Where did it all begin? In the second instalment of Made of This, Blake Morrison, Bill Bailey, Mike Skinner and Penny Downie recall their first memories ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2009
BLAKE MORRISON Author and poet, 58
I’m not sure how old I was but I have a very vivid memory of being smacked. It took place in the back garden. I don’t think I was hit bruisingly, but the shock of it lingers. I’d had a pee outdoors and my dad smacked me. It was part of toilet training, probably.
It lodged in my memory. And no doubt it’s all part of my relationship with my now-dead father. There was something about him that I found intimidating as an authority figure, even though he was on the whole genial and not violent. But there was something shocking about that event. It implanted a certain fear in me, perhaps. I’m not saying I’m a deeply fearful person. Physically I’m not very brave, but morally and intellectually I can be brave when required.
Maybe there’s something more there to do with an early awareness of transgression. Suddenly there was something exciting about transgression. Also, indignation maybe. Peeing in the garden no doubt felt like a perfectly natural thing to do. My father wasn’t a puritanical person about the body, being a doctor—he liked to walk around in the minimum amount of attire. But he did have a thing about discipline and getting certain ideas into a child early on, for the child’s own good. All I know is that it stuck.
Blake Morrison is pictured, above, on the beach with his father, later the subject of the book "And When Did You Last See Your Father?"
BILL BAILEY Actor and comedian, 45
We went to a lot of funerals when I was a child. They all seemed kind of…not anodyne—that would be disrespectful to the funeree—but, well, kind of uneventful. They were all cremations. We never went to buryings. And we always went to the same place, a rather unprepossessing building with an ancient woman in bottle glasses playing the organ and the vicar calling the deceased, whom he’d never met, by their first name. And then the curtain drawing round… It all seemed rather mechanical.
After this particular ceremony, we went back to the house, as usual, for sandwiches and milky tea. I’d recently seen Les Dawson on television, doing that famous routine where he plays a song on the piano and then gets it all wrong. I have a vivid memory of sitting at the piano, tinkling away as I often did—and then, Dawson-like, I deliberately played a wrong note. And I can still see this person by the piano, drinking tea out of a china cup and nodding very concernedly at what someone else was saying, and then spitting out a big mouthful of milky tea in an involuntary spray. Everyone laughed. I made everybody laugh. Everyone except my mother, who swore. I’d never heard her swear before—or, indeed, since—and I have to say, it made a lasting impression.
"Tinselworm", a DVD of Bill Bailey’s latest live show, is out now
MIKE SKINNER, AKA THE STREETS Musician, 30
I have a picture in my mind of when I was really small. My mum puts my coat on me before we go out. After she puts the coat on me, I always take the coat off—and then put it back on again myself. I think that sums me up. I have to feel like I’m the actor in my own story. I doggedly cut myself off to do things myself, my own way. It’s illogical and long-winded sometimes, but it’s just how my brain is.
"Everything is Borrowed" by The Streets is out now
PENNY DOWNIE Actor, 54
Brisbane in the late 1950s. I was quite small and very poorly—I spent the best part of 18 months on my back. On good days my mother would get me out of bed and put me on the sofa in the lounge, where a Degas print of ballerinas in beautiful tulle dresses—chosen because my mother lived in a fantasy world that revolved around ballet—hung over the fireplace.
To the left of the image, I could see a girl bending down, half-hidden by a curtain. She seemed somehow to me to have the face of the devil. I was terrified. For years I’d ration how much I looked at the Degas, because I thought the devil was in amongst these beautiful dancers. And then one day, years later, I looked at it and saw what the devil in the picture really was—it was the bun on the back of the ballerina’s head. And ever since I’ve always felt that however beautiful something is, there is always darkness in there somewhere. The devil is in every picture.
Picture Credit: IDS, the Guardian, Retna, Rex, Getty
(Nick Coleman is a former arts editor of the Independent.)