Turning points

In the course of a human life, there may come a point after which nothing is the same again. For some, it is a momentous historical event; for others, a more personal epiphany. Here, public figures reveal what shook their world. Introduction by John Walsh
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The Independent Online

For Yoko Ono, it was the voices of kamikaze pilots saying goodbye to their parents. For Archbishop Tutu, it was the sight of a white priest doffing his biretta to a black domestic. For Sheikh Yamani, it was the threat of imminent execution by Carlos the Jackal... From the day when Saul, on the road to Damascus, saw in a flash of light where his energies should henceforth be committed, human beings have been able to point to moments in their life when things fell into place, when the world revealed itself in all its beauty or cruelty, when their future destiny suddenly became apparent.

James Joyce called such moments "epiphanies" - from the religious festival celebrating the "showing forth" of Christ to the Magi - and went into raptures about "sudden spiritual manifestations" that bring the humblest things into a new focus. Richard Gere's defining moment is a magical epiphany - of seeing his newborn son not as a baby, but as an old friend. For playwrights such as Harold Pinter and Arnold Wesker, the key moments of their lives involved having plays accepted - as if their own children were being legitimised or authenticated by some higher power. For others, the sudden presence of death makes them reassess their priorities - having 30 minutes to write your will with a gun pointed at your head (to paraphrase Dr Johnson) concentrates a man's mind wonderfully.

Birth and death bring us the starkest defining moments of all, because there is no place for trivia or circumlocution around the arrival and departure of life. Defining moments stop you in your tracks, root you to the spot and insist that you re-examine everything that you thought was true. Read these voices (which can also be heard on the BBC's The World Today) describing the occasions that shaped their characters, and you'll marvel at the way they range from the personal and sentimental to the epic and historical. The finest epiphanies are a combination of the two - a re-negotiation of the contract between you and the world you're in.

DORIS LESSING, novelist

I was probably about 13 or 14 - a very brash and pert white girl - in a mission down in what is now called Mutare, Zimbabwe. And I was chattering away, chatter chatter, showing off to some men who I now see were probably not as old as I thought they were then. And they listened to all this chatter and then one of them said to me: "You see, you are very young, and I am very old." And this was like a slap across the face. And I know it doesn't sound important but it changed me completely in certain of my attitudes to the blacks. I mean, don't forget I was brought up inside the old Rhodesia. It was the wonderful dignity of the remark and the sense of it, and the way I was very gently put in my place with great humanity and humour. It changed me.

RICHARD GERE, actor

I was there in New York, in February 2000, when my son, Homer, was born, and it was one of those magical moments that all parents could tell you about - that your parents could tell you about you being born. It was extraordinarily magical for me in that the first thought that I had was that this was an old friend. My thought was, "Oh, it's you again", and I felt a great joy at being reconnected with someone that I knew on a very, very intimate level before. And there was absolutely no feeling of ownership, no kind of "this is my child" feeling. It really was a kind of otherworldly connection that I think only a parent can have. Clearly, that experience defines who I am right now.

HAROLD PINTER, playwright

My first full-length play, in 1958, was a total disaster. It was destroyed by the critics, it ran for six days in London, and at the Thursday matinée there were six people in the audience. So that was not a very encouraging beginning. It was called The Birthday Party. It has since been done all over the world many, many times, and in London many, many times. But the change in my life came with my next play, about two years later, The Caretaker. That was a big success, and, in a sense, I haven't looked back since - I just kept writing away. I enjoy it, and it's also very important to me, particularly in the political structure of the world at the moment. It's very important for the writer to speak up about the total degradation of our world, inspired by the United States of America, which I think is a disastrous force - an extremely dangerous force. I believe that they might blow the whole world up if we don't watch our step.

DESMOND TUTU, former Archbishop of Cape Town and anti-apartheid campaigner

The biggest defining moment in my life was when I saw Trevor Huddleston [the former president of the Anti-Apartheid Movement], and I was maybe nine or so. I didn't know it was Trevor Huddleston, but I saw this tall, white priest in a black cassock doff his hat to my mother who was a domestic worker. I didn't know then that it would affect me so much, but it blew your mind that a white man would doff his hat. And subsequently I discovered, of course, that this was quite consistent with his theology that every person is of significance, of infinite value, because they are created in the image of God. And the passion with which he opposed apartheid and any other injustice is something that I sought then to emulate.

PAUL McCARTNEY, singer/songwriter and ex-Beatle

Nelson Mandela being elected president of South Africa in 1994. That was something that we never thought would happen, and it was so great to see it. It was such a shot in the arm for civil rights - something we had always been fighting for. It was just so right; to actually be there when it happened was very joyful and a defining moment in my life.

BOB WOODWARD, the Washington Post journalist who exposed the Watergate scandal

A moment seared into my head perhaps forever is the morning after the five burglars were arrested in the Democrat headquarters in Washington, DC, in 1972, and I was called in to work on the story. I was sent down to the local courthouse, and they brought in the burglars. Not your average burglars. They were all in business suits, had rubber gloves, $100 bills, sophisticated photographic and electronic equipment. And the judge asked the lead burglar, James McCord, where he worked. And McCord whispered something that was inaudible. And the judge said, "Speak up", and then McCord whispered again in an inaudible way, and the judge said, "I can't hear you, I need to know, where do you work?", and then McCord said, in a way that I could hear from the first row, "CIA". The Central Intelligence Agency - and it was a jolt... burglars in the Republican administration in the Democratic Headquarters, with all these cameras, electronic eavesdropping equipment. It was one of those times when you say, "That is really a story".

SHEIKH YAMANI, Saudi Arabia's oil minister, 1962-1986

Vienna, 1975, when the Opec conference was invaded by Carlos the Jackal and his group [who kidnapped 11 Opec oil ministers]. He informed me that he had decided to kill me at the end, and that I had only two days to live. In the afternoon, they sent a statement to the Austrian government: "Unless you announce our statements on your radio at 4 o'clock, at 4.30 we are going to kill Yamani and throw his body into the street." Carlos came and told me that. At 4 o'clock they did not announce the statements, so he told me, "You have half an hour". I asked him if I could write my will, and I started writing my will. I felt very strange. I was not really scared of death as much as I was concerned about what I hadn't done in my life, and those I was leaving behind - my children, my wife, my mother, and so on. And at 20 minutes past four he came and touched me, and I looked at him, I looked at my watch, and I told him, "I have 10 more minutes to go". I was negotiating with that. He said, "No, you have more than that because they announced the statements". Then, I realised that the fear of death might be much greater than when you really face death. And, secondly, I realised that I have to what I have to do on a daily basis - I must not delay things.

CHRIS PATTEN, British Governor of Hong Kong, 1992-1997

Arriving in Hong Kong, more than anything else in my life, affected my views, both my views on political life and my views on leadership, not to sound too grand about it. But I don't think that I was noticed arriving so much as I was noticed leaving, and, for me, I guess I'll always live with the departure and the fact that, as Andy Warhol would have put it, it made me famous for 15 minutes. Famous in a way that I think people were able to identify with. I remember, shortly after I had come back from Hong Kong, walking near my house in France, and meeting an old gentleman who asked me where I came from. I told him the name of the village and he said, "Ah, have you met the great man from Asia who has just moved in there?". So I replied no, I hadn't. And he said, "Ah, he was a great man - the Governor of Saigon"!

YOKO ONO, artist and widow of John Lennon

During the Second World War, I was in Japan listening to a radio programme on which kamikaze pilots, before leaving, were allowed to say something to their parents or family. And they all said, "Mummy, I'm going now and I wish you a long life". It was just the most horrific thing that I've heard, and I'll never forget that. I'll never forget that. What an incredibly cruel thing to do to any human being. I think that changed my whole idea about war. I was a young girl so I really didn't know what war was, except that it's very frightening. And every night I had to go into a shelter when the B-52s came overhead. There was nothing noble about the war. I mean, there was propaganda in both countries, I'm sure, saying, "It's a noble war, we have to do it". But when you get down to those pilots, then you know it's cruel and totally wasteful.

RUSSELL SIMMONS, founder/owner of Def Jam recordings, first manager of the rap group Run-DMC

I was very much affected by the speech at the Million Family March by Minister Louis Farrakhan [in Washington, DC, in October 2000]. That was a very defining speech, about rising above symbols and being greater than we say we are, not accepting the labels that people give us - I'm a millionaire, I'm black, I'm this and that. He talked about, "Yo, we're all humanity, we're all one", and that speech was beautiful. It wasn't such a big march, they say, but if you stood on the stage and looked out, there were 10 baseball stadiums, 500,000 people. I was on stage and I saw it - it was the most amazing thing, the number of people. Hearing that speech about rising above symbols and a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven and all that - it was a defining speech for me with regard to my view of humanity.

ARNOLD WESKER, playwright

In my youth, I wanted to be a film director. I managed to save up enough to study for six months at the London School of Film Technique. There I met a young director called Lindsay Anderson, who came to lecture. One day, I walked up to him and said, "Would you please read a story that I have written that I'd like to make into a film, and perhaps you could put it forward for financial assistance. And he said yes - very generously - "And have you written anything else?", and I told him about The Kitchen, which I'd entered for the Observer play competition. He said, "Let me read that, too". He read the story but was unable to help me raise money, but he asked, "What about The Kitchen?". And I said, "Well, it didn't win any prizes so I didn't think it was worth sending to you. But I have written another play called Chicken Soup with Barley. Would you read that?". And again he said yes. He read it and quickly wrote a letter that I keep to this day, in which he said, "Dear Arnold, You really are a playwright, aren't you? Can I have your permission to show this to the people at the Royal Court?". And that was the beginning.

ZADIE SMITH, novelist

The thing that changed my life was when I was very young and met a boy who I thought was extraordinarily beautiful. The rapture of that, and wanting something I could never have, made me start writing. Nabokov thought that unrequited love was part of what writing was - part of a long chase. Martin Amis told me that the desire of being unwanted is also what writing is about. There's revenge in the mix, but yearning makes you become yourself. You never grow out of being obsessed with beauty, whether it's human, natural or literary. That's the thing that motivates me most - I see something beautiful and I want to get it down.

From 'Defining Moments' on the BBC World Service's 'The World Today', 5.30am-8am (1am-5.30am Radio 4), to 20 July

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