Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1988 film “Twins”.
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There’s no magic to raising twins – I just had to find my own brand of baby care

I get frustrated with people who want to dwell on the twin-ness of twins. And don’t get me started on the Sunday colour-supplement photo spreads of weird pairs in their weird matching outfits.

When my girls were small I used to be asked sometimes, “What’s it like having twins?” and assuming the person asking was sympathetic and interested, I’d launch into a description of the various juggling acts that constituted bathtime, a trip to the shops and getting safely upstairs. Often the questioner would then start to fidget, or interrupt with different questions, and I’d realise that what they really meant was, “What’s it like having twins? I BET IT’S SPOOKY AND WEIRD.”

My daughters themselves have had similar experiences when meeting new people. Announcing you’re a twin, or a parent of twins, winkles out those who have what they call a “fascination” with the subject. “Do yours have ESP?” they’ll ask. (“No,” I reply, “because on balance I don’t think anyone does, do you?”) “Can they sense when the other is ill or in pain?” (“Again, no,” I say, slightly less politely). And: “Did they have their own special secret language when they were little?”

This one is fairly persistent: people think they have the evidence to back it up. They’ve read something somewhere, or seen a TV documentary, and they’re disappointed when I tell them that it’s very rare, usually just a case of babies mimicking each other’s babbling attempts to speak.

Twins inevitably get less one-to-one time with an adult and this can contribute both to the close bond or empathy that gets mistaken for mind-reading, and also to early “twin-talk”, which is inflated into the idea of private language. I remember working hard when mine were young to maximise individual attention in order to avoid this kind of language learning delay. Much of what passes for the innate oddness of twins seems to me to be a result of either indulgence (dressing them alike, for instance) or a degree of neglect, which is hard to avoid when you have two or more to deal with.

Hence my frustration with those who want to dwell on the twin-ness of twins. Don’t get me started on the Sunday colour-supplement photo spreads of weird pairs in their weird matching outfits, which seem to me a last vestige of freak-show finger-pointing. The kindest parenting will treat each as an individual, and the most helpful friends will understand and do the same.

Any focus on the mystery of twins always seemed irrelevant; having them dragged me far away from the magical and into the realm of the practical, bringing out my inner Gina Ford. Her Contented Little Baby Book horrified some with its return to schedules and routines but was a godsend to me, offering a possible route to survival. If you’ve managed feeding on demand or attachment parenting with more than one baby please don’t write in and tell me. Personally I thought it would kill me, and so I got on with my own style of baby care – parental sanity seemed to me to depend on “knowing what I can stand/Without them sending a van” (to quote Philip Larkin entirely out of context).

I think all parents of multiples learn this lesson. My aunt Sheila had twins, and when my mother said to her sympathetically, “You must have so much ironing!” she replied, “Oh, I haven’t got an iron.” I once complained to my mother-in-law, who’d had triplets, that it was very hard to settle both babies at the same time for a midday nap, and asked her, “How ever did you manage with three?”

She looked at me slightly bewildered. “Well,” she said, “when it was nap time I put them all in their cots and locked the door until it wasn’t nap time any more.”

I rather envied that old-fashioned briskness. It’s been replaced now by a more masochistic approach, which demands constant and immediate attention from parents in a way that isn’t possible when you’re feeding one twin while rocking the other in a baby seat with your foot. And at moments like that you learn that the people you love most are those who know not to talk bollocks but to pick up a baby and stick the kettle on.

Tracey Thorn appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 18 April. Book tickets here.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.