [partly because people had begun to use digital photography], with himself. He worried about growing old, losing his looks and not being the in-fashion thing. I'd say, 'Don't be silly, we have a beautiful house, another by the sea, a lovely daughter, a studio, money in the bank.'

"I always thought that people who talked about suicide never did it," she says. "We were on holiday in France with [the fashion editor and stylist] Isabella Blow eight years ago. Scarlett adored Isabella and was riveted by her because she brought these boxes of hats. I said to Scarlett one morning, 'Let's take Isabella a cup of tea.'

"We knocked on the door and Isabella said, 'I think I'm going to kill myself.' I just said, 'Let me know either way because I'm setting the table for lunch.' You get exhausted with people."

Toughest, Lindsey says, is letting go of the guilt. "With any suicide, you feel like it's your fault and could have stopped it. Looking back, I feel sad about how vulnerable Bob was."

Scarlett scarcely remembers much about the Saturday afternoon when the police turned up on their doorstop. She was expecting to visit her father that weekend. "I thought he'd been in an accident but I only had to see Mum's face to realise he was dead. I don't even think I cried. I was in shock. Now, when I think back, I feel sad but at the time I didn't know how to react."

Lindsey says their shared sense of black humour kept them afloat. In some ways, she says, she feels detached, as though these events happened to someone else. "I can relive everything in strange little pieces: the police arriving, the fingerprints, the funeral. It has taken me five years to do the headstone."

Lindsey's terraced house – light, airy and full of glittering objects – is virtually a shrine to Bob, his photographs on the walls and stacks of his books on every surface. "It's been hard letting go – I still haven't."

Lindsey may not have moved on but she is much happier now – last summer she and the professional golfer Andrew Raitt were married.

She shows me a stark black-and-white photograph Scarlett took of her father, when she was only 13, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London. "She's multi-talented and has a natural ability to take pictures," says Lindsey.

Scarlett, it seems, has inherited the best of her father.

Bob Carlos Clarke: One-Offs, a retrospective exhibition, is at the Little Black Gallery, 13a Park Walk, London SW10, from 28 May to 30 June thelittleblackgallery.com


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A little house made of human skin

Poignant, thoughtful and exhilarating by turns, the art of the family comes to the Laing in Newcastle. The Guardian Northerner's arts explorer Alan Sykes finds much to enjoy and admire

Family Matters, which opens at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle today, Friday 18 May, shows over 60 artists and their very differing depictions of the family, going back to a 1542 portrait after Holbein of Edward VI aged six, and on to the 21st century.

The exhibition is organised around five broad – and overlapping - themes:
inheritance; childhood; couples & kinship; parenting and home.

Perhaps not surprisingly, death is frequently in the foreground or background of the paintings. Poor young Edward VI, dressed up in imitation of Holbein's grandiosifying iconography of Henry VIII to symbolise the power and continuity of the Tudor dynasty, only survived his father by a few years and died a teenager. Donald Rodney's 1996-7 "In the House of My Father" is a photograph of a miniature house held in the artist's hand. The house is made of skin removed from Rodney in operations for the sickle cell anaemia which was to kill him only a year later, aged 37.

In Gainsborough's charming "The Painter's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly" from the National Gallery, it is thought that the fragile butterfly may have been the painters way of depicting his older daughter Mary, who had died young. Sometimes the portraits are even done post mortem. In Pompeo Batoni's "The Hon Thomas and Mrs Barrett-Lennard with the daughter Barbara Anne", the daughter had been dead for a year when the grieving couple arrived in Rome on a grand tour. The painter had to make the likeness of Barbara Anne from a miniature which the Barrett-Lennards carried with them. Van Dyck's portrait of Venetia Digby was apparently commissioned by her widower, who had plaster casts of her face, hands and feet taken after her death. The sitter had died very suddenly and mysteriously aged only 32, and some suspicion of foul play fell on the husband, but nothing has ever been proved.

It's not all doom and death, however. Zoffany's amusing picture of David Garrick in drag and a rage in Vanbrugh's "The Provok'd Wife" is here, contrasting with the amusing for different reasons and much more overtly theatrical "The Prodigal Daughter" of 1903, by John Collier, in which a modern and independent-minded young woman is pitched against her Victorian-in-every-sense parents.

David Hockney's "My Parents", of 1977, shows his mother smiling fondly at her talented son, while his father is hunched over a copy of "Art & Photography" - apparently he was inclined to fidget when sitting if not allowed to read - while in a mirror on the chest we see a reflection of Piero della Francesca's "The Baptism of Christ" from the National Gallery. Michael Andrews' touching "Melanie and me Swimming" shows the artist teaching his daughter to swim, and looks at parenthood from the opposite end of the lens to Hockney.

Of course, one can have fun thinking of works that could have been included – I would have loved to have seen the extraordinary 1635 portrait">portrait of Sir Colin Campbell, 8th laird of Glenorchy, and his seven ancestral predecessors as laird, by George Jamesone, from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. And some one can do without: even the Laing's Marie-Thérèse Mayne admitted that Joshua Reynolds' "The Age of Innocence" portrait of a young child is "cloyingly sweet", and it certainly makes one understand why the Pre-Raphaelites lampooned him as "Sir Sloshua Reynolds".

Although the "themes", which are enforced through colour-coding in the labels and in the catalogue - which is irritatingly divided into 5 flimsy pamphlets with no index, rather than being in a single handy volume - are too vague to be of any real use, there are certainly enough treasures to make it worth visiting the Laing to enjoy this free show. Other artists in the show include Gillian Wearing, Rachel Whiteread, Vanessa Bell, Mona Hatoum, Sickert, Stanley Spencer, Lely, Julia Margaret Cameron and Allan Ramsay.

Councillor Ged Bell, Chair of Tyne & Wear Joint Museums & Archives Committee (which runs the Laing and other museums and galleries in Tyne & Wear), says:

"It's very exciting to see the North East being involved in a partnership such as this Great British Art Debate project. The North East, as well as the rest of the UK has a wonderful artistic heritage which powerfully illustrates our sense of who we are and the Great British Art Debate is designed to encourage people to take part in an important debate about Britishness."

The Laing is one of the venues in Newcastle and Gateshead which will be taking part in this year's "The Late Shows", which takes place on the evenings of Friday 18 and Saturday 19 May, and this year includes a ukele jam session in the Sage Music Centre, a Space Hopper disco in the Shed, Gateshead, tours of the Victoria Tunnel under the streets of Newcastle, new sculptures at the Mining Institute and exhibitions and events in over 50 other venues – all accessible via a free bus service. Last year 24,000 people visited the 46 participating venues over the two nights, and this year the organisers hope to break that record.

"Family Matters" has been seen at the Norwich Castle Museum and at Museums Sheffield. It is on at the Laing until 2 September and then travels to Tate Britain (1 October to 21 December).


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March 24 2012

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Honeymoon in Scarborough

There's someone missing from this photograph – the second groom, Great Uncle Jack. He's probably on the other side of the camera capturing this image on Scarborough beach. This is a honeymoon snap of my nanna, Olive – she's the one on the right in the smart top, with her neat hair pulled back and white underskirt tucked between her knees, with her new husband, my grandad Stan, a proud Yorkshireman resplendent in flat cap.

On the left is Olive's sister Nora in billowing knickerbockers – Great Uncle Jack's new bride. It was August 1931 and there wasn't much money about. To save costs, Olive and Nora had a joint wedding in their village of Rillington, north Yorkshire. They carried matching bouquets and dresses to the church – no veils, just hats. The grooms also had hats – smart black bowlers.

The joint honeymoon in Scarborough would have been quite an occasion. Olive was one of 10 children, and day trips to the coast were limited to one a year when they were growing up. Olive left school at 14 to go into service with a wealthy family, cooking and cleaning. My grandad was a gardener at the same house. That's how they met. I love this photo – I especially like the way Stan, a massive grin on his face, has rolled his suit trousers up so high to protect them from the chilly North Sea. He was 30 when he finally tied the knot.

Sadly, I don't really remember Stan – I was only four when he died. But my dad, Richard, says Stan – his dad – was a kind, gentle, patient man, and he loved taking photographs, so the camera he's holding in his hand is probably his pride and joy.

You can't tell from this picture, but Olive was a very strong woman. She was quite formidable in later life, and fiercely independent – as children we grew up nearby and often stayed with her, and we knew she was not to be messed with! She lived alone for most of the two decades after Stan died and never remarried. I remember her sitting in her favourite armchair near the fire in her creaking old house, the Aga on in the kitchen and telling stories about the past. In true Yorkshire style, these always included some point about the value of money – how it was easily spent but hard earned. She only left that house when her mind started to fail towards the end of her life, and Alzheimer's took these memories away from her. When Olive died in 2001, aged 91, I was a student in Cardiff and there was an exam on the day of the funeral. In the end, I took the emotional decision to stay for the exam.

Missing Olive's funeral is one of the biggest regrets of my life. If I could turn back the clock, it's one of the first things I would change. I wish I could tell her how sorry I am.

Linda Harrison

Playlist: I wanted to hold Mum's hand

I Want To Hold Your Hand by the Beatles

"Oh yeah, I'll tell you something / I think you'll understand"

This record by the Beatles takes me back to spring 1964 and my second term at boarding school after the Christmas holidays, when I was 11.

On Saturday mornings after prep, we girls were permitted to play 45rpm vinyl records on a Dansette player in the small, unheated wooden hut that served as our assembly hall. Someone had a copy of I Want to Hold your Hand from home, and it was played over and over again.

"Oh yeah, I'll tell you something / I think you'll understand / When I say that something / I want to hold your hand."

Some of the older girls mooned about miserably, thinking of a boy they had liked over the holidays, but I knew nothing of such romantic pain. All I knew was how I desperately missed my mother and wanted to be with her and to hold her hand again.

"And when I touch you I feel happy inside / It's such a feeling that my love / I can't hide, I can't hide, I can't hide, I can't hide."

There was no one to hold your hand at boarding school in 1964. If you admitted to wanting your mother, you were considered a complete sissy. Homesickness and emotional pain were not mentioned in those days.

I invented a "boy" I had a crush on in case anyone noticed a tear on my cheek. It was infinitely more acceptable than saying I missed my mother and wanted to hold her hand. Perhaps I wasn't the only one.

Eve Morris

We love to eat: Beef and Guinness casserole

Ingredients

900g lean stewing beef, diced

3 tbsp oil

2 tbsp flour

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 large onions, coarsely chopped

1 large clove garlic, crushed (optional)

2 tbsp tomato puree, dissolved in 4 tbsp water

¾ can Guinness

Sprig of thyme

Fry the onions and garlic in olive oil then transfer to a bowl. Coat the meat in seasoned flour and brown in the pan. Add the Guinness, followed by the rest of the ingredients and cook in a slow oven for three hours.

I've been pretty much a vegetarian since the early 80s, only suffering the occasional lapse when too inebriated to resist the lure of a late-night kebab. It's primarily for political reasons – initially health, too – and hasn't always gone down well. A boyfriend once called me a fascist vegetarian because I wouldn't let him eat his fish supper in my flat.

Since then, in the 18 years I've been married, I've seldom cooked as my loved one's culinary skills are absolutely outstanding. Pete can turn his hand to anything and is a legend among friends and family for his cooking, so I have just let him get on with it. Anything I attempted turned out poisonous, bland or burned, and I have always drawn the line at cooking any of his favourite meat dishes, so eventually I stopped trying. He has always been happy to cook for me, and has done so most nights during the years we have lived together.

Times change. He recently got a job on a farm and is out all day in all weathers, often coming home tired, freezing and starving. As I work at home a lot I have been happy to go out and buy meat for him, but never considered cooking it. However, on a particularly horrid afternoon recently, I envisioned Pete coming home cold and hungry. I knew he'd kept a recipe he liked the look of for beef and Guinness stew, which had come in a free booklet in the newspaper. So I decided to make the first meal I had made for 17 years. And with meat as the main ingredient.

It went well until I opened the packet of meat and laid the wobbly red slab on a chopping board. The texture was soft but firm and the fat on the side was sinewy – I couldn't believe I was doing this. With a mixture of fascination and horror I stripped the fat away, and began to chop the meat into chunks. But as the knife slid through the blood red steak I realised I didn't feel the slightest twinge of guilt, and was almost enjoying this new experience.

I coated the chunks in seasoned flour by hand and then fried them in the olive oil, browning as directed. Then it was time to add the Guinness, which sizzled and frothed. I obviously couldn't do a taste test, so considering the sorry-looking blobs of meat in their liquid bath, I began to wonder if I had done it right. Then it was into a slow oven for three hours.

I checked anxiously every hour or so, and after a while something began to change. The Guinness reduced until it reinvented itself as thick gravy. I began to feel quite excited and hoped it would taste as good as it looked.

When Pete arrived home, his first words were, "What is that amazing smell?"

When I presented the casserole from the oven, his jaw dropped. As he flaked a piece of molten beef on to a fork and into his mouth, his eyes closed and he said, "This is absolutely delicious. I can't believe you did this for me."

He gave me a huge hug.

Later, wiping his mouth, he said: "The other meal I really love is chicken in red wine with shallots and mushrooms."

Oh dear … I seem to have started something! Jeanie Lynch

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Li Tianbing: My imaginary siblings

Growing up in China with its strict one-child policy, Li Tianbing never fully knew the meaning of the words 'brother' and 'sister'. By Jon Henley

The only memento Li Tianbing has of his childhood is five photographs. Tattered now, black and white, slightly out of focus. He's lucky, he says, to have even those: cameras weren't plentiful in Guilin, southern China, when he was a small boy in the 1970s, a three-day, four-night train journey from Beijing. He saw one only rarely, when his father – a soldier in the People's Army propaganda unit – managed to borrow one. As Li's dad could come home for only one or two days each month, and as he didn't often manage to borrow a camera, five photos is what there are.

But stacked against the walls in his studio, a cavernous former garage in a grimy Paris suburb, are some of the works those photographs inspired: huge, compelling canvases that have made Li one of the most critically acclaimed Chinese-born artists of his generation.

Rendered in the stark, monochrome detail of an old photograph, some splashed blue, red or green, others clutching unnaturally bright toys, books or bags, are children. Staring wide-eyed, deadpan they appear detached, waif-like. And above all – though each picture may contain several children – they seem alone.

These paintings are part of a semi-biographical series that has occupied Li for the best part of five years. They are an artist's attempt to recapture and reimagine what he can of his own childhood, and to explore the human consequences of perhaps the most controversial and far-reaching social policy China has decreed: the one-child rule. "My generation," says Li, serving green tea in a porcelain cup the size of a large thimble, "is unique, in China and in the world. We were the first not to fully know the meaning of the words 'brother' and 'sister'."

The one-child policy was introduced in 1979, when Li was five years old, and is expected to continue for at least another decade. Li's father, in the army, and mother, a high-school literature teacher, were both part of the state apparatus, so did not dare contravene it. "My mother was studying when I was born, so they waited to have their second child," Li says. "By the time they were ready, it was too late."

The policy formally restricts married couples living in urban areas to having only one child, and is reported to have prevented as many as 400m births. For Li, it mainly meant a lonely childhood. "I had just one toy," he says, "a wooden pistol. When I lost it, my father was upset. I read what I could, but it was difficult to get books. I spent a lot of time dreaming, imagining, but always on my own. Or with imaginary friends. That's why I started painting, I think, because I was bored. I painted everywhere. In the neighbourhood, they used to say to my mother: 'If you can't find your son, follow the graffiti!'"

It wasn't, though, necessarily a sad childhood: "Sadness is something you feel for other people. Children adapt very easily. They have their reality and that's it; they don't look beyond. And they usually find some way to amuse themselves. For me, that was art. Art was my lifeline."

And he was good at it; his paintings, in traditional Chinese ink-on-paper, were selected by the authorities for exhibition abroad, in Japan and Europe. When he was 10, his mother gave him a book by a celebrated Chinese artist, Xu Beihong, who studied in Paris in the early 20th century and returned to Beijing to found the city's Academy of Fine Arts.

Li dreamed of studying in Paris too, but it seemed "a surreal idea. China in the mid-80s was like North Korea now. You couldn't get out." Barely a decade later, though, he did: after spending four years studying international relations and languages in Beijing and refusing a government job back in Guilin welcoming foreign visitors, Li applied to study art in France.

Li spent barely six months studying art theory at the University of Paris XIII before being accepted into the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts, from where he graduated in 2002 with the highest possible honours. Then for a while, he says, he was "a bit lost. I didn't really have a direction. I tried lots of different styles."

In 2006, he began working on a self-portrait from his childhood. Like his five photographs, it was in black and white, and Li was all alone. "Slowly," he says, "I began to add other children. The brothers and sisters and friends I never had. My invented friends."

Looking back now, it's clear he was searching for his roots. "Perhaps because I was very far from home. And because my memories were fading; all I had were those photographs. And because not just the memories, but also the real, concrete world of my childhood in China was disappearing, being rubbed out by the unbelievable pace of construction."

But Li's paintings of children were not just a recreation of his own childhood identity, but an exploration of what was happening in China. The one-child policy, he says, has had unimagined consequences. "There are the hidden children," he says.

"They can't go to school, because they don't officially exist. In the big cities, there's a market. Children can be bought and sold. They disappear."

Li still finds it surprising in France, he says, "when a child goes missing, and it's in the newspapers and a poster goes up, and stays for months! In China, nothing like that happens."

Fines and punishments for having a second child are harsh: "You will be denied promotion. You may have a 20% pay cut. Your apartment can be taken away from you, your benefits cut. In the private sector, the fines can go up to six years of salary."

The longer-term economic consequences, Li says, are dramatic. "Traditionally, the Chinese have at least two children to provide for them in old age. But by 2030 in China – the third generation of the one-child policy – every young couple will have 12 old people to provide for. The whole thing will just explode."

Emotionally, too, it's difficult, even in families that manage to obey the rule. "I can't talk about it with my parents," says Li. "They know my work is about this, they see it; I've taken them to exhibitions of my paintings in Shanghai, Hong Kong. But we can't address the topic. It's really very sensitive, very painful, for lots of people."

Li, though, is fortunate. He has a son of 18 months with his partner, a sculptor – and a second child on the way. "Having just one child changed everything for me already," he says. "My son resembles me – he's like a living model, he's in constant movement. Compared to those five frozen, out-of-focus photos of my own childhood … It's miraculous."

Being able to choose to have a second is, he says, a huge privilege. "My parents couldn't choose. In China, that choice is not open. There are a few exemptions, like if both parents are themselves only children. But for most people, the possibility is just not there. I feel like I have won a prize, being able to have a second child."

Of late, a whole industry has grown up, particularly in the US, to cater for Chinese couples who want a second child. "People can go abroad, have their baby, and come back to China with American papers for their child," Li says. "That's OK; the rule doesn't apply to foreigners. The baby is American; it doesn't count. But that's obviously only for the rich."

He considers himself fortunate, too, to be able to spend time with his son. "When I think of my father, he never had that choice either. He saw me so rarely. I see it now, whenever I visit. I feel his emotion. It's in the little things he does: he makes my bed. He's compensating for the lack of time together, before."

Indeed the whole notion of family, as lived and understood in the west, means something rather different in China. "For so long now," says Li, "the collectivity has been more important than the family, than the needs of parents and children.

"It's completely normal for parents to live miles apart most of the time, as mine did; to see each other one or two days a month, for 20 years. Lots of my friends at school were in that same situation. My grandfather was an architect; he was sent to a faraway town to build bridges for 30 years. When he came back, he was retired."

Still, he would have loved a brother or sister. "You always regret what you've never had," he says. "As a child, of course it would have been lovely. But now my father is not well; I am thousands of miles away. In our culture, it is important to look after one's parents when they are elderly. I can't, and there's no other child to do it."

But having children of his own – a family with whom he actually lives – is, gradually, starting to influence his work. His sad, wide-eyed childhood self may still take centre-stage in many paintings, but the imaginary children are starting to look happier, less lost. There is the occasional smile. And other themes are emerging: modern issues in China like galloping commercialisation, the increasing difficulty of finding factory workers.

"Increasingly now, I think I'm using the children more as a symbol, as a medium to explore and talk about what else is happening in China today," he says. "My work is perhaps less, now, about the one-child policy. But it will always be there. An artist must, after all, speak of his own experience."

• An exhibition of Li Tianbing's work can be seen at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, 25-28 Old Burlington Street, London W1, until 21 April, stephenfriedman.com

China's old-child policy

China's one-child policy was introduced in 1979 in an effort to alleviate the problems caused by having the world's biggest population. It applies to urban couples but exempts rural families and also parents who don't have any siblings themselves.

Official figures state that 35.9% of China's population is subject to the restriction with fines imposed on those who ignore it.

Since its inception, it has been estimated that the policy has prevented 400 million births, but a cultural bias towards male children means that it has also been implicated in an increase in female infanticide, forced abortions and under-reporting of births. The resulting gender imbalance means that 117 boys are born for every 100 girls.

It was reported in 2010 that since 1985, Yicheng County in Shanxi Province has been experimenting with a two-child policy, resulting in no excessive population growth and a gender ratio within international norms (103-107 boys for every 100 girls).

Those who have a second child often register them as someone else's, or simply don't register tham at all, leading to a whole class of people who don't officially exist.

The 1990s saw the emergence of the "little emperor" syndrome – mainly a product of Chinese media fearful that single children have been pampered and over-indulged.


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March 03 2012

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: A relic of my Russian-Jewish past

Apart from the gleaming brass samovar – unused for a good 70 years – atop a chest in my sister's home this photograph is the only survivor of my grandparents' life in the Old Country, as Jews called those places in a distant eastern Europe they had fled. In their case, it was a Russian shtetl (little town). Under a changed name, it's in today's Lithuania, this place they never spoke of, this life experience not in any way transmitted to their children or grandchildren, of which I am one.

I found a picture of the town in the Lithuanian encyclopaedia, a street with those low Eastern European rural houses and once or twice I met Lithuanians and asked about the region, which is apparently very beautiful. They remarked that the Lithuanians were great friends to the Jews and never harmed them. That a thousand years of Jewish life should be buried in lies is nothing compared to the massacre that destroyed all branches of my family over there. The silence of the grandparents must have been their way of dealing with that loss and assuring the tranquillity of their (safely British born) descendants, perhaps.

But when I look at this picture of my then teenaged grandmother with her own mother, sedate in their Chekhov-era dresses – young Rivke with a high-school medal around her neck – I wonder about the cherry orchard, the muddy roads of the thaw and what it was like riding on wagons from shtetl to shtetl, laughing and joking shyly in our dear departed language, Yiddish.

In the photo my granny, mayn bube, reveals tender eyes and firm lips. This tenderness and firmness accompanied her through two marriages and the long, illegal trip from Russia – in 1903 or 1904 – her raising of a family in London's East End and later Ladbroke Grove, then getting her all her children into medical school, teacher training and professional, skilled work. This was all somehow accomplished on the wages of her husband, my melancholy but humorous grandfather, Zayde Reuven, a casually employed tailor.

How she managed all that is covered with another canopy of silence but I know the bond of my own mother's affection for her and note the hopeful, clever eyes that gaze out of this token of our old Jewish-Russian life that, along with the samovar, is its silent witness. Ray Keenoy

Playlist: The sound of fantasy and adventure

Gypsys, Tramps and Thieves by Cher

"I was born in the wagon of a travellin' show/My mama used to dance for the money they'd throw"

Hearing this song has always been a thrill. I was obsessed (between eight and 11 years old) by the thought that I was really a Gypsy child, and that my parents had adopted me.

I never owned the single, only heard it on the radio, which was always on in our house. We lived in the countryside, with several acres of garden, adjoining fields and river to play in.

I didn't realise how lucky I was, or how much freedom I had. I spent as much time as I could dressing up like a Gypsy (or as they were portrayed in my story books). I was desperately keen to walk barefoot and practised on the pebble path in the garden, trying to toughen up my feet, which hurt. My father gave me a penknife and I learned how to make whistles and tried to make pegs.

I recently discovered that Dervish, an Irish band, does a cover of this song, which is lovely, but doesn't have the impact of the original.

I am pleased that my 11-year-old daughter loves this track, but, as we live in the city, it would be social suicide for her to indulge her fantasies by getting into character. I do now own a lurcher, (a greyhound-collie-cross hunting dog) another essential element of the Gypsy lifestyle, but as I am a vegetarian I discourage him from catching rabbits.

Bridget Barling

We love to eat: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang fudge

Ingredients

1lb (450g) soft light brown sugar (white granulated will do)

4oz (115g) unsalted butter

1 tbsp golden syrup

2 fl oz (60ml) water

3 fl oz (90ml) cream

1 tsp vanilla essence

Melt all ingredients except the vanilla in a high-sided pot on a low heat. When the sugar has dissolved, bring the fudge to the boil until it reaches soft ball stage – drip a drop into a cup of cold water; if it forms a ball, it's ready – Take it off the stove and beat in the vanilla. Pour into a greased pan and cut while still warm.

In 1966 my family emigrated to Canada from England. One day, a few weeks after we arrived, I found myself barred from the kitchen. My mother and sister were "making something secret". After what seemed like forever, my sister came out with a pan of fudge.

The smell was lovely and chocolatey, the taste fabulous. The original recipe is from the back of Ian Fleming's novel Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, borrowed from the library that day. But over years of making it we discovered we preferred a vanilla version made with light brown sugar and a bit of cream, and this we have stuck with. My interaction with the fudge is legendary. When I was 15 or so I made a batch (almost a kilo of fudge), ate it within two days, felt I hadn't had enough and made more, similarly devoured.

I felt ill for at least a week and broke out in zits that took months to clear. For more than 30 years I couldn't go near the stuff. But then I made a batch and found myself back where I started: unable to stop eating it. I make this fudge occasionally with my own children, who show every sign of my own weakness. Today they had eight pieces each, but I had 10! Nicola Bessell

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February 27 2012

Museums love teenagers, but only in uniform

Salford Museum's decision to throw out two teenagers was more about protecting its cathedral-like status than the girls' safety

What do you have to do to get thrown out of a museum? Smear sticky fingers on the Persian tapestries? Scream so loud that other visitors can't thumb quietly through the browning albums of dried Azolla caroliniana? Do a cartwheel in front of a Caravaggio? Last week, two girls were asked to leave Salford Museum and Art Gallery. They were thrown out for being 13.

The museum explained that their expulsion was "for their own safety". Like most self-respecting teenagers, they'd gone out over half term without an adult.

I don't for one minute believe the museum's action was prompted by concern for any child. If that were the case, why would they propel two girls into the streets of a busy town to wander across roads all on their own among total strangers? And sadly Salford isn't the only museum to discriminate against young people; many have similar bans.

It's odd that Top Shop shares no such anxieties – my own teenager hangs out there and at vast, alienating shopping centres all the time. Libraries and leisure centres also welcome her and her friends without their mums in tow. So why is it particularly dangerous for teenagers to visit a museum unaccompanied? The real reason museums don't want them is not to protect children from danger, but to protect their precious objects and preserve their cathedral-like status. They are worried about how the teenagers will act within their highly cultured walls.

Many museums argue, completely erroneously, that they don't have a choice; it's illegal to allow teenagers in by themselves. There is no such law. But there is an age limit. For a museum to allow a child to visit aged eight or under, it may possibly need to be Ofsted registered. But any older than that, it's up to the individual institution to set its own rules.

It would be wrong to say museums shun all teenagers. They love them in school uniform, all besuited and trotting along behind a teacher. They are very keen to support "out of the classroom learning" as long as those having the lessons are accompanied by plenty of classroom assistants. They'll issue them with the modern-day equivalent of clipboards – hand-held electronic devices – and send them out on tightly controlled trails. Then they'll boast about how many young people have visited their museum each year, and how much they have learnt.

Yet if these same teenagers turned up out of school hours, dressed in hoodies, T-shirts and trainers, they'd get a very different reception. Many museums ban mobile phones at the door – sometimes the same museums that thrust gadgetry upon their school and youth-group visitors. On a recent visit to Tate Modern, even middle-aged me was told off by a gallery assistant for answering my mobile and asked to switch it off. Yet that same museum runs pioneering programmes with young people, involving some of the most hi-tech digital gadgetry available.

That's not the only irony teenagers face when trying to access our artistic and cultural heritage. Over half of Britain's museums charge entry at the door. Many of these begin to charge full admission aged 12 and up, forcing teenagers to purchase an adult ticket. Yet if two 13-year-olds turned up on their own, they'd be turfed out for not being grown up enough.

There is another relationship museums could have with their teenage visitors. Museums are wonderfully safe places. As far as I know, no museum has suffered a spate of muggings or been the scene of a murder. It's unlikely that rival teenage gangs will wage turf wars under the Tintorettos or between the Stegosaurus and the Tyrannosaurus rex. It would be difficult to clandestinely shoot up by the glass cabinets of 19th-century French porcelain. There is no casual street violence in a museum, the thing we all fear our children will get caught up in. What wonderful places museums could be for teenagers in a sometimes threatening and troubled world. They could be havens from harm. They could, in fact, be places where teenagers could congregate, hang out and wander around unaccompanied "for their own safety".

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January 28 2012

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Dad on a rare holiday in the 1930s

What a great time these young men are having. A group of lads sharing a rare holiday in the 30s, determined to have a ball. The rolled shirtsleeves and vests suggest hot weather. My father, Ben, is the one astride his motorcycle on the far left of the photograph, which I think may have been taken on the Isle of Man. I know Dad went there in his youth to watch the TT racing.

Ben was born in Birkenhead, Cheshire, in 1906, and worked for the co-operative movement until the 1930s when, after studying engineering at night school, he moved to Surrey to work for Vickers-Armstrongs, the aircraft manufacturer.

Dad was a quiet man, whose favourite pastimes were reading and walking in the woods. I love the way this photograph shows him in his youthful element, larking about with a group of fellow motorcycle fanatics. The guy on the right has dropped a piece of rag as though they are about to start a race, but the demeanour of the participants shows that nobody is going anywhere.

There are girls in the background, standing next to the barn. Only one large tent is visible, probably shared by all the lads, because a second photograph shows a smaller, round tent hidden behind the motorcyclists, which was most likely to have been the girls' tent.

For my father, a holiday meant camping and his only concession to my mother's lack of enthusiasm for his passion was to hire a caravan.

As his five children matured, he bought a motorbike and sidecar, which had to be a Royal Enfield. He and I travelled all the way to Birkenhead from Surrey for a family wedding with my 12-year-old self riding pillion. There were no motorways in 1957, so it took all day. I also remember being taken to watch the motorbike scrambles at Pirbright in Surrey.

It could be that Dad's first motorbike was a Royal Enfield as well, but I will let any motorbike enthusiasts among the readership decide. Erica Medcalf

Playlist: A knees up that might be costly

Uptown Girl by Billy Joel

"Uptown girl / She's been living in her uptown world"

I first heard Uptown Girl in the early 80s, playing on my sister's radio in our shared room – it was always tuned to Radio 1. But it was a while before it came to my dad's attention, being a man more inclined towards classical.

Every Saturday we sat down to watch children's television and in those early days the video, full of neon tones, seemed to catch all the family's attention. The song was a big hit in 1983 and hung around for weeks – whenever it came on, with its upbeat melody and catchy tune, my dad couldn't help but dance. And it was quite a sight – fingers clicking, knees bouncing and change jingling in his pockets. We laughed until we cried. I remember it vividly.

Years later in 2001, it was re-released for Comic Relief. In his mid-70s, my dad probably shouldn't have attempted such moves but yet again the bendy–knee dance came out. Again we laughed until the tears fell.

My dad is due for a knee operation soon. I hope his passion for bendy-knee dancing didn't contribute too much to his dodgy knees. And maybe once he has recovered he will dance again – though not necessarily to Uptown Girl. Caroline Russell

We love to eat: Bread and dripping

Ingredients

Good white bread, cut in thick slices

Beef dripping

Salt

When I was 12, my father left his office job in London and started a shop. My mother worked there too, part time. It was a huge change in our lives. Till then, my mother had always been at home when we came in from school, ready with food and questions about our day. We'd have a children's tea of eggs and bread, fruit and cake, and by the time my father came home from work we'd be in the bath and ready for him to read us a story. Then he and my mother would eat alone in comfort. For the past year or so, I'd been allowed to join them for this grown-up dinner, while my brothers had gone to bed early.

Now, though, my mum would be out most days. I was 12, and regarded as quite old enough to look after the two boys, so it was my task to get home from school first and make sure we all got something to eat to tide us over till the main meal, which we ate together. 

I also had other tasks: the fat old coke boiler in the kitchen would need to be fed and stoked, and possibly even relit. No hot water otherwise. I might also have to prepare vegetables. Quite often, too, I'd walk up to the bus stop to help my mum carry shopping she'd done in the lunch hour. But I didn't mind: I can still remember the huge pleasure of coming home to the empty house and being in charge, responsible for my brothers. Bossing them about, I expect they'd have said.

My mother cooked a big roast every Sunday, big enough for the five of us to have at least two meals: hot on Sunday, then cold on Monday with salad. Whatever was left over after that would be minced and added to the next meal, and my mum might make soup using the bone, if there was one. When it was beef, there was always a bowl of dripping: underneath there would be a rich brown meaty jelly, full of fragments of roast meat scraped from the tin, with a thick layer of salty fat on top. We'd spread slices of crusty white bread with it and settle down in front of the electric fire to eat it. You can sprinkle salt on the top, to make it even more delicious.

I don't often roast a big joint of beef now, but when I do I always take care to set aside a bowl of dripping, to enjoy on bread, and remember the warm comfort of our house after school and our snacks in front of the fire. Claire Bainbridge

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December 10 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: My dad, who was 'disappeared'

If anyone asked me what was my most prized possession, I wouldn't hesitate: my family photos. This is one of the four I have of my dad and me together. Unfortunately, the digital revolution had not yet arrived when he was around, but maybe it is for this very reason that those pictures are more valuable than anything else.

This was taken in a park close to where my grandparents and my dad, Alfredo García, lived. He and my mum had recently separated after a short-lived and ill-fated marriage. They met in high school in Buenos Aires (where I'm from) – the same high school I would attend years later, known for its outstanding academic credentials but also, and especially in the 70s, as a hotbed of political dissent and communist activism. My parents were both peronistas (followers of Juan Domingo Perón, who, alongside Evita, had become the hero for the oppressed working classes), actively involved in youth movements with strong anti-military and anti-bourgeois ideals.

When the rightwing coup d'état took place (on March 1976, a month after my birth), the military junta began to carry out secret, undercover operations to kidnap, torture and murder anyone involved in any sort of political activity. My mother had decided to bow out, but my father continued.

Nobody knew at the time that those who "disappeared" would never return, and when my father was taken (minutes after dropping me off at my grandparents' house in July 1978), the fear of repercussions meant my mother and I had to keep it a secret for years, until democracy returned in 1983.

My beloved grandparents, who had lost their only child, devoted the rest of their lives to keeping his memory and legacy alive while running their grocery shop and looking after me every weekend. My grandma, Lola, was a madre de Plaza de Mayo marching every Thursday around the square, defying those in power and demanding justice for her son. I have no recollection of my dad apart from the picture I have pieced together from other people's memories and anecdotes. But somehow, I feel I know him very well and that he is a big part of who I am.

He was only 25 when he died and we don't know when or how, although investigations have determined that most of the 30,000 were tortured in concentration camps and thrown from planes into the ocean, dead or alive.

When I look at my face, I see his smiling back at me. He has left a big hole in my life, but a big sense of pride at the same time for what he did and the friendships he formed in his short life. Although I will always miss him, I take comfort in the fact that his ideals – and everything he fought for – have contributed to Argentina being a much more democratic and egalitarian place, where such atrocities would never be allowed to happen again. Paula García

Playlist: The very first single I bought

Honky Tonk Women by the Rolling Stones

"I met a gin-soaked bar-room queen in Memphis / She tried to take me upstairs for a ride"

I had no idea what a gin-soaked bar-room queen was, but as soon as I heard the cow bell and guitar opening bars I was hooked. I persuaded my dad to give me the money to buy my first single. I went to the Broadway Record Mart, handed over 8/6d and walked home feeling suddenly more grown up.

It went straight on to the radiogram, and I played it over and over again.

A few weeks later, at my cousin Ingrid's wedding, the DJ was asked to play it so many times that he started to pack away the rest of his records while the celebrations were still in full swing. I recall my uncle dancing to it too. It was a dance he did to all the tunes he liked, assuming a slightly crouched position while simultaneously hopping on one leg and clapping.

Fast forward 10 years and my first love was a lanky, scowling Mick Jagger lookalike. I was tall and slender with long dark hair and a penchant for Anna Belinda clothes, and fancifully thought our bohemian style set us apart in our particular pocket of south London. I had been seduced not just by the music but by the snakehipped gyrations and androgynous beauty of Mick.

Five years ago, when I got married, I made sure Honky Tonk Women was on the playlist at our reception, and all those years later it still had everyone up on the dancefloor. By now both my father and uncle were dead, and the Jagger lookalike was a happy but distant memory – but new memories are made all the time and Mum twirled her grandchildren round and round till they were giggly and exhausted.

I love the song and Keith and Mick remain the ultimate rock'n'roll reprobates who, despite often being parodied, have never lost their edge.

I have it on CD but get the biggest kick if it is played on the radio while I am driving – I turn the volume up full blast and sing the lyrics verbatim now knowing, at 50, what they mean. Diane Morgan

We love to eat: Kitty's sausage meat pie

Ingredients

12oz (340g) self-raising flour

1lb sausage meat

Pinch of salt

1 boiled egg

3oz (85g) margarine

1 or 2 sliced tomatoes

3oz (85g) lard

2 tbsp water

Rub in the flour, salt, margarine and lard until a breadcrumb consistency has formed. Add cold water and work into a soft dough. More water can be added if required. Set aside for 10-15 minutes to rest. Divide pastry in half. Roll out one half and line a shallow pie dish. Mash the sausage meat into the pie dish and cover with sliced boiled egg and tomatoes. Roll out the remainder of the pastry and cover the pie dish. Prick the top with a fork and bake in the middle of the oven for 50 minutes at gas mark 5, or 180C.

If you're feeling adventurous, add herbs or fried onions (or both) to the sausage meat.

None of us knew where our dearly loved mother got this recipe for sausage meat pie but it was one of her signature dishes. Every generation down to her great-grandchildren has fond memories of devouring large slices of this pie (hot or cold) with anything from salad to roast potatoes and veg. It is particularly effective for curing hangovers. Even now my sisters cook it to mark special celebrations, and on holidays we always take at least one pie with us.

Our lovely mum was born and raised in the Bermondsey docks in the 1920s in an Anglo-Irish family of 16, so she lived with grinding poverty for many years. By the 1950s she had a husband (our wonderful dad, Jack) and us six kids (four girls and two boys) in a three-bedroom council house on the Bellingham estate in south London.

Times were hard living on one wage, but in an era of coal fires, linoleum-covered floors and icy bedrooms, her cooking brightened the house with delicious aromas.

Even when her kids had flown the nest, we were never far away and she delighted in showing her love through her culinary skills (typically for her generation, she never said the L-word).

Last year, Mum passed away leaving an aching hole in our hearts. Eighteen months later, we visited a well-known spiritualist. Immediately, Mum pushed through, telling us that she was having a whale of a time with all her brothers and sisters but that her Yorkshires still beat Aunt Bessie's.

We all left that room with a smile on our faces and the knowledge that when we die, there would be the smell of baking wafting around the pearly gates. Jeremy Harrison

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November 26 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Our beach hut on the south coast

"What's a beach hut, Granny?" The question tugged me back to childhood holidays in the 50s, rekindling memories of a world that has changed beyond recognition, apart from rows of little wooden chalets marshaled along the promenade from Southbourne all the way to the west of Bournemouth. Our family took two days in Dad's pride and joy, an old Austin Seven, to travel from Wolverhampton to the south coast.

Our landlady laid down many rules: "No dinner for late arrivals" was one. There was no menu; you had what was on offer. You had to be out of the house by 9.30am and you weren't allowed back until 5.30pm. Smells of Ajax and rancid fat assaulted our nostrils when we breezed in from the fresh sea air. Those were the days. Well-behaved children could take it in turns to ring the gong for mealtimes.

"Try not to spill the potty when you get out in the night," was Dad's last command of the day. Four families of four competed for the bathroom. We once had the room at the front with a bay window; it had its own washbasin and crusty soap – luxury.

Each day started with the 8.30am non-negotiable breakfast of cornflakes followed by bacon, fried egg and baked beans. I loathe baked beans. Come rain or shine, we would trail down the cliff path to our beach hut, No 2,378, with a plastic beach bag stuffed with sliced white bread, margarine, meat paste, a couple of Lyons individual fruit pies and, on the last day, a pack of Kunzle cakes. My tastebuds tingle at the thought.

Once news got round our digs that we had a hut, other guests would often "just happen" to pass by. "Could we just dry our Jenny out of the wind?" A tricky one to refuse, so a cuppa would be offered, which generally extended into lunch. By the end of the week, our four-seater hut was accommodating a dozen interlopers most days.

"Look at the time!" my father would say each day at precisely 5.10pm, followed by a mad dash up the path to the digs, seconds after the hallowed 5.30pm unbolting of the front door.

After dinner, still hungry, we would stroll out to our favourite Forte's cafe and tuck into vanilla slices and mugs of Horlicks, waiting for the late August sky to darken before the Austin chugged along the seafront between Boscombe and Bournemouth piers, as we oohhed and aahed at fairy lights on lampposts and the moon shimmering on the sea.

Fifty years on, to celebrate my 60th birthday this spring, our children organised a short break in Southbourne. Huge bedrooms, two en suites, a kitchen with every luxury imaginable. At the end of our stay, the three grandchildren were asked what they had most enjoyed. Their answer? The beach hut. We had been nowhere else, done nothing else – no one had wanted to. Watching the little ones charging about on the beach while I brewed tea and made squashy sandwiches gave me a feeling of happiness and warmth beyond measure. Some things don't change to satisfy our 21st-century cravings – they don't need to. Trina Beckett

Playlist: When you no longer stood by me

Stand By Me by John Lennon

"If the sky that we look upon / Should tumble and fall / And the mountain should crumble to the sea …"

We were a joyous gang of four couples when we got together in Thames Ditton and sang along to this version of Stand By Me. It always followed an evening of lots of eating and, more pertinently, lots of drinking. Groups such as ours standing in the kitchen singing at the tops of our voices at midnight on a Saturday would not have been unusual, I'm sure, but we thought we were the best gang in town, if not beyond.

The gang's membership changed over time with divorces and remarriages, but I always felt that you and I could sing along to Lennon in the firm knowledge that we would indeed stand by each other.

That comfortable feeling was shaken when you announced that you didn't love me any more. With hindsight, it was rather astonishing that, for a few painful months, I held on to the belief that we could sort things out. Then the hope of standing by each other was shattered when you announced you had been having an affair for months.

The sky I looked upon did indeed tumble and fall as I fought to maintain some semblance of order – to no avail. In retrospect, you had always had a hard edge beneath the gentle surface. Your ability to move on to a new life despite the upheaval involved was as cold-hearted from where I was standing, as your lack of interest in developing any relationship with my children.

You didn't stand by me, but I'm now sure it was for the best. My new wife is a truly gentle soul and we are much better suited. Similarly, you are probably better off in your new relationship. Let's hope we are now all better able to stand by each other. Roger

We love to eat: Miss Bigwood's favourite

Ingredients

1 thick slice of white bread per person (do not be tempted to use the pre-sliced "plastic" variety)

1 rasher of bacon per round of bread, preferably back bacon

1-2 slices of red leicester or cheddar

Vegetable oil for frying

Worcestershire sauce for garnish

Place one or two slices of cheese, depending on thickness, on each slice of bread and press down hard – the cheese should cover the bread as far as possible. Cut the rasher of bacon in half and place on top of the cheese, ensuring the cheese is covered by the bacon, and again press down hard. Heat a small amount of vegetable oil in a frying pan and, when it is sizzling, invert the slice of bread into the pan, bacon side down.

Press hard with a spatula on to the back of the slice. Fry until the cheese has melted into the bacon and the bacon is cooked. Turn out on to a plate, sprinkle with Worcestershire sauce and tuck in to the succulent mix of crispy bacon, cheese and fried bread.

Miss Bigwood was a schoolfriend of my grandmother; she worked until she was 80 in a mill in Leeds and lived in a real one-up, one-down, back-to-back house in Leeds until the late 50s. When my grandmother died, my mother stayed in touch with Miss Bigwood and every year she would spend a week with us in Northamptonshire for her annual holiday. This was the only time she left Leeds and her job.

To us she was something of a curiosity, an old lady still working and still attached to the niceties and conventions of a life firmly rooted in the late-19th, early 20th century. I still have no idea of her first name; to us she was, and always will be, Miss Bigwood.

On one visit she showed me how to make what we now call Miss Bigwood's favourite. I do not recall her name for the dish, but I do remember that it was a special treat when her budget would allow. My mother told me that on occasions she had seen her prepare an evening meal consisting of flour mixed with a little milk and fried to make a fritter. Bacon and cheese were reserved for pay day.

The result, to my young palate, was delicious, and the dish immediately entered our household repertoire. It is still a special Saturday lunchtime treat for my two sons, now both in their 20s. They never had the pleasure of meeting Miss Bigwood, but have often asked who she was, and they both make her favourite.

As a postscript, on my first visit to France in the 60s I was introduced to a traditional French snack by my new pen friend. It was called Croque Monsieur, an upmarket ham and cheese sandwich, but – being French – supposedly far superior to anything we might have in England. Not so, I thought, this isn't a patch on Miss Bigwood's favourite, but how does one translate that into O-level French? Prue Huddleston

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November 25 2011

Reborns: dolls so lifelike you could mistake them for real infants

Some people buy them because they can't conceive; others just like the idea of having a baby around… Zoe Williams on a new phenomenon

In the National Portrait Gallery in London at the start of this month, at the awards ceremony for the Taylor Wessing prize, a woman was standing with a tiny baby. That in itself was not unusual – there were probably three or four babies dotted around, and she was cradling it in the normal way, as if to support its head and not wake it. But it somehow didn't look right; it looked, in my peripheral vision, as if it wasn't moving enough. Anyway, while I Englishly darted looks at it without approaching, my friend did approach, and it wasn't real. Phew. Not ill, just inanimate.

It belonged to the photographer Rebecca Martinez, who had used it, and many others like it, for her project preTenders. And while I went over to look at it, and laughed, I felt resentful at being tricked. It had stirred some panic in me, something similar to that impotent distress you experience when you hear about a child being killed by an act of violence. Later, when telling me about the four years she has spent photographing people with these dolls, their collectors, their creators, her friends, a whole variety of subjects, Martinez said, "If I go out and I hold this doll in any way other than you would a real baby, people get mad. I cannot just hold it casually, like by one arm or whatever, because people will go, 'It's not right, you can't do that.' They go crazy. Even though the rational self knows it's a doll." But I'm with the mad people, because you don't start off knowing it's a doll; you start off thinking it's a baby. You can be disabused of your mistake but you can't, immediately, be disabused of your anger.

Reborns occupy a place that I think is unique in culture: to the artists who make them, they are works of art, and the artistry is undeniable. To some collectors, they are dolls, and to other collectors, they are something else altogether, a memory of a child or a substitute for a child. But it's possible to fall into neither of those categories, to be neither appreciating them as art, nor finding them cute as dolls, but nevertheless to respond to them in some profound way.

This is a relatively new phenomenon, springing up over the past six to seven years and spawning in its wake an entire industry that goes way beyond the making and selling of the dolls themselves into web forums, conferences, global export; generating ancillary industries, such as the provision of bespoke babywear. The dolls arrive as kits: vinyl "sculpts" made by specific people – some of them, such as Donna Rubert and Denise Pratt, are now big names in the business. Individual artists will then build on the basic structure, using layers of oil paint and various methods for the hair (a doll with painted hair will take a week to make, whereas a doll with real hair will take a month, since each strand needs to be individually rooted). They are weighted so they feel exactly like holding a baby, except that they're not warm. You can get quite crude ones on eBay for £100 but at their most expensive they can stretch to thousands of pounds (one was sold recently in the UK for around £11,000).

Martinez is full of stories about the way people react to a Reborn doll – the people who get freaked out and won't touch them, the people who seem to feel neutral towards them and yet start rocking them as if they were real, the men who play pranks with them. But before we consider the reactions of bystanders, the experiences of people who make and buy them are fascinating.

Claire Hughes and Min Li, two UK-based Reborn creators, are very upbeat and straightforward that this is an act of craft, with a burgeoning and busy market. Hughes remarks on the power of the dolls, but the vignettes she describes seem to underscore the fact that it's illusory: "My mum works in a care home with old people. If I take one of the dolls in, they love it. They think it's real, it calms them right down. The manager can't even look at them." She likens it to eccentric male hobbies – playing with train sets, or sitting for three hours by a riverbank, waiting to catch a fish.

Min Li has three boys, real ones, and started making baby girl dolls for her own enjoyment; she has since built up a market in China. "Most western babies have very thin hair and Chinese babies have lots of hair. They like that [thick-haired] kind of baby. So that's why I started doing it. Most people favour boys in their actual families," a hangover from the one-child policy, she says, "but," she adds feelingly, "people love girls."

The American artists I speak to, Cher Simnitt, Diana Mosquera and Gia Heath, seem less abashed, less inclined to forge an ironic distance. They describe the people who buy their dolls as more emotionally involved. Some people want a doll because what they really want is more children, but for practical or physical reasons can't have them; some want a doll made of their toddler, as the real child grows up, and they miss that physical sensation of the newborn; a family might commission a doll of their newborn to give to a grandparent, then, when the grandparent dies, it will pass back to the family "as a beautiful heirloom", Simnitt says. One woman who couldn't have children came to Heath and said, "Here's a picture of me, here's a picture of my husband, do you think you could make a baby that would look like us?" There's a story I find inexplicably moving about a wife who commissioned a doll of her husband, as a baby, then gave it to her mother-in-law. (What's the female for "uxorious"? And is there even a word for loving your mother-in-law that much?)

Then there are "portrait" or "memorial" babies, in which someone who has lost a child gets a doll commissioned in its image. Simnitt was, at one point, a midwife and a doll creator, and remembers, "I helped a woman who was 16 weeks pregnant. She came in and we got no heartbeat and she went on to miscarry. And she wanted to know what the baby looked like, but she was afraid to see it. So I had a model and I said, 'This is exactly what your baby looked like.' She carried that model for three weeks. And she said to me, 'I needed to grieve and hold something physical, and just work through it, and now I can let it go.' That's kind of drastic, I realise, but whatever gets you through."

What is more striking than these commemorative dolls, which are very rare, is the similarities between the artists. Before they started Reborn-creating full-time, they were often engaged in an intensely nurturing business, whether that was midwifery or art teaching for home-schooled kids; they had all been intensely nurturing people from a very young age – Simnitt cared for her mother, who was disabled by childhood polio, then went on to foster 125 drug-addicted babies and toddlers. Heath has adopted children; Mosquera had a typical experience as the oldest child of a large family: "I always took care of my sisters. When we had pets, I used to help with the breeding of the pets – there was always something being birthed around me." More importantly, both Simnitt and Heath suffered a tremendous loss just before they started making the dolls – Simnitt lost her mother, to whom she had been so close that, "literally, for 12 years, I was her body. When we ate, we had one plate, I took a bite, she took a bite, we bathed together. When someone passes away after having had a relationship like that, it's like something has been amputated from you. I would look at my hands and go, 'I don't know what to do. I don't know what to do with myself.' "

Heath, meanwhile, lost her baby daughter who was two months old, and says in a straightforward manner, "If I were to have a real daughter, I would love to have a daughter with green eyes and dark red hair and alabaster skin and freckles. I have my ideas, but when you go and put that on a doll, that's too much." It's almost as if they achieved this uncanny attention to detail as a product of their grief; that concentrating on something is a salve, but the focus of your concentration has to be a tightrope act, between reality and fantasy.

Martinez has observed the reactions these dolls get in many different scenarios, with friends and strangers, in different countries and cultures. "People say they want to hold the baby, then they get surprised, because the baby is made to feel as real as possible. Often, they'll start rocking the baby and cooing at it. And they'll realise what they're doing and they'll get embarrassed. They know on one level it's not real, and sometimes they're ashamed that they feel like that, that they've been fooled. It's something very deep and biological in people, something instinctive we have, that they're automatically comforting their baby. Some people are just delighted; they'll kiss the baby and not want to give it back. One time I had a man and he grabbed it and his body just tensed up, and he threw it on the ground. And I was upset, I said, 'Hey, that's a very expensive item, how dare you do that?' And he was so into what he was doing, he was so stiff, he wouldn't move for several minutes. He was trembling."

Martinez has observed wryly the stark differences between men's reactions in America and in Mexico – where American men will try to play some prank, to get a shocking reaction, Mexican men are much more nurturing and will kiss it and tend it, openly. She tells an extraordinary story about a time when she was burgled, in San Francisco: the boot of her car had been forced open, but nothing was stolen – she and the police surmised that the criminals had taken one look at the Reborns she had in there, concluded that they were real dead babies, and taken off. What was interesting was what happened next. "One of the officers said, 'I want you to photograph me with the baby.' So I said, 'What's your idea?' And he said, 'I want you to photograph me pointing a gun to the baby's head.' Even though it scared me a little – I'm afraid of guns – I thought, what a great photo this would be. I went to get a baby and in the couple of minutes I was gone, he was obviously talked out of it by his partner. So instead I have a photograph of him nurturing the baby. A few months later I was in New York and I walked past two police officers posing with tourists. So I went up and started talking, and one of the officers said, 'I have an idea' and said exactly the same thing, 'I want to be pointing a gun at the baby's head.' It was fascinating to me that these two police officers, 3,000 miles apart, both had the same idea."

It's funny because it's the grand impact images, the ones that fuel revulsion, that shock me the least; I can imagine how someone could look at a perfect simulacrum of a newborn and say, "I know, I'll pretend to eat it, or blow smoke on it, or smash its head against a wall." The Reborn-as-art is provocative, and you feel as if you should meet the provocation, that otherwise you're not up to its subversive standards. What I find compellingly mysterious, but simultaneously totally understandable, is the way people love them.


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Maybe baby – in pictures

Rebecca Martinez photographs these lifelike dolls, their makers and their owners



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