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August 12 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: My dad and Old Pat on their round

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playlist: Björk got me through a tax ordeal

Birthday by the Sugarcubes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We love to eat: Power-cut pancakes


120g self-raising flour

a pinch of salt

30g sugar

1 egg

1/4 pint milk

Butter for frying

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

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

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

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

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

For me, though, it's those evenings eating pancakes in the gloom that stay with me. My dad isn't here to pass on the experience to our two boys, but his pancakes are one way they'll get to know about the granddad who would have loved them to bits. Stuart Derrick © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 01 2011

Manchester international festival is go

The Guardian is at the Manchester international festival, kicked off by Björk last night. Did you see her? Are you going? Please send us your pictures, tweets and comments

Last night, the third Manchester international festival started in spectacular style with a performance by Björk. It was the live debut of her new project Biophilia, which as well as an album – out in September – also incorporates a series of apps and an education project. Special instruments had been made for the show, including a musical Tesla coil, a cross between a gamelan and a celeste and four giant pendulums with strings attached which were plucked as they swung. There was even a voiceover by David Attenborough. Dave Simpson reviews the show here.

Today sees two other exciting works get their live debuts. At 4pm, red-hot interactive theatre company Punchdrunk launch The Crash of the Elysium, a collaboration with the BBC's Doctor Who team, which my colleague Mark Brown will be sampling and writing about later – with child in tow, since adults aren't allowed in without one. Lyn Gardner wrote about the show a couple of weeks ago.

Then the Palace theatre will see the opening of Damon Albarn's second opera Doctor Dee, about the Elizabethan mystic and alleged alchemist. Albarn himself will be performing; it's directed by Rufus Norris. John Harris interviewed him about the piece last week, and we'll be reviewing it tonight.

Elsewhere, there's a special performance by violinist Alina Ibragimova with visuals by the Quay Brothers, while Sinead O'Connor plays at the festival's hub, the Pavillion theatre in Albert Square. Next week sees the premier of – among other things – Victoria Wood's new play with music, That Day We Sang, which she talks about in Film&Music today.

Of course, we want you to get involved in our coverage too. If you'd like to tweet your thoughts for us (they'll appear on our Mif home page), tweet @guardianculture using the tag #mif11. Our Mif Flickr group is live - please post your pictures here. Also, please leave a comment below if you've seen anything at Mif you liked (or hated), or if you're looking forward to anything.

In the meantime, plenty of people have been tweeting about last night. @jonnohopkins writes "Another reason Bjork was amazing. Strictly no photography! Bliss" and he's right, it was enhanced by the lack of people holding up their phones to record it. He also mentions that Johnny Depp was apparently there. Team Guardian didn't see him, but we did bump into Antony Hegarty at the gig, and Willem Dafoe at the Mif opening party later on. Both are currently working on The Life and Death of Marina Abromović, an opera starring and about the performance art legend, which opens here a week tomorrow.

More tweets: "Bjork is wearing what can only be described as a Carlos Valderama fright wig..." says @dawski, referring to the singer's giant ginger afro.

Meanwhile, Damon Albarn has dented @emmagoswell's northern pride. "Nice plug for #MIF but Albarn just refered to Manchester as a town. On national Tv. Twice! Southern fool." She'll be bringing Oasis into it next. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 17 2010

Chris Cunningham goes centre stage | Interview

Cult video-maker Chris Cunningham unveils his ambitious live show to Sean O'Hagan

Chris Cunningham is almost 40 but he looks uncannily like a teenager. He is tall and stick-thin, with the unhealthy pallor of a bedroom recluse. In the squat-like sitting room of his Georgian house in north London, the curtains remain closed against the midday glare. "There's something about the light that comes into this room," he says, hesitantly, "It's just too bright."

So we sit in semi-darkness and talk about, among other things the other-worldly brilliance of Bartók, Blade Runner, Debussy, Vangelis, Varèse, William Gibson, Pavement, early Depeche Mode, mid-period Pink Floyd and, of course, Kraftwerk.

Chris Cunningham is a very contemporary kind of pop artist, an almost invisible presence whose influence on the mainstream is virally pervasive. The frenetic, wildly inventive videos he made for Aphex Twin ("Windowlicker", "Come to Daddy") and Björk ("All Is Full of Love") redefined the form and have been plundered relentlessly by less gifted directors. For the latter, he made Björk into a robot.

His very disturbing short film, Rubber Johnny, made in 2005, again using an Aphex Twin soundtrack, features "a hyperactive, shape-shifting mutant child". It remains an all-time YouTube favourite, which perversely brings him close to despair.

"When YouTube first appeared, I just thought, 'What is the point now? Why spend three years on a short film for it to end up being shown out-of-sync on a shitty format?'"

Cunningham remains a relentlessly experimental film-maker with a slightly deranged imaginative streak shaped by the sci-fi films and electronic music he devoured in his youth. He has the air of a contented outsider, someone who is obsessive about what he does but unbothered about its commercial impact. Which is not to say he does not make big money. The uninitiated may know him best for the recent TV ad he made for Gucci Flora perfume in which a beautiful girl waves her arms to his ambient remix of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" sending shock waves though a field of white flowers. Now Cunningham is tired of videos and adverts. "Making commercials," he says, "is the dustbin of film-making. It sucks you dry."

This week, he will perform three ambitious live shows, in Brighton, Manchester and London, unveiling a new 75-minute audio-visual work. "It's a work in progress really. It's three giant screens, lasers and a soundtrack that will be like a big mixtape. It's the closest I can get to what I want to do: the visceral sound of a live show but with massive screens like a cinema."

Cunningham has only recently started making his own "visually driven" music. Thus far, it has tended to be radical reinterpretations of others' work. It has, he admits, been a difficult leap, not least because he is no longer tied to Warp, the Nottingham-based organisation which put out Aphex Twin's music and Shane Meadows's films. "It's expensive without a record label behind you, but I don't fit into the traditional model where you make a single and then a video to go with it. What I do is more experimental and the visuals usually come first. That's why the live performance is exciting. It's not film, it's not a gig, it's not an installation, but it has elements of all three."

Recently, he has also tried his hand at producing, working on the Horrors' latest album. He is working on a mysterious long-term project with the group's singer, Faris Badwin.

Cunningham's live shows will also feature a remix of "New York Is Killing Me", one of the songs he worked on for Gil Scott-Heron's album, I'm New Here. Its gestation gives you some insight into the singular workings of his brain. "I've been living next to the railway line for 12 years and I've become obsessed with the harmonics of the trains on the lines," he says. "For years, I've been going down to the tracks at night to record the trains. It's just about finding sounds, really, and then trying to replicate them on synths or else just trying to integrate them into a soundscape so you get that atmosphere. We've also been filming loads on the New York subway and the whole thing is finally starting to come together: the visuals, the new music, the words. It's taken months, though."

This, in itself, is a breakthrough. Cunningham once worked for four years on a short film that he then abandoned without showing anyone. He spent three years discussing a film version of William Gibson's cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, before deciding he could not make it his own. "You can become so obsessive that you become almost inactive," he says, "but you could spend years on a film and then not have the final say."

He started out working on the film of Judge Dredd, before being headhunted by Stanley Kubrick to design the animatronic robot that featured in AI, which the director never completed. He learned how to make short films "by watching commercials with the sound down for a year until I figured out how they were put together".

He becomes animated when talking about the films he loved as a child – Alien, Blade Runner, The Elephant Man – and says: "I was obsessed to the point where I could have told you who worked as the gaffer on those films."

He was even more obsessed with electronic music, which, he says, is all down to his dad playing him Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and Tomita's Snowflakes Are Dancing when he was seven. "Those records blew my mind. They were incredible soundscapes. I immediately connected with the tones and the textures and the fact that you were entering a parallel world when you listened to them."

On the wall, a grid of record sleeves maps out his voyage of discovery. They include Speak & Spell by Depeche Mode, Computer World by Kraftwerk, DAF's first album, a musique concrète compilation, and Led Zeppelin II: "'The Lemon Song' blows me away." These days, his tastes run more to Bartók, Ligeti, Varèse and Debussy.

Before he leaves to meet Grace Jones, he tells me about the remix he is doing for her. "She's up for anything, so I brought in a trombone player to make the most evil-sounding, deep, low bass sounds. I was trying to get those low horns that Varèse gets. Varèse is more evil-sounding than the darkest dubstep bass." I'm willing to bet that Chris Cunningham's horns are more evil-sounding still. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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