Category Archives: Sunday Times

The Sunday Times Magazine: Losing The National Trust?

In the oak-panelled Great Chamber at Sutton House, beside a rare example of an original carved Tudor fireplace, a party has exploded. A drag queen dressed as Margaret Thatcher wearing red stripper heels and giant fake pearls is grinding against a young man in a leather jacket to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax. As the crowd throws shapes under disco lights, Sir Ralph Sadleir, a prominent courtier of Henry VIII who built Sutton House in 1535, looks down from his gilt frame unamused.

In the gift shop of the oldest residence in Hackney, east London, beside the National Trust tea towels, jam and chintzy English biscuit tins, are posters for the Gay Liberation Front. Next to the lemon curd, two men in matching leather jackets chug prosecco and snog.

Somewhere in the Tudor drawing room where courtiers once dined, the author Alan Hollinghurst bops amid the throng. This party, themed on his Booker prize-winning book The Line of Beauty, explores the period of 1980s British history when Thatcher introduced Section 28, banning schools and local authorities from “intentionally promoting” homosexuality. It forms part of the National Trust’s Queer Stories in Britain series, marking half a century since the decriminalisation of male homosexuality. It also represents something else: the controversial new face of the National Trust.

You cannot be British and not have a soft spot for the National Trust. Spending a day being dragged around one of its properties should be part of the citizenship test — it’s as British as a Sunday roast. I hear its name and am transported to a childhood in Wales spent sitting in rainy car parks of castles.

It holds a place in the British psyche no other charity does. “For ever, for everyone” is its motto, and with it a commitment that began in 1895, later underpinned by an act of parliament, to preserve lands and buildings of beauty or historic interest for “the benefit of the nation”. With more than 300 properties and 247,000 hectares of land, it is one of the UK’s biggest landowners. Last year, it played host to an estimated 224m visitors. We love the National Trust — but we also love to be angry with it.

In recent years, rows have erupted like pimples on the trust’s beautifully preserved visage. Stirrings began in 2010 when visitors interested in English Renaissance architecture arrived at Hardwick Hall, in Derbyshire, to be greeted by staff wearing period fancy dress. Accusations of “Disneyfication” were revived in 2015, when the director-general, Dame Helen Ghosh, introduced a programme of “decluttering” houses and installing interactive exhibitions.

As I write, outrage has erupted over how cream teas are served at Lanhydrock House in Cornwall. The staff there have been accused of constructing their scones incorrectly — the Cornish way is to have the cream on top of the jam; vice versa belongs over the Tamar in Devon, apparently.

For traditionalists, such transgressions are the tip of the iceberg. Far fiercer battles are afoot, reflecting the culture wars raging in society at large. Last year, trust members including Sir Ranulph Fiennes campaigned for a vote to stop National Trust land being used for trail hunting — where an artificial scent is laid and no animal is supposed to be captured or killed. This has long been viewed by animal rights campaigners as a way of circumventing the hunting ban. “These hunts are still killing foxes, hares and stags,” Fiennes said. The traditionalists won out; the trust voted against a ban last October.

The charity’s attempts to modernise are regularly met with derision by those who accuse them of “pursuing an obsessively politically correct social agenda”. The focus on LGBT issues last year saw “outraged” volunteers at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk forced to wear rainbow lanyards or be relegated to backroom jobs. As part of a drive to introduce “queer stories” to properties, Felbrigg Hall’s last lord of the manor, Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer, was “outed”, angering his family. The former squire, who was described as “intensely private”, died in 1969, aged 63, just two years after homosexuality was decriminalised. At Kingston Lacy, in Dorset, an installation featuring 51 ropes suspended from the ceiling recalls men who were hanged because of their sexuality. It was labelled “totally inappropriate” by the Tory MP Andrew Bridgen.

This year, the trust’s Woman and Power initiative is proving similarly divisive. In an article for the National Trust Magazine, Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, described being groped on a bus, infuriating some commentators who questioned whether this was “what trust members really want to read”.

Ann Widdecombe has declared “the National Trust has lost its way completely”. Sir Roy Strong believes it is beginning “to alienate its own public”. Sir Max Hastings has cancelled his membership. Even Ghosh, who has departed for a post at Balliol College, Oxford, admits “some of our more traditional visitors have felt they are not being catered for as they once felt they were”.

“I couldn’t disagree more with those sentiments,” Tim Parker, the trust’s chairman, tells me, shaking his head.


Sunday Times: Home: Rapper Professor Green’s Home




A perfect path of monochrome tiles runs between two neat squares of box hedging to a pair of beautiful stained-glass doors. The red bricks are smart, the paintwork is swanky and there is a weather vane perched on the roof. Yet the man who opens the door of this house is no dandy: he has “Lucky” tattooed on his neck below a scar from a bottle attack, and is attempting to control a pack of dogs. “People probably wouldn’t expect this of a rapper’s house,” says Stephen Manderson, aka the rapper Professor Green, “they’d probably expect gold taps.” Yet his southeast London home reflects who he is: a gentleman from a different kind of estate.


The Sunday Times: Interview: Tom Hardy


I wanted to like Tom Hardy. Who wouldn’t? He is a proper British megastar, on the cusp of nailing Hollywood, with the box-office draw and versatility to be our DiCaprio, Cruise or Travolta. He is magnetic on screen, with a rare ability to combine masculinity with vulnerability. He is Derek Jacobi in Jason Statham’s body. As a result, he makes cartoonish characters such as Mad Max and the super-villain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises compelling and lends heinous men such as Charles Bronson and the Kray twins humanity. It is a credit to his ability to shape-shift that he is soon to star in an array of biopics, playing the war photographer Don McCullin, the explorer Ernest Shackleton and Elton John. It’s hard to think of another actor who could manage all three. So, I admire him as an artist. My boyfriend is in love with him. And everyone I know fancies him.

I did wonder if, in real life, Hardy might be … difficult. One interviewer suggested that “interviewing Tom Hardy is not an entirely comfortable experience … One cannot help being slightly wary about what he might say or do next.” Another journalist claimed in a Twitter rant — after missing out on an interview — that he had “seen Tom Hardy make publicists cry”. There was an incredibly awkward interview on Jonathan Ross, when Ross screened footage of a 20-year-old Hardy winning a Big Breakfast modelling competition, and Hardy seemed so irritated that afterwards Ross anxiously told the audience: “He is genuinely pissed off with me.” Hardy later said he was just winding Ross up.

Apparently George Miller, wanting to cast him for Mad Max: Fury Road, was so worried that Hardy would be combative on set that he asked other directors for reassurance. And then there was that fight he had while filming Lawless with his co-star Shia LaBeouf. Besides all of which, Hardy himself has admitted: “I have a reputation for being difficult. And I am. I am, actually.” Fair enough. Perhaps the qualities that make someone a great actor — an ability to dig deep into their guts and wrench out their soul on screen — are the same qualities that, in person, might make someone prickly.

When Hardy arrives, however, he is lovely. We meet in Richmond, at a posh boutique hotel on the banks of the Thames. He tells me they do a fantastic afternoon tea. Perhaps, at 39, he has relaxed. He lives nearby, as does his dad, Edward “Chips” Hardy, a writer, and his mum, Anne, an artist — they raised him just two miles away in East Sheen. I’m meeting both Tom and Chips today, because together they have created a drama, Taboo, the first episode of which aired on BBC1 last night.

Taboo took nine years from conception to completion. The Hardys are enamoured of it — as if it were a child they have brought into the world. And they should be proud: it’s wonderful. Set in 1813 London, Taboo tells the story of James Delaney, an adventurer and outsider who returns from Africa to build an empire after his father’s death. Chips wrote the treatment for it, the Peaky Blinders writer Steven Knight did the script, Sir Ridley Scott produced it and Tom stars in it. The sets are as rich as you’d expect from a BBC costume drama, but it’s not stuffy. Instead, it plays on explosive themes: death, the occult, incest and revolution. Scott has claimed that Hardy’s character, Delaney, “will become iconic”.

Chips arrives first. He looks like AC Grayling in Steve Jobs’s wardrobe: tall and wiry with long grey hair and silver glasses, wearing all black. He looks like what he is: a Cambridge-educated comedy writer, straight enough to have worked as an advertising executive, but hip enough to tell me he spent the 1960s smoking weed. He’s not the kind of dad I’d assumed Hardy would have, but I like him immediately. He folds himself into a chair, orders coffee and starts chatting about Zac Goldsmith, who has just become his former MP after losing the Richmond Park by-election — something Chips doesn’t seem particularly sad about.

By contrast Tom arrives late, in a red puffer jacket, looking like a lumbersexual. He’s bearded and scruffy in cargo pants and a black T-shirt, showing off tattooed guns. I can report that he is even better looking in real life than on screen. And has the same laddish, cocky-but-fun demeanour he had in those MySpace pictures that emerged of him posing in his underpants a decade ago. “I’m starving!” he announces, straddling a pouf. “I’ll get the turkey and chestnuts — let’s have a proper Christmas lunch … We’ve got to have the hats — we need hats!” Chips orders a vegetarian risotto.

Superficially, father and son seem to be opposites. One wiry professor; the other tattooed jock. The way they speak is different, too — Chips’s eloquent tones at odds with Tom’s confused accent: part posh west London, part Danny Dyer. They are aware of how they come across. “I paint with my fingers, like potatoes,” Tom says. “And I read Modiano,” Chips jokes.


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The Sunday Times: ’Tis the season to be legless

Katie Glass joins a group of volunteers in Liverpool who help young clubbers who’ve had many too many.

At 11pm on a freezing Saturday night, a small group gathers in Church Street, Liverpool. Around them, shop windows are decorated in gaudy green and red tinsel. Star-of-David Christmas lights twinkle overhead. Up the road, carried on the crisp nighttime air, comes the drunken wail of someone murdering Abba’s Dancing Queen. The city is already swinging, but for the city’s five street pastors the night is young.

Street Pastors began in 2003, as an experiment in Brixton. Based on a community outreach project in Jamaica, its aim was to tackle gang culture and gun violence. Since then, the group’s focus has changed. Now — apparently in response to an age of binge drinking, student benders, “2-4-1” drinks promotions, cheap shots and 48-hour weekends — the pastors concentrate on containing the fallout from drunkenness and antisocial behaviour, especially among young people, at night. In the past 13 years, their numbers have swelled: 20,000 volunteers nationwide — whose efforts have been praised by David Cameron and Boris Johnson — patrol the streets of busy cities and towns.

Street Pastors is a Christian group, but its volunteers don’t evangelise. They stand alongside other community groups supporting the police, such as the Cheltenham Guardians, who came to national attention recently when they wrote an open letter on Facebook, addressed “Dear friends of Emily”. In it, they berated the friends of a girl whom they had found abandoned after she had been sick in the back of a taxi. The guardians explained how they had waited for several hours in the cold and rain to put Emily into an ambulance. The letter was accompanied by a picture of an apparently unconscious girl slouched on the kerb at 4am, huddled under a silver space blanket.

In Liverpool, every Saturday until 4am, the Street Pastors’ little team patrols 1.2 squares miles — an area filled with 100,000 people partying. Overseeing the teams is Mark Latham, a marketing manager and sometime actor. Heading up this particular team is Tony Laverty, a jolly giant in his sixties. They are joined by Pauline, a retired nurse; Marie, a middle-aged mum; and Debbie, from nearby St Helens, who is shadowing the team with a view to starting her own.

Stuffed into their van are supplies: a first-aid kit, bottles of water, baby wipes for cleaning blood and vomit off people, space blankets to keep people warm; flasks filled with coffee and Bovril, and — incongruously given the icy weather — flip-flops. They also carry Spikeys, little neon stoppers to prevent open bottles from being spiked, which they give out to women.


Tony, with a grin as broad as his shoulders, walks around chatting cheerily to people. We pass down Stanley Street and Tony calls out, “You look lovely!” to a drag queen in fake fur. “We do patrol the gay district,” he says, “but, to be honest, it’s the safest part of town.”

It’s still early, and for now the pastors busy themselves clearing away smashed glass, which people might tread on or use in fights, and checking on rough sleepers. We head to Mathew Street, an area thick with clubs, where people spill onto the pavement. From out of Flares bar, the strains of Whigfield’s Saturday Night compete with Starship’s We Built This City from the neighbouring Sgt Peppers bar and bistro. On the pavement sits a girl, perhaps 20, huddled under a coat. Tony gives her a coffee. “It’s difficult,” he tells me afterwards. “You can’t help everyone. I stopped because that was a young women, if it was someone older and a man I might not have.”

The pastors are dressed in so many layers, they look like Michelin men. By contrast, the young clubbers are hardly dressed at all. The lads wear thin shirts, the girls look like members of Little Mix, in strappy tops, flimsy dresses, bum-skimming miniskirts, bare legs and towering heels. As the night unfolds, women everywhere are being crippled by their shoes. We see them crashing over cobbles in 5in stilettos, some getting piggybacks from boyfriends, others in bare feet padding over pavements wet with vomit and urine, littered with discarded fast food and shattered bottles.

A girl in her twenties, stumbling in heels, calls out: “Please can I have some flip-flops?” Marie reaches into her bag and pulls some out. “No, not yellow — pink!” the girl trills. Up the road, another drunk girl in bare feet is given flip-flops. She wobbles off the pavement as she pulls them on and Debbie has to haul her back as a car skids past. Later, I watch a whole hen party change into the pastors’ flip-flops and pad off gratefully. Last year, they gave out 3,500 pairs in Liverpool.


After 1am the atmosphere changes. Now people are more trashed than merry. I see girls trying to remember their phone numbers to give to boys, some huddled in pairs crying, others collapsed on cobbles or crashed out in doorways, shoes off, sharing chips. “This is when we start seeing a lot of vulnerable young women,” Tony says. Many groups of girls choose to start drinking at home while they’re getting ready together. By the time they leave the house to hit the clubs, they’re already well on their way. But the problems really start when they lose their friends. “It’s not unusual for women to go out in groups but end up alone,” Mark explains. “They’ve given everything to a friend — their money, card and phone — and then lost them on a night out.”

As we turn the corner into Concert Square, a girl in a white jacket wobbles over holding out a hand covered in napkins and blood. She’s drunk, she’s lost her friends and can’t remember how she got cut. Tony gets out the first-aid kit. Marie checks she has a way to get home. They often find lost students. “We’ve come across freshers in tears, men and women, because they’re new to the city, they’ve lost their friends and don’t know where they’re going,” Mark says. Pauline once found a girl alone on the street so cold she was hypothermic.

We carry on up Fleet Street and see a pair of tanned legs in high heels sticking out of a doorway. A girl in a thin dress, hiked over her thighs, has crashed to the ground. She has a mark on her leg from where she’s fallen. Tony and Debbie get down to chat. It turns out she’s celebrating her 19th birthday. “I’m so drunk,” she keeps saying, rubbing a hand over fake lashes. It seems she was ejected from a club after she threw up. Now she’s trying to call her friend, who is still inside but presumably can’t hear her phone. It’s not very responsible of a club to kick her out in this state, I suggest. Tony shrugs. “You get people who’ve collapsed and get dragged out by their feet.”


The Sunday Times: Swipeout: the return of real-life romance

Dating apps promised a quick and convenient way to find love, but for millennials, hooking up online is already over.

I met my boyfriend the old-fashioned way. We had a one-night stand; I woke up one day with him in my bed and two years later I still can’t get him out. In the age of Tinder, Happn, Bumble and Hinge, it seems strangely old-fashioned for a millennial not to meet through a dating app, but as 2016 ends, we seem to be getting sick of them. Tinder peaked at no 12 on the download chart on the iPhone in November 2014 two years after it launched; now it’s at no 71. My friends on the dating front line are saying the same thing: we’re tired of Tinder, we’ve reached peak swipe. Could 2017 be the year we finally start searching for love IRL again?

As my friend Sophie, 29, and still single after years of swiping, puts it: “I don’t regret meeting any of my dates from apps, but I certainly don’t feel like they’re the answer to all my love problems as I did a few years back.” Or as Abid, 31, another friend, put it more succinctly, as he headed off on a date with a woman he had met at work: “Dating apps? Over them.” Perhaps it’s telling that in America, more people now have Pokémon Go on their Android phone than Tinder.

I remember the buzz of possibilities when I first tried Tinder. It seemed like playing Hot or Not with real boys; if you wanted you could go on a date every night. It wasn’t so thrilling after I’d spent a few years actually doing that. I went on dates with psychos and cheapskates, like the guy whose idea of a date was buying a six-pack of beer for us to drink in Trafalgar Square and then cracking rape jokes. I went on a date with someone so geeky and deathly boring, he spent the whole night telling me about different typefaces. I went on dates with footballers I had nothing in common with and journalists who stole my stories. I got so into the idea I could meet anyone, I dated endless people I had nothing in common with: I went on a date with a cheerful goth and a miserable comedian, and someone who turned out to be married.

The original appeal of dating apps was the promise of a quick way to find love. Now, after a few years of using them, we know that’s a lie. I found just keeping up with the texts was like a part-time job. My gay best friend, Martin, 35, moans that he faces the same thing on Grindr: “Trawling through all the Grindees, endless chat, swapping dick pics and bod pics, chatting about who’s a top and bottom. It’s all just so exhausting.”

In the years we’ve been using dating apps we’ve wised up to other things about them. We’ve learnt that the way they’ve gamified dating, which seemed fun at first, now means endless matching with people who we’ll never even talk to let alone date. Recent stats showed that only 7% of men and 21% of women sent a message after matching. We’ve also learnt that you never really know how you feel about someone until you’re face to face. I have turned up for endless dates that, as soon as I arrived, I knew it wouldn’t work: with guys who were 19 pretending to be 25, or 5ft 6in and pretending to be 6ft, or who’d managed to be funny by text but in real life had no game. I once arrived at a date to find someone who looked so unlike their profile, and who I fancied so little, that I suggested we leave before we had even ordered drinks.

Martin hates the way things like accents don’t translate into text. “Not hearing your date’s voice until you meet is so irritating,” he says. “If you’re looking to spend the rest of your life with someone, you’ll at least need to like the tone, pitch and accent of future contenders.” Abid agrees: “The biggest thing that made me lose interest in dating apps is that anyone could turn up. The valuable filter you have in real life, when potential dates are effectively ‘screened’ by being in a similar friendship group to you and having a similar outlook or culture, doesn’t exist. You might get fewer dates in real life, but generally they are much better quality.”

There is also the problem of how lazily we treat those we meet online. I’m as guilty as anyone of matching with people I can’t then be bothered to speak to or ghosting someone as soon as I’m bored. When there are no repercussions, why not? As Sophie says: “You’re going on a date with someone who is a complete stranger. That means after a few weeks they can start acting erratically and then completely disappear, and you are none the wiser as you have no context, mutual friends or history for that person.”

Martin says more optimistically: “I think we’re all still in a learning curve with apps. We don’t yet know how to use them. We live in a world where everything is immediately disposable, which allows us to consciously discard stuff. At the moment apps seem to encourage us to also do that with people.”



The Sunday Times: Hey, Miss Superstar, they’re my frozen embryos too

A former fiancé fighting the actress Sofia Vergara to allow their two fertilised eggs to be given life has raised an intriguing question: just what are a man’s rights?

Imagine a woman desperate to become a mother. In her late thirties and in a committed relationship with her fiancé, she wants nothing more than to start a family with him. He already has a child, however, from a previous relationship, and is far more focused on his career. So they come to a compromise. Taking her eggs and his sperm, they will freeze those embryos until they are ready to become parents.

Imagine how that woman feels a year later when that relationship ends. Her partner moves on to a younger, more famous lover, whom he marries and tries for a family with. Now 41, she finds herself single and childless. She begs her former partner to allow their embryos to be born. He refuses.

A woman in such a predicament might attract our sympathy. So why do we feel differently when a man is in her place? For that is the situation in which Nick Loeb, the former fiancé of the Modern Family actress Sofia Vergara, finds himself. The scenario has triggered a drawn-out legal battle in America, raising profound ethical questions.

Vergara and Loeb’s saga started in 2013, when the couple created embryos through in vitro fertilisation at a Beverly Hills clinic. Loeb, 41, claims he was putting his dreams of having a family on ice while Vergara — 44 and the highest-paid actress on television — built her career. In May 2014 they separated. Vergara married the Magic Mike actor Joe Manganiello in November 2015. According to some reports, they are expecting a child.

Having failed to win custody of the embryos in California, Loeb last week tried a new tack: getting a right-to-live lawsuit filed in Louisiana against Vergara on behalf of the two fertilised frozen eggs. Named as plaintiffs “Emma” and “Isabella” in the lawsuit, court papers argue that, by virtue of not being born, the embryos are being denied a trust fund Loeb created for them. The case resulted in even stranger headlines, declaring that Vergara was being “sued by her own embryos”.

Shortly after launching his legal battle, Loeb wrote movingly in The New York Times of having “always dreamed of being a parent” following a difficult childhood. His parents had divorced when he was one. His financier father gained custody of him, but had little time for him. His mother, meanwhile, “disappeared from my life”. He was 20 when she died.

Later, Loeb claimed, a girlfriend had an abortion without consulting him, and “ever since, I have dreamed about a boy at the age he would be now”.

After undergoing IVF with Vergara, Loeb wrote: “I was so excited once the lives were created that I began to suggest names we could call our girls.” He also asks: “Does one person’s desire to avoid biological parenthood (free of any legal obligations) outweigh another’s religious beliefs in the sanctity of life and desire to be a parent?”

It is not by chance Loeb filed his latest case in pro-life Louisiana, where in law a fertilised egg is a “juridical person”. However, Vergara’s lawyer has described these “pre-embryos” as “not embryos, but rather frozen fertilised ova”.

In part it is this question of when life begins that is so unsettling about the case. Perhaps as intriguing, Loeb raises the question of what rights fathers have over unborn foetuses. Until now the abortion issue has largely centred on women. Men are unable to stop their unborn offspring being aborted.

Indeed, two attempts in the UK in 1987 and 2001 by men wanting to prevent former partners from having abortions failed. But if such cases seem understandable, because they involve women’s rights over their bodies, the debate over frozen embryos — cells in petri dishes — feels more complex.


Sunday Times: A recipe for child neglect

Morbidly obese children are being taken into care. But are their parents really to blame? Katie Glass meets the loving mums and dads desperate to help their children lose weight.

Marcus Dolton was born on the small side. He weighed 5lb 6oz. “He wasn’t always hungry as a baby,” his mother, Amanda, recalls, showing me a photograph of him as a blond-haired, blue-eyed, round-cheeked seven-month-old. When Marcus was three he was just “chubby”, Amanda says, showing me another picture, taken on his first day at nursery school dressed in a baggy new uniform. She finds one of Marcus at six. He has noticeably put on weight. Taken at his school sports day, he is wearing kit that’s a little too tight. By the time Marcus was eight, he was wearing 13-year-old’s clothes.

Marcus sits in the room next door on the computer. He is 12 years old and 13st. Three years ago Amanda went with Marcus to a paediatrician, who told her “because of his weight it was neglect”. Then social services became involved.

The World Health Organisation considers obesity one of the most serious public-health challenges of the 21st century. Obesity exposes individuals to a greater risk of heart disease, asthma, type-2 diabetes, cancer and strokes. It costs the NHS an estimated £4.2bn a year. In the UK, according to the latest figures, a third of 10- to 11-year-olds and more than a fifth of four- to five-year-olds are overweight or obese. By 2050, obesity is predicted to affect 25% of children.

So who, or what, is responsible for children’s weight issues? And what should be done?

In 2006, Sir Liam Donaldson, then chief medical officer, warned that social services may consider removing children with weight issues from their families. The first reported case came the following year: an eight-year-old girl from Cumbria was taken into care weighing 10st. There are no official figures on how many children have since been taken into care because of their weight. I sent freedom of information requests to 156 councils across the UK asking how many times, in the past three years, social services had taken a child into care or “intervened in some shape or form” because of the child’s weight. The majority of councils rejected the request, claiming it would take too long to establish. But eight councils identified up to 31 cases where they had intervened. In Redcar, one child placed on a care order to receive compulsory services at home was 19½ stone.

Amanda, a slim woman, sits in her kitchen in Selby cutting out and taping cardboard buses for her second son, Trey, who is 11. Four other children play somewhere in the house, including Marcus, who does not want to be involved in our chat. It is a tricky subject. Amanda whispers as she tells me how hurtful it was when social services described her son’s weight as neglect: “It makes you feel like it’s your own fault that your child is overweight, that it’s your failure as a parent.”

She points out that “neglect” is the word she heard used recently to describe an appalling case where a child was battered and killed. “In my eyes, neglect is when you’re not feeding the child, when you’re not listening to the child, when you’re not buying them clothes.” Is it neglect when a child is overfed?

On the shelf, under the window in Amanda’s kitchen window, is a row of cookery books. It includes Mary Berry’s Kitchen Favourites and another called Take One Veg. “We tried to be vegan,” Amanda explains.“With Marcus, we’ve tried everything. We’ve tried couscous …”

“Urgh,” interjects Trey, playing at our feet.

“… We’ve tried gluten-free bread, dairy-free ice cream — I wondered if cutting down his gluten and dairy intake would help.” Marcus drinks Diet Coke and bottled water. In the cupboard are “natural” sweets, a Weight Watchers tuna meal, sugar-free jam. “If you want things like that you’ve got to spend money,” Amanda says. “I am trying.”

She shows me pictures of a packed lunch she made him. In it is a salad shaped like a clown: a piece of cheese as the body, grated carrots for hair and a tomato for a head. Amanda looks up health advice on the internet, but the information is conflicting.

“Some people say you should have a low-fat diet, some people say you should eat high-fat.” To make things even more difficult, Trey is autistic and doesn’t like trying new food. Whatever she has tried, Marcus has carried on putting on weight.

Amanda discovered Marcus was sneaking to the kitchen between meals. He would fill a cup with cereal and creep to his room. “The worst is when you decide to go to the toilet — everything gets quiet and that’s when they’re in the kitchen,” Amanda sighs. She has started locking the fridge.

At school, it is impossible to know what Marcus is eating. “He can tell me he’s having a sandwich, but I don’t really know.” She’s stopped his pocket money, so he can’t buy sweets on the way home from school, but she can’t stop other children giving him theirs. Nor can she stop him being confronted with pizza, cake and sweets when he goes to birthday parties.

Amanda doesn’t want Marcus to feel like he’s being singled out. “He sees it as being punished because he’s overweight.” She admits she sometimes gives in and buys him sweets. For his birthday, they went to McDonald’s. She knows Marcus could do more exercise, but he is self-conscious in PE. She has tried getting him boxing lessons, an Xbox Kinect (a gaming console that encourages physical movement) and buying a cross trainer. “The other children were going on it,” she says.

Amanda thinks that Marcus comfort eats whenever Trey has a “meltdown” caused by his autism, during which Trey screams and hits himself. “He doesn’t like the noise and I’m not there for him because I’ve got to be there for Trey.” Although she has tried to explain the health implications of obesity to Marcus, Amanda doesn’t feel that a 12-year-old can fully understand them.

In Brighton, Jeanette Cowan tells a similar story about her daughter, Samantha Packham. “When she was 14, I told Sam that her weight could kill her. She looked right at me and said, ‘Mum, don’t exaggerate.’ ”

When Sam was born, she weighed only 5lb 4oz. “A very small baby,” Jeanette says fondly. But she had feeding issues. Unable to keep her bottles down, she lost so much weight that she was admitted to hospital. Doctors diagnosed a problem with her stomach lining and switched her to soya milk. At first, it was a blessing: Sam was putting on weight. “Until she got to about two,” says Jeanette. That was when Sam’s eating changed. “She was quite big. People would mistake her for a six-year-old.”

Jeanette and Malcolm, Sam’s dad, discussed her weight with doctors, who reassured them “it was puppy fat” and that “as Sam got more active, she’d lose it”. She did not lose it. By the time Sam was eight, Jeanette realised her weight was becoming an issue. “She was happy … but she wanted food all the time.”

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