CS Lewis, British author of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’

My bad dreams were of two kinds, those about spectres and those about insects. The second were, beyond comparison, the worse: to this day I would rather meet a ghost than a tarantula.

Kofi Annan, Ghanaian ex-Secretary-General of the United Nations I was one of a group of boys who sat on the floor of our professor’s office for a weekly lesson in ‘spoken English’. One day the professor put a large sheet of white paper on the wall. The paper had a little black dot on the right-hand corner. When the professor asked, ‘Boys, what do you see?’ we all shouted together ‘A black dot!’ The professor stepped back and said, ‘So, not a single one of you saw the white sheet of paper. You only saw the black dot. This is the awful thing about human nature. People never see the goodness of things, and the broader picture. Don’t go through life with that attitude.’

Life teaches you lessons in surprising ways and when you least expect it. One of the most important lessons I ever learned came from a sheet of paper and a black dot. They may seem like small things, but they were enough to prompt big changes in my outlook on life.

Jung Chang, Chinese author of ‘Wild Swans’

As a child my idea of the West was that it was a miasma of poverty and misery, like that of the homeless ‘Little Match Girl’ in the Hans Christian Andersen story. When I was at boarding school and did not want to finish my food, the teacher would say, ‘Think of all the starving children in the capitalist world.’

Agatha Christie, British author of detective fiction

On wet days there was Mathilde. Mathilde was a large American rocking horse which had been given to my sister and brother when they were children in America. Mathilde had a splendid action – much better than that of any English rocking horse I have ever known. She sprang forwards and back, upwards and down, and ridden at full pressure was liable to unseat you. Her springs, which needed oiling, made a terrific groaning, and added to the pleasure and danger. Splendid exercise again. No wonder I was a skinny child.

Arthur Ransome, British author of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ and other children’s books

Tea was always ready for our arrival, and after the long journey we were always made to get that meal over before doing anything else. Then ‘May I get down?’ and we were free in paradise, sniffing remembered smells as we ran about making sure that familiar things were still in their places. I used first of all to race down to the lake. I had a private rite to perform. Without letting the others know what I was doing, I had to dip my hand in the water, as a greeting to the beloved lake, or as proof to myself that I had indeed come home.

Ana’is Nin, French author

My family still laughs at the story, which I remember well, of when I was five years old in Berlin, and arranged to run away with a little boy because I had been scolded. They watched me pack my clothes and go down the stairs. The little boy, six or seven, was waiting round the corner.

Kathleen Cassidy, British tea lady

My mother was always frightened of us catching germs. Every day she used to give us all a good dose of cod liver oil. My brother Jimmy would refuse, but she used to hold his nose until it went down. Afterwards we all got a piece of apple, and then we went to school.