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Rebecca Phillipson

In conversation with James Powell

Rebecca considers herself first and foremost an artist. Her focus for the last three years has been on professional photography, She has just bought a franchise in a company that makes portrait photos in children’s nurseries, as a way to combine her profession with her love of children. Aside from portraiture she also specialises in nature photography.

Rebecca Phillipson photo

I love to see the shoots coming up on the little crocuses and the daffodils. When I was a child we had the most beautiful garden; I remember when I was about five seeing the first crocus come out in spring and just thinking it was the most exciting thing I had ever seen. My mum also said that at about that age I could name twenty wild flowers, which is quite exceptional for a five-year-old! So I am interested in nature, flowers, vegetables; I have an allotment where I keep chickens and grow vegetables so that I can pretend that I am in the countryside.

But I have always been an all-rounder; I try to be as interested in as many things as possible. Art was my favourite thing at school but gradually I was steered away from it because I was clever in other ways, and art wasn’t seen as a ‘proper’ subject. I enjoyed languages too; I was good at French, German and Latin and loved English. Currently I am learning Italian. These days I mainly express my creativity by taking photographs – I would like to think that I use my camera in the same way that a painter uses a brush. Photography is a wonderful medium for being creative and expressive. I also find it a very rewarding subject to teach because students come to my classes not knowing the front end of the camera from the back, but by the end of a year they are taking excellent photographs and we usually have an exhibition.

My first priority at the moment, however, is being a mum. If my daughter Susannah needed me I’d drop everything for her. She’s had a hard time with her schooling and it has been very unsettling for her. Because of the timing of our move to the city four years ago she had to go to a first school for one term, and then we had to appeal to get her in to the excellent local middle school, even though we were in the catchment area.

Then they closed down all the middle schools. Until the end of last year Oxford city had a three-tier system, part of which was the middle schools that had been created in the 1970s. The one that Susannah was at was fantastic at music, and that is her forte. We used to have these wonderful concerts fusing every possible kind of music because the school was very multi-cultural. The way I heard it the reason why they shut down all the middle schools was political; a man came breezing in to the Local Education Authority, which is so concerned about results the whole time, and said that the middle schools would have to go because the city schools were getting lower results in the SATS tests than Oxfordshire County schools were. It is hardly surprising given the completely different catchments that the two areas have; Oxford city is home to many immigrants and asylum seekers and others who struggle to get the results because of the language barriers etc. whereas the County consists largely of villages and smaller towns where children are generally from better-off backgrounds and enjoy more support from their parents. So they just made this sweeping decision that the ‘poor’ results were the fault of the middle schools and as a result simply shut them all down. Besides anything else it was a terrible waste of resources because teachers had to be redeployed; buildings were abandoned or knocked down; schools were moved. But we felt powerless to do anything to stop it.

Susannah was with about 400 children at the middle school but when they relocated her to a LEA secondary school she was in with 1500 others! The newly-expanded secondary school had lots of teething problems, perhaps in part because some teachers had no experience of years seven or eight so suddenly they had to cope with these much younger children, the likes of whom they had little experience of teaching. I think the teachers were taken by surprise because they never imagined that eleven year olds could be so naughty – there were a lot of disturbed children coming into that school. So teachers couldn’t teach as well as they would have wanted to and those who wanted to learn couldn’t always do so because of the level of disruptive behaviour. What’s more the size of this secondary school grew from 900 to 1500 pupils in one fell swoop as a result of the closure of the middle schools. The first couple of days that my daughter was there she used to come home and say that she literally couldn’t find anyone she knew at break times, simply because there were so many people filing past!

We managed to get through the first year. But then at the start of Susannah’s second year at the LEA school the one good friend she had there was moved by her parents to another school because she was so miserable. Her parents decided to send their daughter on two bus journeys a day to get to another state school in West Oxford. But I prefer Susannah to be able to walk to school, so I made arrangements to see the headmistress at Headington Girls’ School, to see whether there was a chance that a child who had been state-educated for nine years might be accepted there. Once I knew that there was a possibility I offered Susannah the choice of whether to go there or not. Surprisingly, she said that she would try it, even though she had previously dismissed such places as snobby. I still feel guilty for deserting the State system because, as an ex-state school teacher, I had said that I would never fall into that trap (and criticised those who had). But at the end of the day, my daughter only has one life and one education so why should she spend it at a school where she had no friends and wasn’t learning? Now I am pleased to say she’s learning really well; even as we speak she is sitting at home willingly translating Latin!

I went to a very good grammar school and university that between them gave me a fantastic education, even though I haven’t made a fortune, as I’m not very motivated by money. Nevertheless, I am so glad for the education I was given, even though to start with it was not entirely with my consent. I had gone to my local primary school and when that came to an end I naturally assumed that I would go to the local grammar school in Alcester, near Stratford-upon-Avon. Then in the summer before I thought I was due to start there my parents just said one day, “Oh, by the way you are going to Evesham Grammar school” (a school ten miles away). My dad had these fixed ideas about what constituted a “good education”, for example learning Latin. I think that if they hadn’t been given a choice about where they could send me then we would all have been much happier.


So how does one learn what it takes to be a good parent?

Society never does teach you what it takes...I am one of four and I can see a lot of mistakes my parents made although I don’t hold it against them. I know now that they were just trying their best by doing what they thought was the right thing. My dad is a very needy person because his mother died when he was very young. So he was sent off to boarding school by his father, a cold and distant man, so he never had a mother’s love. When he met his wife, my mum, he wanted her to be his mother as well as his wife and so was jealous of his children. As the oldest one it was a difficult thing for me to deal with; I felt I wasn’t ever as good as my mother. As a result of these things, and my father losing his job, which I took very badly, my life went drastically wrong when I was about sixteen; I basically stopped eating to the extent that I ended up in hospital for quite a long time. I can think of lots reasons why I did that and have analysed it extensively, but at the end of the day I think the bottom line was that I wanted somebody to look after me when I felt nobody was.

I’ve read books about anorexia and whilst the circumstances were partly about myself it was also I think a consequence of my father’s childhood trauma. I really believe that if a mother dies when her children are young then the repercussions of that tragedy are often felt in the next couple of generations. People also assume that anorexia is about a fear of being fat; that was certainly not the case with me because I was constantly ridiculed for being too thin when I was at school. I can’t believe my parents didn’t notice how thin we were!

Having anorexia was the closest I ever came to death; at one point I weighed 4 stone 12 pounds. When I was admitted to hospital I had complete blackouts and suddenly began to realise my own mortality. Until then I just punished my body consistently and assumed that it could take it. They had a brutal regime at the hospital; you weren’t ever allowed off the bed until you put on the required amount of weight. They only let you out of the room if you had religious convictions; I had none at the time but said that I did so that they would let me out to the Sunday chapel service. So they put me into a wheelchair and wheeled me into the hospital chapel. There I saw all these people with broken legs, cancer, things like that and the priest was talking about how our body was the temple of the Holy Spirit and if we destroyed that temple God would destroy us. It made me think, “What am I doing to my body by having virtually starved myself my death?” There I was surrounded by all these people with deformities of one kind or another and my body was fine except for my deliberate debilitation of it. So I decided from that point on that I needed to be more responsible and to do my best to try to repair the damage done; so I started trying to live instead of trying to die.

I am certainly a believer, but I don’t know whether I would describe myself as religious. I try to be a Christian – I do believe that Jesus was the Son of God and I believe a lot of the other Christian beliefs. However, I believe above all in ecumenism where the different religions try to find what unites them, rather than what divides them. Also, I think it is extremely important to live up to your religious values. When I was at the University of York this ex-Methodist minister, Cyril, came to talk to us one day as he was appealing to people to come and help with the homeless shelter he had set up. He was fond of saying, “I used to preach the gospel but now I am living it!” So he got us students to go out and work with the homeless people in the city, providing them with clothes and talking to them, giving out soup, things like that. So I did that once a week for a couple of years with friends.

I have been most affected by the Focolare Movement started in Italy by Chiara Lubich. She is the most incredible woman, now in her eighties; very well respected, friendly with the Pope and known to the Archbishop of Canterbury. She’s also won prizes for religion and religious unity. In recent years she has been in dialogue with other world religions, meeting the great leaders of Hinduism and Islam. I really think that is the way forward. Chiara always says, “You should look for what unites, not what divides.” So religion should be a way of making sense of the world, trying to find out why you are here – it should not be a club in which to feel smug.

Chiara also said that God is like the sun and we are all on our own ray and we should try to follow that back to the sun. You shouldn’t be distracted by other people’s rays, but should try to find your own truth and try to do what feels right for yourself and the people that you influence or could help.  Every month Chiara takes a line from the gospel and writes a commentary about how you can live it in your daily life. And there are lots of conferences and meetings that you can go to all over the world. I find the people who are involved with this movement are very sincere; they would give you the clothes off their backs if need be. I like it too because it is something that everyone can aspire to, the only qualification you need is to be willing to try it out. That is why we have our Word of Life. Also, everyone in the group tries to put the feelings of others before their own. Is that not what God would want on earth? I think in any moment you have a choice to make and what should inform your decision is what feels like the loving and right thing to do. I still suffer from depression and I only really feel better when I am doing something good for someone else.


If you become self-aware enough then perhaps you can become where the buck stops, so that you don’t pass on the hurt to your children. I really hope I can achieve that. I have tried to reach that turning-point in the family that I have created; I married a man who to me is a rock of security and we only had the one child so that she would not grow up with the feelings of jealousy siblings have. I was always terribly jealous of my sister when growing up, constantly feeling that she was superior to me. So Susannah should grow up instead as a very secure child, because she has always known that she was the one we loved the most.

When I was pregnant I was really scared that I would end up with a pessimist child; I remember once going into this gift shop in France and they had information about star signs. I had already worked out that my child was going to be a Sagittarius and all these books said that Sagittarians are optimists. I am thankful that Susannah is completely different to me. She is such an optimist! She’s an easy-going, happy, secure child who can laugh at the world.

As she has got older I have hankered a bit for a younger child. I have considered adoption and it is something that I still contemplate. When the tsunami happened I said, “Oh, I would have one of those children like a shot” – if it wasn’t so difficult. I have even been to a meeting about adoption, but I was put off as it made me aware that most of the children involved have had a real terrible start in life and so they are potentially very disruptive; they could be like a cancer in your family that wreck what you already have. So in the meantime I teach other people’s children to read, I am working with a six-year-old girl at the moment, and it is such a joy to know that she will be able to read in a few months’ time. Despite my enjoyment of that I am still uncomfortable with the way those with problems like dyslexia are made to feel inferior simply because so much of our society has become focused around the ability to read.


Through Actionaid I have sponsored children in Africa for many years. When my third child no longer needed my help they wrote to me and asked if I would consider switching my sponsorship to this whole village in Uganda. So I do that now instead. I am very attracted to African culture, but have never actually been anywhere other than South Africa, where we went on this fantastic five-day trip along the Garden Route in March last year (but unfortunately without our daughter). One of the game wardens we spoke to whilst we were there said that he had worked previously in a National Park in Botswana, so maybe we will go there next with Susannah, as it seems a fairly safe and stable country. I’d love her to see big animals in the wild, as she is a great animal lover and also very interested in conservation and the environment.

As great as the South African visit was, ultimately it was quite limited in that it involved only white people on a luxury trip. I taught in a school between Streatham and Mitcham for about six years, and it had this wonderfully balanced mix of Asian, Black and White pupils, which allowed for a much wider understanding of other cultures. My class was also interesting because the children were so aware of not only difference but also what they had in common. We had many Caribbean parents there and I was struck by both how warm and friendly they are and how positive they seem to be in their outlook on life, which has led to me having a great interest in the history and culture of the West Indian people.

Rebecca Phillipson photo

I went to Tobago a few years ago; it’s this amazing small island where everyone virtually knows everyone. It has many hills, and because the cars are these old bangers from the 1960s or 70s you have to drive really slowly in first gear. So people just jump in if they need a lift; if there is space it is fair game for anybody to climb in, even schoolchildren! It was striking as well to see young girls walking around on their own at night time, apparently because there is zero crime. We found it hard to believe that there was no crime at all so we asked some people about it...they said the problems were all in Trinidad. I remember reading that a tourist in Tobago had been locked up in jail for the night having been caught smoking cannabis!

On Sunday the whole island goes to Church. So you can walk around and hear this wonderful music wafting through the air wherever you go; people also dress up in the most fantastic clothes for the occasion. Although we had a great holiday there, it is not somewhere we would consider moving to. Oxford is much more suitable as a compromise between the city and rural lifestyles that my husband and I have respectively been used to.


My daughter’s current ambition is to be a composer, and I would be delighted for her if she achieved that. I don’t care whether she is famous or rich; I would just like her to be a happy and balanced person. More than anything else I would like her to have a lot of choices. Although at the moment she doesn’t like languages I think it is something that she will be naturally talented at because she learnt to speak at an early age and can recognise the underlying patterns.

For myself, I would like to find a therapist who can help me figure out these lingering fears that I have. I never feel as if I am normal and worry that people see me as strange. It is simply a childhood insecurity that I cannot shake, but would like to be able to. My coping strategies at the moment are to keep myself busy, to be focused outside myself, as I don’t like being introspective. However, it would be nice to be centred and to feel very secure about myself. I grew up feeling that I was a bad person and that my sister was the angel.

I have very little contact with her now. She turned into a very strange person – although she had a baby two years ago, so maybe we would have a lot more in common now that she is a mother. She married a man twenty years older than herself and lives a community life in a Rudolf Steiner commune in County Down, Northern Ireland. We went to her wedding there and it was very touching because the special needs people she teaches put on this evening spectacle for them in celebration. I don’t bear her any grudges any more, but I do find it very difficult to be in the same space as her, especially at family get-togethers, etc.

I feel warmer towards my father now as well because he has had heart problems over the last year; I have been reprinting some photos he had of buses in the 1940s which he gets very excited about. My mum has turned out to be the world’s best granny; Susannah really loves her and spends a week with her each year. We offered her the chance to come on holiday with us and she thought about and said, “Well Sardinia will be there for ever but granny won’t, so I am going to stay with her!”


My depression is very tied to the weather and aesthetics; although it is corny to say it, my heart is genuinely lifted by seeing flowers in bloom. If I could get away from the British winter every year, then I think that I would perhaps get away from my depression! But maybe working as a photographer for a nature magazine would be enough...My strategy has always been to have my fingers in a lot of pies, because if one of them doesn’t work out another one will.

I look forward to Oxfordshire Artweeks, which takes place in May every year. That is my favourite month and I can’t wait for it to come around! Anybody who is a practitioner in the visual arts can set up an open exhibition, either in their home or in their workplace. I have taken part for the last two years and it has been great; we built a summer house at the end of the garden (well a glorified shed!) for my exhibitions, which seem to attract interesting people who give me lots of positive feedback about my photos. I am happy with that for the time being...

Rebecca Phillipson photo

February 2005