What inspires the inspirational? Icons of art, science and politics give us their answers

Where does creativity come from? How do we find our best ideas, our greatest expressions of intellect and imagination? What goes on in our minds is as individual as we are - yet it has the power to define our lives and change the world. From artists and authors to campaigners and politicians, we ask: What's your inspiration?
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Joan Armatrading, Singer, songwriter

Everyday conversations can be an incredible source of inspiration. A person could say something trivial - just a word or a phrase - and it can become a song.

The other day, somebody was telling me about a fire in their building. It had turned out to be arson; something called a "glory fire". I hadn't ever heard that phrase, but it's used to describe what happens when somebody deliberately starts a fire in order to put it out and claim the praise - a bit like Munchausen's.

Anyway, it had gone horribly wrong and there was a really serious fire. I was shown pictures of the building. But I immediately wrote down the term, and all these things were coming into my head; I was playing with associations, thinking how a "glory fire" could be used to reference something else. I think these sort of sparks inspire all creative people. "Glory Fire" could be a novel or a painting. Things like that spur me immediately into putting down ideas towards songs. Whether that song gets written - well, you'll have to wait and see when the next album comes out.

Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading

Professor Warwick once attempted to become a human cyborg by having computer chips implanted in his body

I like to read the biographies of people I admire, people I feel have, in their own way, really achieved something - examples being Michael Faraday, Albert Einstein, Captain Scott, Roger Bannister and Stephen Hawking. The same is true when I see how people deal with severe disabilities - the effort they have, or had, to go to and the problems they have to overcome drive me forward.

I find running along the banks of the river Thames remarkably inspiring. I can look at nature - there's no noise, just birds, trees and water - and think deeply about what I am trying to achieve. It clears my mind and makes difficult things look simple. As a scientist trying to push the boundaries, I do sometimes get criticism from journalists, and jealousies, and vendettas from a few other scientists occasionally flare up, with them saying that what I want to do is not possible, or I'll never achieve it. But these things spur me on to actually achieve. I guess most of all, though, I have a driving force, an impatience, inside me, and it is more a case of reining it in. I am not going to go through my life without achieving things in science - no matter what.

Jodie Marsh, Glamour model

It's my parents. After 36 years of marriage they're still totally in love, like giggling teenagers. What has been thrown at them in life has been tough. My dad was homeless at 16, and they've been through some very bad times. But they keep going and they keep smiling. They've got everything I want in life: the happy marriage and the happy home. They brought me and my brother up really well. Their warmth and generosity spreads out, everybody loves them; so much so that when I was in Celebrity Big Brother, all my friends dropped what they were doing to go over to my parents' house because they knew my parents would be upset by what was happening and they wanted to support them.

Benjamin Zephaniah, Poet

This is going to sound pretty depressing. When I first started hearing poetry and creating poetry in my head, my mother was bringing tapes from Jamaica and I was hearing these strange voices with this strange accent.

But what motivated me to start thinking politically and putting my poetry into words was the image of a starving child in the Biafran war. Biafra was the Ethiopia of today. We were watching the television news and I remember asking my mother why that baby looked like that - the thin arms, the swollen belly. My mother explained that the child was starving largely because there was fighting going on. And I was just becoming aware of racism (although we called it the "colour bar" then) and I said: "Why do white people do this to us all the time?" and my mother said: "No, this is black people hurting each other." I couldn't believe how horrible it was. It shook me up. I thought I wanted to do something. I felt these were children like me. They should be outside with me, playing football.

Later on in life, I remember some adults telling me that working-class black people like me should get an apprenticeship, work, find a nice dark-skinned girl and have children. I remember thinking: if that's it, if that's all there is for me, then I'm going to kill myself. And then I remembered the Biafran kid and the image drove me to live to help others live. From then on, I knew what to do with my poetry and my life. And I'm very grateful for that image. If I had relied on having kids, then I would have been a failure - I'm infertile. Now I have millions of kids writing to me from all over the world.

Emma Hope, Shoe designer

Salvatore Ferragamo used to say inspiration came to him from watching waves breaking. I find it comes from deadlines, sitting in the sun with a notebook and a pointy Biro, flea markets, the embroidery around the necks of kaftans, old handbags, getting jealous of other people's shoes in fancy shoe-shops, cowboy boots on real cowboys, the Ugly Sisters' jet tiaras and plum silk Regency dresses in last year's Cinderella at Glyndebourne, Magenta's ankle boots in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the sexy tasselled bikini costumes in the National's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Dan Topolski's old rowing shoes screwed to a board for lightweight sneakers, Kate Moss wearing shiny calf-boots.

Maybe the sea is my inspiration too, because I was inspired to make sneakers when I started surfing about five years ago. I wanted shoes you could ride a bicycle in and play beach cricket in as well as go for walks around the cliffs in. I wanted them to be like old school sneakers but with squishy raised insoles and leather linings, made on a slightly elongated last so that your legs would look good.

Darcey Bussell, Principal ballerina, Royal Ballet

I am inspired mainly by bright colours and beautiful views. When you live in a big city with long winters, I think you need them to revive your enthusiasm for life. As a bit of an Eighties fan, I've always painted my walls vivid colours, like bright pink. In my first flat, I had a bathroom that was painted purple and green - the Wimbledon colours. It made everybody go "Woooh!"

My mother was into colours and loved to mix them. I particularly love red and pink together, although the combination can appal some people. I love to dress my two daughters in vibrant colours. I don't wear enough colour myself, though. That said, bright yellow is not an inspirational colour for me; there's a custard yellow tutu I once had to wear that I hope I'll never see again. But the best costume I ever wore was red chiffon with a bare midriff and wonderful Indian trousers. It was for the part of Nikiya in La Bayadère.

Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty

It's Hollywood for me. It reaches so many more people than ranty campaigners like me. I'd have become a screenwriter if I'd had the talent. And, as a civil libertarian and human-rights campaigner, I have been very inspired by films, from Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men. You can go through to very popular film and TV shows such as the Planet of the Apes series, which was a very thinly veiled metaphor for civil unrest, strife and racism in the US.

I was also inspired by one film prior to September 11, The Siege, in which terrorists attacked Manhattan and Bruce Willis became a sort of general who was involved in martial law in the US, while Denzel Washington plays an FBI guy doing his law degree at night. It culminates in this great debate between them about whether torture is ever OK. Of course it isn't. And then there are the "pre-crime" issues of the kind raised in Minority Report, which is one of the things we are being told we must aim for in this country - to catch the criminals before they commit an offence.

There was a speech that really got me in Good Night, and Good Luck, and the original quote was from the journalist Ed Morrow. It was powerfully dramatised: "We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends on evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to associate, to speak and to defend the causes that were for the moment unpopular."

Craig David, R&B artist

When I was growing up, it was predominantly Michael Jackson. The song that was quite poignant for me was "Leave Me Alone". It was the first record I went out and bought. When I saw him perform, and sell all those records around the world, I thought that was what I would like to do.

My mum was also a big Terence Trent D'Arby fan, and he was the first person I saw perform live, at the Southampton Guildhall. And that was amazing. We were right up the front and he had the stage presence of Prince in terms of the dancing, and the voice of Stevie Wonder. And that first album of his was hugely inspirational. It made me want to write and then... nothing happened. It showed me, if you'll pardon the pun, the rise and fall of an artist.

Now, when I am looking for inspiration for a song, I'll often play "One More Chance" by the Notorious BIG. When I was DJ-ing in the clubs, it was a song I could throw on when people were getting bored and drifting toward the bar, and it would save me. When I hear it now, I remember how hungry I was for success, how desperately I wanted to prove myself to the world.

Chris Bonington, Mountaineer

I'm inspired by the anticipation of the exhilaration. Climbing is still my chief passion, and it's physically tough. But the real buzz comes from doing something you find hard, intimidating and a little bit frightening

As a youngster, brought up in Hampstead, north London, I enjoyed rambling. But aged 16, I persuaded a mate of mine to hitch up to Snowdonia with me, and it was a tremendous adventure.

A friend of the family then took me rock-climbing near Tunbridge Wells, on a tiny little sandstone crag. The minute I'd got the rope on I knew this was something I loved more than anything else in the world.

I can't climb to the same standard today as I did 10 years ago, but it's still about pushing myself towards that terrific thrill. Of course, sometimes you're inspired to get through a hard day by imagining the warm sleeping bag at the end of it, but mainly you're too focused to think or worry about anything.

The environment is also terrifically inspiring - from the Lake District, where I was the other day, to Morocco, where I was climbing new routes earlier this year on beautiful sun-kissed rock. The scenery is always incredible, and so much better when it's been "earned" than if you'd taken a cable car with a bunch of chattering tourists.

Marcus Wareing, Head chef at Pétrus

In the kitchen, I never try to reinvent the wheel, and I'm constantly delighted by pure fresh produce. I'm particularly inspired by anything that comes into the kitchen whole - the Pyrenees lamb comes in as a whole carcass, and it's so beautiful and fresh. You look at it as a challenge. Cooking is actually quite easy as long as you're not trying to find that one incredible dish that nobody has ever thought of before. The ingredients just need a little TLC.

Cooking has dominated my life, so all the three-starred Michelin chefs in the world have inspired me. I've loved watching their businesses and their wealth grow. On the flip side, when I switch off, it's my children who inspire me. I'm forever responsible for them, and they drive me to get up in the morning and hopefully become as successful as the chefs who've won those stars. Oh, and I should say I'm deeply inspired by the new Aston Martin Vantage. That does turn me on.

Howard Jacobson, Writer

The novelist Joseph Conrad tells a story of how, when he was still a seaman, he showed the unfinished manuscript of his first novel, Almayer's Folly, to a sallow, sunken-faced young Cambridge man travelling to Australia for his health. The following day the young man returned the manuscript to Conrad's cabin, sat down and said not a word. "Well?" Conrad asked at last. "Is it worth finishing?"

"Distinctly," the young man answered, his voice (as Conrad remembered it) sedate and veiled.

"Were you interested?" Conrad enquired again, almost in a whisper.

"Very much," the young man returned.

"That was all I was to hear from his lips," Conrad writes, " concerning the merits of Almayer's Folly... When we arrived at Adelaide the first reader of my prose went at once up-country and died rather suddenly..."

I encountered this story when I was teaching in Australia, a young Cambridge man myself. It affected me deeply. One normally thinks of inspiration as heady, but this was inspiration through quietude. A novelist was the only thing I had ever wanted to be - but I dreaded, even in advance of trying, the uncertainty of success. Conrad's anecdote reconciled me to disappointment, made modest praise appear the highest praise, and showed me how the fragility of the whole endeavour, like the fragility of life itself, was precisely what gave value to it.

Not when I start, but whenever I finish a novel, I think of Conrad in his cabin, wanting more yet knowing that the young man's "Distinctly" is not only the spur, but the reward.

Martin Bell, Unicef ambassador

I belong to the stiff upper lip tradition of the British. But, as an undergraduate at Cambridge, I cried when the News Chronicle folded in the early 1960s. That was because James Cameron, its roving free spirit and star columnist, was silenced by the closure. He never again found, in print, such a perfect platform for his talents.

There is no one like him today. Perhaps the closest is The Independent's Robert Fisk. And Robert also sees James Cameron as his role model: part commentator, part reporter, and always on the side of the little platoons against the big battalions.

Late in his career, and unusually for a print journalist, he crossed over successfully into television. He was helped by his incomparable way with words - but also by his sense, rare even in broadcasters, of the rhythms and cadences of the English language. His images were his adjectives. And he understood the art of writing silence.

Also, he was passionate. Not for him the phoney quest for "balance" , or the search for an expedient fence to sit on, or the meaningless formulation of the time - "on the one hand this, on the other hand that... only time will tell". He worked in no man's comfort zone, least of all his own. He had a powerful sense of right and wrong, and would not stand impartially between good and evil.

He is well remembered. It was at this year's James Cameron Lecture that Helena Kennedy QC described 10 Downing Street as a "history-free zone". And Charles Wheeler, another of my heroes, introduced a selection of Cameron's documentaries, culled from the BBC archives, showing an eloquence and moral force that no one comes close to today. He set the standard to which we all aspired.

Ellen MacArthur, Yachtswoman

It seems a long time since I started sailing, although it feels like yesterday. I was just four when I stepped on to a boat for the very first time, and it was a moment that changed my life for ever. I loved every minute of it; the feeling of total freedom, as well as the fact that I had the ability to sail anywhere in this tiny boat - that was amazing.

Sailing fascinated me, and I read everything I could about it. People such as Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and Sir Francis Chichester were my greatest inspiration. They had achieved the impossible and were breaking the boundaries in the world of solo sailing. Sailing undoubtedly became a passion for me and I would spend every opportunity I could get on the water or in the boatyard working on every boat that I could get my hands on.

I am still inspired every time I get out on the water. Sailing is a great sport in the sense that each experience can be a new one and you can always learn a new skill, even after years of being out on the water.

Nowadays, one of my biggest inspirations comes from being with the children who come sailing with us at the Ellen MacArthur Trust. The trust was established three years ago, and its aim is to take children suffering and recovering from leukaemia and cancer out on the water and to introduce them to the joy of sailing.

These children are truly inspiring to anyone who gets to meet them; they are facing a massively daunting challenge, and yet they do it with the biggest smiles on their faces.

Anne Moore, Neurologist and Council Member of the Royal College of Surgeons

If I were a composer or a poet, I suppose I'd be inspired by a hedgerow full of primroses. But surgeons don't want that sort of "creative inspiration ". There's no place for fanciful thoughts. A good surgeon is somebody who can follow the recipe, and when I'm working I'm totally focused.

But the brain itself has always inspired me. I was always fascinated by it from an early age, by the fact that it contains everything a person does, thinks, feels and is. Even when you're looking at the anatomy of it, there's so much that's a mystery, so much we don't know. When I saw the brain in real life, as a medical student, it was just amazing. I was in my early twenties, and after the patient's scalp was opened and the little trapdoor of bone was taken out and the thick fibrous coating was cut through, there it was - a shiny, glistening, pulsating "thing" that was moving as the patient breathed. It was beautiful; a creamy colour covered with those little blood vessels, and it does have that half-walnut look about it, with all the little folds and dips where all the nerves are buried. I know that sounds weird, but it still gets me. Sometimes people come to the operating theatre and I say, "Just look at that! Isn't it incredible?" and I can see them thinking, "Poor soul!"

James Dyson, Inventor

I've some well-known heroes - Brunel, Issigonis and Buckminster Fuller, to name a few - but I get my inspiration from the living. I get inspired when I work with young people, either the graduate engineers we have at Dyson or the many design and technology students we meet.

We take on a lot of graduates straight from university, invite them down to Wiltshire and pose them a few problems to solve. It's problems that are inspirational, and we're looking for another 50 bright sparks to help us solve them.

Engineering is about knowledge and experience, but unconditioned, fresh thinking often leads to the most creative ideas. We want people who are creative and courageous. They haven't learnt how to disagree politely; they tell you how it is. I like that. It doesn't waste time. Yes, it's part of my role to mentor the younger engineers, but every day I learn something from them - not that I'd admit it!

Angela Berners-Wilson, First woman to be ordained by the Church of England

I love the sea, especially around Iona, Greece and Turkey. I've just taken a group of students up to Iona (above), which I've been visiting since I was a student. It's off Mull, off the west coast of Scotland, and is an island with a great tradition of Christianity. St Columba brought Christianity there AD563; it was the first place Christianity ever reached in Britain. The sea's colours accommodate any mood - when it's rough and you're feeling aggressive, or when it's calm it can be a centring thing. You can't but believe in God when you study a seascape and the mountains and the granite and think how many centuries they have been there before man was ever invented.