'The time of my life': The great and the good recall their happiest moments

Photographing a beautiful woman, Oxford in the Thirties, discovering a mathematical formula...
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The Independent Online

Terry O'Neill, 73

Terry O'Neill, 73


The most truly happy moment in my life was when I found out I was going to photograph the most beautiful woman in the world. It was 1965, not long after Ursula Andress filmed that beach scene in the Dr No Bond film. I had a friend who was working in film publicity at the time and he gave me the opportunity to photograph her while she was filming She at the ABC Studios at Elstree. I was thrilled to death, and incredibly nervous, but she turned out to be the loveliest woman I'd ever met. She wasn't sexy in real life, believe it or not, but so sweet and kind. I found her in her dressing room, wearing a white blouse, not a scrap of make-up. She was so breathtaking, I couldn't wait to start working. I swarmed all over her, she thought I was insane but she worked with me, wrapping herself in a bathrobe while she sat in front of the mirror, making herself up to play an immortal queen.

I was 27 years old and had just walked out of my first job as a photographer at the Daily Sketch. Before that I was a jazz drummer. While I was on Fleet Street, I worked 8am to 8pm every day, then spent all night in the clubs. Those were the best days of my life – I didn't care a damn about sleeping. But I hated newspapers, they didn't care about the stories that mattered. You'd spend the day photographing people who'd been evicted from their homes, and when you presented them with the pictures they'd point to the spike and say, "Yesterday's news". When I left to go freelance, my editor said, "The moment you walk out that door, you're finished". Shooting Ursula was my first job as a freelancer, so it had a double significance.

In those days I hadn't any fears, everything was positive – except I always thought one day I'd have to get a proper job. I was spending my days photographing beautiful women, working with people like Frank Sinatra. In the 1960s, I'd be sitting around with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and we'd be saying, "What job will we get when it's all over?". But in the 1960s everything was positive; everyone wanted everyone to succeed. No matter where you were from, you helped each other. Today, people don't have the same opportunities; people aren't kind to each other. But if you do get given a chance in life, the key is to take it.

Terry O'Neill's exhibition It Girls & Boys is at London's Little Black Gallery until 22 October. For details, see thelittleblackgallery.com

Ranulph Fiennes, 67


Old soldiers often say they were happiest in the army, with all that true comradeship. My time came when I had been thrown out of the SAS and sent back to my own regiment after blowing up the film set of Doctor Dolittle in Castle Combe using army explosives. I ended up applying for a three-year posting with the army of the Sultan of Oman. When I arrived at Bahrain Airport in 1968, the officer who'd asked me to go out there passed me in the other direction and I noticed that his shoulder had been shot away; there was a D-notice on the war at the time for journalists, it was a bad situation. The Sultan's army, which I joined in the southern state of Oman, was being heavily outnumbered by the Marxist People's Front when I arrived. I was given 60 Arabs and five Land Rovers, and spent a very happy three years, including leave, with no bosses anywhere near my independent reconnaissance platoon.

I was the only non-Arab. I knew all 60 comrades by their first names, and they gave me an Arab name, 'Bakhait' – which means John – and I loved them. They were the greatest bunch. This was independence, it was freedom, they were lovely, characterful people. I was Christian and they were Muslim, but there was no 'them-and-us' type stuff like you might get in the British Army. At night we slept mostly in the desert, or in the mountains, which were rich in foliage, insects, snakes and hyenas, and even the occasional mountain lion. There were lots of ibex and gazelle, but the only thing we ever shot was a Marxist. For food, we carried up to 20 goats in a three-tonne Bedford lorry; the men would stroke them and gave them names, and in the evening one of the goats would have his throat cut.

In my private life, I was happily engaged. Before I left the UK, I'd proposed to my girlfriend, Ginny, whom I'd been out with since she was 13 and I was 16. I reckoned she was bound to behave because I'd given her a ring. When I got back I still wanted to marry her, but when I failed to give her a date for the wedding, she gave me the ring back. Two years later I found out she was going to marry a Scots bloke, and was working in north Inverness. I wanted to impress her by arriving on a motorbike all the way from Sussex. I got as far as London before rain defeated me and I got on the train. The first night I wasn't invited in, but by the third night I was allowed on the floor. We married in 1971.

'My Heroes' by Ralph Fiennes is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £20

Diana Athill, 93


My student years at Oxford were such wonderful years that I wanted to be forever in that fantastic feeling of being 18 – of being almost grown-up, but with no responsibility.

What was so wonderful about Oxford in the 1930s was that you could do what you liked. It was as if you owned this marvellous city which was so full of excitement and one was constantly falling in love, and life was easy and gorgeous and even though the war was going on in Spain and we all knew something quite dreadful was going to happen here quite soon, we all managed to forget it. We were busy enjoying life so much.

There was one marvellous moment very early on when I was already engaged to Tony, a man with whom I'd been in love with since I was 14 (we never actually married). He came to see me and swept me off and we had a marvellous day, and at the end of it he said, "We're going to see someone". We didn't say the word 'gay' in those days – instead he said: "He's a pansy but he's terribly, terribly nice".

When we arrived at his house he was in bed with a cold. We went into the bedroom and spent the afternoon drinking whisky together. At one exquisite moment I thought: "Here I am laying in bed with Tony and someone who is a homosexual: I am grown-up!"

In those days, I was entirely sure that I was going to get married. I wasn't absolutely certain who to – there were so many lovely people about – but I had absolutely no intellectual aspirations whatsoever. The trajectory of my life has altered by discovering that I am perfectly capable on my own.

I don't believe that anybody's experiences can do anybody else good – you can't tell people things, but I do think the answer for women is to try to realise as early as you can that you can and do exist apart from how you are seen by men. My life has been getting slowly better into my old age because of my efforts. It's been a very agreeable experience.

'Letter to A Friend' by Diana Athill is published by Granta, £20

Katharine Hamnett, 64

Fashion designer

From the age of two until I was 16, I'd go camping in Saint-Tropez every year with my parents. These were the 1950s, the pre-Brigitte Bardot days when Saint-Tropez was completely undiscovered; my mother blames my father for telling the world and ruining the place. I remember arriving at a far-flung beach 12 miles long with two tents – one for us and one for the lavatory, which blew away once with my father still inside it. I remember there being not another person in sight, just the rusty wing of an aeroplane on the sand and a few pieces of barbed wire.

In those days an old man would bring his donkey down to the market. I can recall the pure joy at being allowed to feed the animal a lettuce. I remember my mother buying amazing Jeanne Moreau-type plastic sandals from an old man who lived with his wife and a cockerel, which would sit with them at the table.

There were lilies growing out from the sand and tortoises lurking in the undergrowth. I saw a bright green lizard so long that when it shot up a palm tree it would overtake its own tail, and an insect which is now extinct eating at our tent. Amazing grasshoppers, with brightly-coloured wings: red, orange, turquoise blue. Giant ants, and the incredible distinct smell of the mesquite scrub.

This was happiness, the experience of being in paradise. This was the place I learnt how to swim, in the waters off the Pampelonne beach in the bluest patch of sea. My mother was a physiotherapist. For some reason she taught me to swim backwards. Then a French teacher proceeded to teach me to go forwards one afternoon. I spent the whole next day saying, "Fancy me, swimming!". It was the closest thing to flying, that transcendental experience.

Pure happiness at that time would have been staying there forever. One year, when my father was changing postings from Paris to Romania, we spent six weeks on the beach. When we came back to England they wouldn't let us in – we were so brown they thought we were illegal immigrants.

Katharine Hamnett's new collection will be on sale at net-a-porter.com later this month

Niamh Cusack, 52


This photo was taken in the summer of 1996. We were living in Stratford-upon-Avon while I did a six-month season at the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing Rosalind in As You Like It. The little boy with the baseball cap is my son Calam, who was almost two years old at the time. Like many little boys his age he was obsessed with tractors, as well as dinosaurs. Cal had been born in Stratford while his father, Finbar, had been playing Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream; we'd kept in touch with my midwife there, whose husband was a farmer, so when we went back this time around, Cal was old enough to enjoy a ride on a real tractor.

I have idyllic memories of those days. We lived in a little cottage on Sheep Street, very near the theatre. I was in my mid-thirties and had been living in London for about 15 years, since moving from Dublin to study music. It was a golden time for us all. It was one of the first jobs I did after having Cal, and I got a great sense of being able to be a mum and act. The company I was with was made up of a number of young families and we all bonded; we were in and out of each other's houses, our children were always brought into the Green Room and our dressing rooms. When we weren't working, we were out in the fields, having lovely picnics. I have blissful recollections of the Cotswold countryside.

I loved being a mum, and I was playing one of the great roles in theatre, surrounded by other people who also had young kids. Plus, Steven Pimlott, the director, was a wonderful man who became a good, good friend. In fact, I made four long-lasting friendships during that time. Things couldn't have been better.

Niamh Cusack is appearing in 'The Playboy of the Western World' at The Old Vic until 26 November; oldvictheatre.com

Benjamin Zephaniah, 53


In 1986, I discovered how you could be alone in a place filled with people. I remember sitting at a roundabout near my house in Stratford, watching the cars go past, and thinking that I needed to get away.

It was my grandmother in Jamaica that I headed for. She lived in a little place south of the Black River called the Bluntas District, near the parish of St Elizabeth. She was around 100 when she died but she never left an area that was the size of Brixton centre. That was her home, it's all natural to her; she could look at the sky and go, "OK, it will rain at 2 o'clock, and at 3.30 it will stop". I asked her how she did it, and she said, "I just read the sky".

You can't go home to Jamaica without taking presents. I took a barrel filled with simple things for the kids like footballs and cowgirl dresses. I gave one of my cousins a short-wave radio tuned to the World Service, which he kept pinned to his ear while moving through the fields trying to get reception.

The thing that struck me about Jamaica was how long the days were – the amount of things that you could do in a day because life was so slow; if you moved too fast people would say, "Slow down, English boy, you'll burn out!".

There was no flushing toilet, no running water, people did their cooking on a wood fire, and if you wanted to use a phone then you had to walk miles to a call-box. In London, I was really into what I wore on my feet; in Jamaica, everyone went barefoot. My grandmother had a little bit of land where she grew cabbages, tomatoes, yam, plantain – she never handled money. She said that her crops and her relationships with her neighbours were her currency.

In Jamaica at that time you couldn't walk past people and not say good morning. It sounds corny and old-fashioned but there was a real respect for the land and for each other, without being hierarchical. It was so quiet, there was no excitement; I just remember feeling at peace, under that very dry, big sky, with a few animals running around.

In the morning I would just wake up and go running and listen to the sound of birds. When I returned to London I came back with a better sense of purpose.

Benjamin Zephaniah has been appointed Chair of Creative Writing at Brunel University

Marcus du Sautoy, 46


Species die out, stars blow up; but as a mathematician you know your discoveries last forever. Once something is proved, it can't be disproved; when you make a mathematical discovery, that is a moment of pure joy. In 1999, I was working at the Max Planck Institute in Bonn. I'd been trying to find new symmetrical objects, which don't actually exist in the physical world, but live in high dimensional spaces. I knew that if they did exist and I could find them, then they'd change our intuition in the area I was working in.

I remember one evening trying to phone my wife from the office. I couldn't get through; suddenly I had a flash of inspiration. Scientists often talk about that moment as if there were an electrical surge, and that's what it felt like. I had an insight into how to build these symmetrical objects. That night I wrote down in my notepad the way to construct it. I work on yellow legal pads, and still have that one with all my workings.

After the initial excitement, there was a moment of fear as I thought that maybe it was a mistake. I phoned my collaborator that night and asked him to go for a drink. I needed someone else to hear and check my idea. I saw the excitement in his eyes as I spoke. I thought: my God, I'm right.

I remember a surge of adrenalin, realising I had discovered something totally new. That's the drug I live for – those moments when you create something brand new which will last forever. That's a bit of immortality. What I felt that night in Bonn was pure happiness. As a mathematician you spend so much time going down blind alleys, stumbling into things that don't work; those lean years make that surge of happiness much greater when it comes.

If you'd like a new shape named after you go to independent.co.uk/globalgiving