Awakenings: Memories that last forever

A beautiful bird lying dead, its feathers stained with blood. A policeman on a motorbike arriving at the front door. A bar of pink soap that looks nice enough to eat... It's moments such as these that lodge in the infant mind - always vivid, often disturbing, and informing our thoughts and feelings for the rest of our lives. As the BBC launches a project to gather together the nation's childhood recollections, we ask: what's your earliest memory?
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The Independent Online

Alison Jackson

Artist

I remember galloping around on the back of our big springer spaniel, but I don't think that was my first memory. When do you have your first memory? Is it when you're three, when you're four? Anyway, I must have been that age, and I got lost in the snow. I was at my house in Hampshire. I have this image of being confronted by these snow walls and not knowing how to move. It was just in the garden, but it was very frightening. I had never seen snow, and I was totally dumbfounded. It was just the fear of being lost in this dense, white mass. It must have just snowed, but it was already taller than I was. I must have got up in the morning with my parents, gone out, and seen this lovely fluffy white stuff. And then I got lost. It turned into a nice pretty thing into something quite different.

Myleene Klass

Classical musician and actress

When I was two and a half, my father took a job as a diver in the Bahamas. As we were a young family, my mother and I joined him and we all lived on the island of Nassau for four months. I remember that one hot afternoon I was sitting on a deserted beach with my mother. We were both wearing matching lilac gingham bikinis, and were building a sand castle. Once the castle was complete, I wanted something that I could place on the top, and I remember finding a gaudily coloured lager can and banging it into the firm wet sand of the tallest tower. I kept looking down to my tiny feet, and I watched as the surf cleaned away the sand between my toes. Gradually the sun cooled, and we walked up the beach to our favourite bar. As there were so few people on the island, all of the locals knew us, and we were always warmly welcomed. Just as we were leaving, the men playing the steel drums performed a song for me. They changed the lyrics to one of their beloved songs to "Goodnight Myleene" and I left listening to the warm metallic sounds of the drums echoing in my ears.

Philip Pullman

Author

It was a sunny afternoon in May, and unbeknown to me, I was wanted out of the house, so my grandmother took me out for a walk. I was two and a half years old. On our journey we came across some men repairing the road. I was fascinated with the whole process as the men were fixing these big brown water pipes. I can remember clambering all over the pipes and thoroughly enjoying myself. After a long while, when I had eventually tired of my game, we slowly returned home. In the time of our absence my brother Francis had been born and as I looked at this unexpected new arrival, I can remember thinking: "Who brought that thing here?!"

Bill Buford

Writer and amateur chef

My earliest memory is food related. For me the combination of taste, smell, appearance and texture in food can evoke the most immediate memory. I can remember being very young, and sitting on a stool leaning on our wooden kitchen table. I must have been no more than three years old, but I can especially recall tasting the starchy but delicious flavour of hominy grits for the first time. Anyone who has grown up in the Southern states of America will be familiar with this hearty dish made from coarsely ground boiled corn. It has the appearance of a white grainy mash and has the same texture as porridge. Once prepared the grits are quite versatile. We used to eat them served with sugar for breakfast, or as an accompaniment to meat. In every instance, whether it was sweet or savoury, there was always a deep yellow pool of melting butter at the centre. This basic comfort food reminds me of my childhood in Louisiana. I think of the tradition that surrounded us, I think of the place and I think of my mother.

Carla Lane

Scriptwriter and animal welfare campaigner

My first childhood memory was of being three years old and rescuing wasps. My aunt used to put out honey pots in the garden to try and trap them. I used to pick all the wasps out of the pots and put them on the branch of a nearby tree. And although at the time I didn't realise that I couldn't save them because the honey was already stuck to them, I carried on doing it. As well as saving wasps I remember also trying to save earwigs. I remember sitting by the dog's water bowl trying to save them from drowning from the overspill of the water. My grandfather was the chief inspector of the RSPCA, and my earliest memories of him were of always caring for animals.

Sophia Myles

Actress

My earliest memory must be from when I was three, because that's when my parents took me on holiday to Sweden. And I remember, clearly, dancing with my Dad, who is a vicar, on a boat to Sweden. But that's it - nothing else from that memory apart from what I was doing, and who I was doing it with.

Fergus Henderson

Chef

My earliest memory is of eating a crème brûlée in Bath. I can't think how old I might have been -that's too much detail, I'm afraid. I must have been reasonably young. I was at the Hole-in-the-Wall restaurant in Bath, and I ate a crème brûlée and thought how good it was. I can remember what bowl it was in, which is odd for a man who can't remember yesterday's supper. This crème brûlée was in a little heart-shaped china thing. But there are no nuts and bolts memories - why I was there, or any of that.

A C Grayling

Philosopher

I was three years old, and we were living in Central Africa, where my father was working. One of our gardeners had made me a catapult, as a present, and he took me into the bush near our house to show me how it worked. He shot a little bird, killed a little bird, with it. I was absolutely horrified. It was the destruction I was so distraught by. The image is vivid in my mind still. This little thing with its bright eye had been sitting on the branch, fluffing up its wings, and it was hit by this stone. We weren't very far from it, only a few yards, and it fell like a ragged jumble of feathers to the ground. I was so stricken by it, I'm sure it is part of the reason I became a vegetarian and a human rights activist in later life.

Bill Amberg

Leather goods designer

I grew up in north Buckinghamshire in a small rural village. Idyllic though it was, we were living far away from the coast. My father, who had been in the Navy, missed the sea terribly and as a result he would come alive whenever there was a thunderstorm. I can remember one occasion when my father came into the bedroom to wake my brother and me. It was the middle of the night and he told us to quickly get changed. The three of us left the house huddled under our thick oilskin raincoats. It was absolutely pouring with rain, and the dark sky was lit with forked lightning. We walked a few miles to the local wood where we sat side by side for several hours looking at the animated sky until the storm eventually passed. As a result of this adventure, both my brother and I have inherited our father's thrill for storms.

Ray Galton

Co-writer with Alan Simpson of Steptoe and Son

I am the worst person when it comes to remembering things. I am forever phoning up Alan (Simpson) and asking him about when we wrote this and when we did certain plays. I guess my first memory was when I was about eight years old. It was 1938 and I lived in Morden, Surrey, with my parents. It was during the Munich Crisis and my father was in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. I remember the local policeman arriving on his motorbike to deliver a telegram to my father telling him that he had been called up to help deal with the situation. I remember him struggling to get into his uniform because he had put on so much weight and he couldn't quite do up all the buttons. I remember thinking: "You can't go to war looking like that."

Frankie Dettori

Jockey

My clearest and earliest memory was my first day at school. My father drove me to there - it was just outside Milan. It was an early morning in September, and I was five years old. I was wearing my new uniform of a pale blue jacket and I sat nervously looking out of the car window taking in the new surroundings. For some reason we did not arrive at the correct time, and as I entered the classroom I was greeted by a sea of unfamiliar faces staring up at me. I was so embarrassed to have made such a late entrance, but the teacher, who was wearing 1970s Elton John style glasses, warmly welcomed me. As I was so small, I was placed at the front of the class, and the first person I spoke to was my equally tiny neighbour Giuseppe. We were a mixed class of nine girls and nine boys, and once breaktime arrived we all ran to the toilets and began asking each other questions. At midday we had a two-hour break where we discovered our enormous grassy playground. As the girls sat down to chat, all the boys ran around playing football. Once the time was up we unhappily returned to the classroom, covered in grass stains and sweat to start our afternoon lessons.

Julie Myerson

Novelist

I'm lying on my back on the floor in a room full of light. Some soft woolly surface - carpet? - beneath me. There's a window high up in front of me (in my memory it's very high but it may have been just at normal height) and sun is spilling in and I'm holding a big bendy rubber doll in my hands. The doll has black hair and a round face and feels good to hold. I hold her with both hands and I make her move and somehow my mouth is involved. So that's the memory - doll, light, window, face, mouth, carpet. The memory feels very comfortable and safe and happy - ecstatic almost. I'm told I had the doll (an Olive Oyl doll) when I was less than a year old, so it's a very early memory. It's the only memory I have of being a baby.

Diana Quick

Actress

I grew up in Kent, in a house with a long garden with horse chestnut trees on either side. I had a younger brother and I remember wanting to impress him, so I did this by attempting by run backwards the length of the garden. I remember what a huge effort it was, and of course I fell over and hit my head. It was painful, and I was embarrassed, and I never tried to run backwards again.

Norman Baker

MP

I have a very clear early memory. I must have been about four or five at the time and I was at the Aberdeen Demonstration School, a state school, which is now closed. The first part of the memory is of being put in a cot or bed to have an afternoon rest. The next thing I remember is waking up in a new mode of independence and deciding that I could sneak out and get underneath the window, not being seen, and could get on the street first, ready to be picked up by my mother. So I duly did that, which was a tremendous adventure for a four-year-old. But when I got on to the street I found that there was nobody there and there wasn't very much to do. I can remember thinking: "I've managed it! I've got out without being caught... but what do I do now?" I was quite unprepared for that. It was actually quite a long time to wait for your mum on the pavement. Before she arrived, the other children had started coming out, so they actually caught up with me and asked me what I was doing out there.

Timothy Everest

Tailor

My first memory is a very clear one of being on holiday with my family in Broad Haven in Pembrokeshire. I'm not sure how old I was, probably about two, as I remember crawling around on the sand. The thing I remember most is lying back on the wet sand with my head towards the sea and allowing the tiny waves to wash over on to my head. They weren't big waves so it would only ever touch my head. I never let my body get wet - I was obviously a very fussy child and I never wanted to get wet sand on my body. But something that stays with me is the vivid memory of the wetness on the top of my head. About five years ago I went to see a hypnotherapist and interestingly one of the things that I constantly kept recalling was this time on the beach, letting the waves gently crash over my head. I had a very happy childhood and I think this is a lovely memory.

Dillie Keane

Actress

I remember my pram - it was a big bassinet-type pram and I was being pushed around a street near where I lived by my foreign nanny. I think her name was Ann Marie and she was from Geneva. I remember that I wanted to sit up but she wouldn't let me and she kept putting her hand on my chest and pushing me back down into the pram. I remember very vividly that I felt really angry that this lady wouldn't let me sit up. The other memory I have is from when I was probably about 20 months old and I was in a pushchair and my mother was taking me to pick up my older brother at the local school just around the corner from our house. I was all wrapped up to keep me warm and I remember being totally amazed by all the boys in their grey shorts. They were all so big and I just remember feeling so excited watching all these big people running about.

Boris Johnson

MP

All of my earliest memories are from when I was around four years old. I was born in America, and I remember a terrific flood in Norwalk, Connecticut, that cut off our house. And then I remember a huge Swiss girl called Vreni, who was my nanny, picked me up by the hair when I tried to rush out into the water. So I never got into the flood.

Interviews by Katy Kimbell, Jenny White, Ed Caesar and Louise Jack

The Memory Experience is on Radio 4 on 22 July at 9am

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