MY SISTERS were both away at university when my father died, so when this photo was taken I was starting to adjust to the fact that there was only myself and my mother at home.

My father had been chronically ill from when I was about three and nearly died every winter, or so it seemed. His illness was like a dark cloud over the household almost all the time, then eventually, when I was 12, his heart just gave out.

I suppose we were prepared for his dying, but what I was not prepared for was the effect it had on my mother, who was a very strong person - lively, ebullient, always able to cope without complaint while my father was alive. But in the year or two after he died - during the time this picture was taken - she became a very sad person, very lonely, and stopped coping so well. She aged about 10 years in six months, so it was a rather sad household for quite some time.

I suppose I'd had a relationship with my father, but it was never easy because, in the years I was growing up, his health was steadily deteriorating, and obviously children can be a bit of a nuisance when you are not well. I always had my nose in a book, anyway, though it's possible that one of the reasons was that he was so often ill . . .

When I came home from school, he had always been there; then, of course, there was no one. I was the first one back, so in one sense it was good for me because it made me more responsible. I would have to set the fire and so on, for my mother coming home.

We each had our routines. We had a division of household duties - I had three rooms to clean, I think - and I moved into a different bedroom and had more grown-up furniture. There was a greater responsibility shown, a greater degree of maturity assumed.

We went to the pictures together sometimes, and we discovered what the other's favourite meals were, what were treats . . . that kind of natural development of life where you gradually find your own tastes, and where you are living with one other person and have to work out a pattern between you.

I think at the time this photograph was taken I was just coming out from under the worst of things: but rather lonely, not quite knowing what I wanted to do with my life. I think anybody who has a parent die when they are young is unquestionably affected: I suppose it makes you more of a pessimist, but I happen to think it's a better thing to be a pessimist, anyway, because you are more prepared for life's traumas. I think it gives you a greater degree of independence, whether you like it or not.

My older sister came home for a year when I was about 16, then went off again, and I think, after that, as I was getting older, what had become a more stable relationship with my mother began to get a little more difficult. We didn't find it easy living under the same roof, and it was years before I realised - a terrible light dawned on me - that it was because we were so alike; we both wanted our own way.

In my twenties I began to feel more secure, and I do say that the great advantage of not having had a particularly happy childhood is that, against your expectations, things actually become better as you grow older.

One of the things I say to children when I go to schools is that you'll find that lots of people tell you that these are the best days of your life and, fortunately, it isn't true.

What a depressing thing to say to kids: there they all are, poor souls, and the rest of their lives is downhill . . .

Margaret Beckett is Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.

(Photograph omitted)

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