In the third and final instalment of Made Of This, Sir Ranuph Fiennes, Alain de Botton, Janice Hadlow and Rodney Smith all share their defining memories ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2009

I was brought up in South Africa, and went to a school called the Little People’s School in Wynberg, near Cape Town. I lived in a place called Constantia, which must have been about five miles away.

I was usually dropped off in the morning and collected in the afternoon at about 4.30. But one day, when I was either four or five, nobody came to collect me. I can’t remember why my mother forgot—it was the only occasion on which it ever happened. I waited a whole hour. I thought, “Oh dear, they’ve forgotten me—but I think I know the way home.” I remember walking in my school cap, grey shorts and Just William socks and making it home, to the huge consternation of my family.

It was the first expedition that I can remember. It’s stayed with me because of the many times my mother subsequently mentioned it to friends. After her initial great outpouring of love, I think that she was quite proud thereafter.

My earliest memory is of a dream. I must have been very young, four or so; I imagined going down to the shores of Lake Zurich and leaning against the railings in a park near the city’s central square. Suddenly, the railings gave way and I fell into the freezing water towards some sort of horrific fate vaguely involving being swallowed by a whale. The details are sketchy, because at this point, I woke up in the most terrified state.

The horror I felt centred on the idea that railings, which I trusted to be solid and dependable, should give way without warning. The water and the whale stood for the terror always waiting in the wings; the railings were the safety-nets of the adult realm, which didn’t work as well as they should.

The memory captures my life-long anxiety about how things are going to turn out, and my difficulty in trusting that they will be ok. I permanently fear that the apparently secure railing is going to give way. I have become a writer in a semi-conscious attempt to increase the number of psychological railings around me. Books are my safety-nets.

Alain de Botton, pictured above, is a founding member of the School of Life

It must have been 1962 or 1963. I remember walking up the main road through the centre of the north Kent town where I grew up. It was the first time I’d ever been to the cinema. I think it was my mother who took me, although it might just have been my grandmother—either way, I recall the cinema building far better than whoever was with me. It was a great barn that even a small child could tell had seen better, busier days. I was bought one of those ice creams that came sandwiched between two wafers. The coarse plush of the seats scratched the back of my legs. There were cigarette ends in the ashtrays.

I don’t remember much about how the film began. I was a child of the early television age. Muzzy, black-and-white moving images had always been part of my life, and these huge figures were only a magnified version of what I was used to seeing at home: bigger, louder versions of us in a grey world of muted monochrome. And then suddenly everything changed. The screen erupted with colour: bright, saturated colour of a boldness and vibrancy that made me blink. What a shock! What a treat!

I wish I could say it was some work of high cinematic art that gave me my first experience of what colour film looked like, but the truth is that it was “Summer Holiday”. It was the moment when Cliff Richard swings onboard his double-decker bus and picks up his guitar to sing the title song—the moment when the film switches from black-and-white to colour. That’s when I thought: “The fun starts here.”

My strongest early memory is of going to church in Norwood, south London. It was a West Indian—primarily Jamaican—Pentecostal church, though I was pretty detached from it all at the time. These days I can sit around very happily and read the Bible or listen to a sermon and take some comfort in the Word, but back then I didn’t believe at all: I’m not sure I thought, when they got the spirit, that my mum and dad were having such a good time. I remember being quite concerned for them.

But what I really remember is being left to sit on some other churchgoer’s lap while my mum and dad went to sing in the choir. I have the clearest picture of me watching them sing—and then wondering: “Why can’t I sing too?” 

Slime and Reason by Roots Manuva is out now on Big Dada records

Picture Credit: IDS, the Guardian, Retna, Rex, Getty

(Nick Coleman is a former arts editor of the Independent.)