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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.