THERE are many horrible things my children bring home from school: paintings that I would defy anyone to love, biscuits that I'd defy anyone to eat and an incessant round of colds that plague us every autumn. But the one thing that really strikes a chill through my heart is the School Photo.
Here she comes now, my middle child, clutching with pride a sealed plastic bag that contains one large, two medium and four small "godparent" size prints of a portrait banged off some weeks ago by some cynical opportunist with a flashgun.
I really cannot believe that Mr Tuscan-Villa sat down one day and decided that what the parents at his school really needed was an over-sized production-line snapshot of their darling child, replete with uncombed hair, missing teeth and that large red nasal spot which invariably saves itself up for school photo day.
Once upon a time, there was a point to such events. When I was young, my father might get through a roll of eight black-and-white exposures once in a year. Then it was quite handy if schools could supplement the family album with an annual portrait. But, today, the average parent shoots off a roll of 36 every time the children clamber on a climbing frame.
Why then should I write a cheque to Niftyscam Quality Photographers for yet another image of Ginny, particularly when this one has caught her in serendipitous mid-blink and suggests a disturbing resemblance to the late dictator Pol Pot.
Of course, in theory I do not have to. On the photocopied note Niftyscam offer me the chance to buy or return the contents of their sealed plastic envelope. But this is where the true Machiavellian evil of this ruse shows itself. After all, Ginny has brought us her likeness with as much pride as if she had just been given a gold star for inedible biscuit-making.
How do I now send it back? When my daughter is 21, pregnant for the fourth time and living on drugs in some squalid flat, will she not turn to me and cry: "Don't ask where it all went wrong, dad! You wouldn't buy my school photo. How could any kid be expected to cope with rejection on that kind of scale?" So once again I reach for the cheque book and hope that the godparents have room on the mantelpiece for another snapshot.