Our first memory is a key that unlocks the adult persona. Nick Coleman asks 12 men and women: where did it all begin? In the first of three instalments, Michael Morpugo, Susan Greenfield, Martha Lane Fox and Sir Stirling Moss offer their earliest recollections ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE MAGAZINE, Spring 2009
PROFESSOR SUSAN GREENFIELD Scientist, 58
I must have been around seven or eight. My mother, a dancer, was—and is—very bright. And I very clearly remember her saying: “What you see as red is not necessarily what I see as red.” I of course said: “But red is the colour of a cherry and tomatoes.” And she said, “Yes, but you don’t know what I’m experiencing when I look at a cherry or tomatoes.” It immediately fascinated me, that things weren’t obvious. It was really exciting.
My next thought was: “Ah yes, things are relative and what you see depends on the person you are.” And that made me think about things in a quantitative way, so that when we say things are big or little, it was relative to other things. So a mouse was small next to an elephant but large relative to a flea. And I remember beginning to think about how things depended on other things.
Obvious stuff, I know, but I was only eight.
MICHAEL MORPURGO Author, 65
This series of memories begins around 1947 to 1949, when I was between four and six. There was a certain photograph on the mantelpiece at home, a picture of my uncle, a man called Peter Cannaerts whom I never knew. He had been shot down as a member of the RAF Bomber Command in 1941, and killed.
Everyone who came to our house had known him; my mother in particular was very, very fond of Peter and would be openly upset whenever she talked about him. He had died very heroically trying to save his friends in an aeroplane on the way back from a bombing raid: he made sure they all got out, then was killed trying to bring the plane back. Here he was in this wonderful RAF uniform with a hat sitting on the side of his head, a handsome man, an actor who’d been at rada, dead at the age of 21. Well, I began to realise that this photograph was the image of something that I aspired to be: to be handsome, to be in uniform, to do something heroic.
When I was told who he was and how he had died, that photograph became the first big story about someone else in my life. The first ghost story, as well. And the first story of war. But I also got my first insight into the pain that war causes.
MARTHA LANE FOX Businesswoman, 36
I have vivid memories of our slightly fraught and crazy family holidays, when we would travel to Italy. My dad would drive us and my mum would fly, because she couldn’t stand to be in the car with the rest of us. We’d go on a circuitous route to look at important sites on the way, including, very often, Munich’s botanical garden, where my dad had worked when he was 19. He would recall every flowerbed—either flowerbeds that something illicit had happened in, or that had been the home of some important plant. I remember thinking, “This is like death.”
But all that circuitousness set a pattern for my life, I hope, involving curiosity and love of travel and deep admiration of my father. He was so encouraging: nothing is too ridiculous to go and look at, no journey is too bonkers to undertake. It may have felt like death but I don’t recall any anger or resentment—in the end it was always funny. He always made things fun. When we’d eventually get to the art galleries in Italy, for instance, small crowds would gather to listen to him talk because people would assume he was the official gallery guide.
I’ve never told him about this memory, but it’s his birthday soon, so I might bring it up.
Martha Lane Fox supports the Make Your Mark campaign, which aims to unlock Britain’s enterprise potential
SIR STIRLING MOSS Racing driver, 79
My very first memory is of being pushed along a road in a pram, moving between trees, in and out. This is not a memory of speed, but is at least one of good car control.
I was brought up with cars. I learned to drive on a farm at the age of six. I have a good memory of a field with a built-up bank—rather like the bank Lord March has at Goodwood—that protected the fields from something called The Cut. There was petrol rationing at the time and you could get extra fuel if you were putting it to good use, so I would drive an Austin Seven on the farm with a chain-harrow attached to the back. I’d go round the field as fast as I could down towards The Cut and up onto the banking, up and round and left onto the top. Thrilling. Very satisfying.
And no, I didn’t do it with the chain-harrow attached.
Picture Credit: IDS, the Guardian, Retna, Rex, Getty
(Nick Coleman is a former arts editor of the Independent.)