The Autobiography of
Mike Oldfield

Mike Oldfield



About the Book

About the Author

Title Page

Prologue – Exegesis – Summer 1978

1. Beginnings – 1953

2. Lost in Music – 1960

3. The Clubs – 1963

On Family – 2007

4. Harold Wood – 1966

5. Pimlico – 1969

6. The Horrors – 1970

On Spirituality – 2006

7. The Manor – 1971

8. The Recording – 1972

9. The Beacon – 1974

On Fame – 2006

10. Hergest Ridge – 1975

11. Througham Slad – 1976

12. The Seminar – 1978

On Rebirth – 2006

13. Flying High – 1978

14. Crises? What Crises? – 1981

15. Berlin to Now – 1990–2006

On Me – Now

Picture Section




About the Book

Mike Oldfield was just nineteen when his first album, Tubular Bells, catapulted him into stardom and made him one of the most successful recording artists of all time. It was to be a journey few of us could imagine.

Growing up with an alcoholic mother and without the social instincts most people take for granted, Mike felt he never fit in. Then, with the spectacular success of Tubular Bells, he suddenly found himself struggling to cope with fame on an unimaginable scale, and a growing feeling of alienation and depression.

Mike takes readers from his difficult early years through the recording of Tubular Bells and the sudden fame it brought, to his subsequent breakdown and rebirth experience, right up to the present day in an incredible story featuring a cast of characters that includes Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful, Richard Branson and Steve Winwood. It is a unique and inspiring tale of success, struggle and hope.

About the Author

Mike Oldfield rose to prominence with his first album, Tubular Bells, which was written and recorded during his teenage years. Once it reached the number one spot, it spent a total of 250 weeks in the UK album charts. It was also used as the theme tune to the film The Exorcist and won a 1974 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Composition. Together with The Beatles and Bob Dylan, Mike is one of only three artists to have ever knocked themselves off the number one spot in the UK – for Mike it was with his second album, Hergest Ridge. Mike has released over twenty albums in his career, and has packed out major venues such as Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Albert Hall. He is one of the most successful recording artists ever.


THE SEMINAR IS being held at a big, modern hotel on the Cromwell Road in London. Thursday evening is a get-in, sign-up, pay-your-money affair. When we arrive, at about seven o’clock, about fifty people are already there. They are mainly assistants, just helping out; everybody is quite friendly. I’ve been lucky, I haven’t been photographed much so nobody recognises me. They only know my first name, which I’ve told them is Mick.

Other ‘trainees’ start to arrive and we all shuffle around; nobody really knows what they are getting into. The assistants explain to us what is going to happen. We are told the rules: after the session starts, we will not be allowed any alcohol, there is no smoking and we will not even be permitted to use the loo, we’ll have to wait for the break. We’re told to be back at the hotel at 8.30 a.m., prompt. Rosie and I have arranged with Richard Branson to stay on his houseboat that night, so off we go.

When we arrive on the Friday morning, all the assistants’ attitudes have changed. They appear cold, unfeeling, almost robotic. They are not reacting or responding, approving or disapproving; they are just being neutral. I presume that is part of the strategy. In normal life, we are so used to interacting with others to get approval or praise, or, if we don’t like them, to make them feel insecure. The assistants are being completely blank, which is very disarming.

There are about eighty of us. We file into a room and sit down, feeling uneasy. Suddenly the leader, Robert D’Aubigny, strides in. He is very smartly dressed, with immaculately coiffured dark hair. Robert is a very charismatic character; some people just have that gift. He stands at the lectern, with a blackboard behind him, and starts to talk.

Robert begins his lecture by describing some very basic things about the human mind, about relationships and how they work. We are encouraged to take notes: he is drawing diagrams, for example a fly in a bottle, bashing its body against the sides, never thinking to fly up to the top. He makes it funny, sometimes hilarious: we are all laughing.

A microphone is passed around and, one by one, we explain what we want to get out of the seminar. People have all kinds of insecurities, different reasons why they have come. When it comes to my turn, it is panic attacks. I want to not panic; I want to be comfortable in my body and my life; I don’t want to keep thinking that I don’t belong here, that I have ended up on the wrong planet, completely alienated.

One of the concepts Robert explains is ‘running a racket’, like a Chicago speakeasy, or a drugs racket: it’s a dishonest way of running your life, where you’re not facing the truth, lying to yourself. We all go up to the front and speak to the whole group, under the guidance of Robert. It soon becomes obvious that every person in the room, male or female, has some kind of ‘racket’ going on in their lives. Sometimes, Robert actually has to force it out of people. He can tell when someone is avoiding the issue by their body language, or through techniques like laughing, saying it’s ridiculous, flirting and so on. Robert drums that out of them, he’s saying, ‘I am not interested in the façade you put up, to block what you really feel. Demand of yourself, what it is in your life that is blocking your progress.’

One by one, we all reveal our rackets. This isn’t some weepy, hippy, New Age thing with poor, self-doubting, miserable types, these are all professional people who have paid to be here. Rosie, my sister’s boyfriend, a kind of ‘Hell’s Angel’ character with a massive rose tattoo on his chest, is right next to me, smiling. He finds the whole thing quite amusing. I know he can be aggressive, even dangerous, but he takes things as he finds them, on the surface. He thinks it is funny how different everyone is, all living their personas so differently. It gives me confidence, having Rosie there. I don’t know why, he is just a reassuring presence beside me.

We look at how we behave as human beings, often very stupidly: we can follow a self-destructive course to make our lives a failure. We can make it someone else’s fault: act the victim when things go wrong. Robert explains how, in nearly every case, this can link back to a childhood experience. Often we are just punishing ourselves, but it can be difficult to see that. Sometimes we need to be shown it and accept it.

After a while, a couple of people start saying, ‘It’s all right listening to you, but I want a break now, I need to go to the loo.’ Funnily enough, that’s another way of not confronting things. You can distract yourself, go to the loo, have a cigarette, have something to eat, go for a walk. Robert won’t hear of it. He says, ‘Well, if you’re not going to take this seriously, you can leave now and we will give you your money back.’ Several people do leave, but the rest of us stay where we are. We’ve already agreed we wouldn’t do that, so we have to obey. It is almost like a boot camp.

We are told a first step is to come to terms with our parents, and with our own childhood. Robert tells us how a great many people can ruin their whole lives by burying some kind of resentment. When we do have a break, some people go out and call their parents to say, ‘I forgive you for whatever you did to me.’

Robert shows us a technique of taking control, by standing aside from the kneejerk reaction to things. He tells us a good way to do that is to make a choice, however you are feeling. If you’re feeling insecure, you can say to yourself, ‘I’m very insecure and I can’t do that.’ It can be tough, but the mere act of choosing the feeling that you don’t like somehow dissipates the energy of it, takes away its power. Robert explains it’s like a black bubble that you can stick a pin into.

We finish fairly early on the Friday. I am feeling a little uneasy: I know I’m going down a road I have been avoiding all my life, and I’m not sure I really want to find out what is down there. That night I sleep badly on the boat: there is a sense of dread that I can’t shake off.

Going back on the Saturday, I feel that, somehow, I’m going to be in for it: I am actually going to have to do something. I don’t have a clue what it is, however. During the day, one by one, every single person goes up and explains in more detail why they have come. When it comes to my turn, I explain about my mother, my panic attacks, how I feel completely paranoid, alienated, scared all the time, about my drinking and being a virtual alcoholic. I am anonymous, so I can’t explain about being successful and all that goes with it. Maybe this is when I am singled out by the organisers, as one of the people who will need some kind of additional treatment.

We go out for a break in the early evening. When we come back, each of us takes it in turns on the stage. We have to show we can confront somebody. The assistants come up to us, and we have to stand in front of them without laughing, or saying, ‘Hi, how are you?’ or any of the normal business people use to get approval, to impress or to dominate. We simply have to look them straight in the eyes, to act as a human being without all the elaborate rigmarole that normally goes with civilised society, with human relationships.

Gradually they go around the room, in the order people are sitting. When I have to go up, I feel terrified. As I stand in front of this person, I find myself confronting the stark nature of my humanity. Something sinks in, that all the effort we make in our lives to be liked, loved, respected or feared, it is all unnecessary. I realise I can just exist, and let other people exist, rather than trying to bend them to be what I want. I can simply be there and not do anything.

I feel slightly elated after that, but then it is the end of the evening and there remains a terrible dread inside me. That confrontation was tough enough, and I don’t have a clue what to expect on the Sunday. That night, I don’t sleep at all.

On Sunday morning, we troop back into the room and start again. This time we are role-playing. We have to do some outrageous things: first some macho ‘trainee’ has to come up and behave like a woman, to sing a song like, ‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’. Then a female will get a correspondingly macho task, like being a bomber pilot. I presume this is to teach that there is no fundamental difference between male and female. These roles are ingrained in our upbringing, they’re something we learn at school.

Later that afternoon we begin the final process. I know my time is drawing near. They single out a young man and we all watch as he goes through an excruciating, terrifying experience. At the end I can see he has this glow, his eyes are dewy. Then, I know it is my turn and I am petrified. Finally, the time has arrived for me to go into the lion’s den.

I walk into the centre of the room, feeling like a man condemned. I stand before Robert, putting myself totally under his control. I am in a cold sweat and trembling. ‘Start breathing,’ he says, as he signals me to lie on the floor. As I lie there, I feel the panic starting to swell up inside. ‘Now then, breathe deeper,’ he says, so I do that for a couple of minutes. ‘Go on, breathe deeper, start to make a noise with every breath, whatever noise you feel like,’ says Robert.

My breathing becomes deeper and deeper. I am diving into a pit where some unknown demon lives, this thing that has been torturing me for years and years. Then the sound comes, at first a groan, which builds slowly into a scream. After two or three minutes, the scream is as full blown as any human being could possibly articulate. Later, I will be told that I screamed so loud the hotel residents started complaining: they thought someone was being murdered in the room.

I am lying in the centre of the room, screaming and breathing so deeply that I am hyperventilating between the screams. I can’t go any further. My skin is raw and wet, it feels like it is the first time it has made contact with the outside air. I find myself in this enormous space outside my consciousness, the one I’ve suffered nightmares about before. I am stuck in this place, literally inside my own panic, experiencing it, living it.

Suddenly I feel my legs lifting up. I am being supported by I don’t know what, I’m dangling by my legs. Soft cushions are pressing up against me and pushing really hard, pushing all the fear and the terror away.

I realise I am a baby, an infant being born. I have gone back in time and I am reliving the memory of my own birth. When you read about rebirthing it’s a very gentle, New Age thing. But this is not gentle at all; this is the real McCoy, like a real birth. It feels more like Armageddon.

Gradually I am laid down and put in the recovery position. My breathing subsides, and my consciousness starts to return. The feeling is indescribable. I have confronted my terror, my panic, and it isn’t the devil at all: it is the tiny, newborn infant inside me. As I lie there, I can feel the glow I had seen with the man who went before me. I can barely believe it. I have confronted my worst fear, what I thought was the devil himself, and I have found out that it was a harmless, little child.

I start to chuckle, with absolute relief and euphoria. It is over.

1. BEGINNINGS – 1953

GIVEN EVERYTHING THAT would happen in my life, the beginnings were all quite mundane. I was born in Battle Hospital in Reading on 15 May 1953. I don’t think it was a particularly difficult or traumatic birth, not for my mother anyway. My parents were in their thirties then: my father was about 33 and my mother was four years older, at 37. I did ask my mother about it all later, and my father, but I understand it was all fairly run-of-the-mill.

We first lived in a semidetached place on Monks Way, quite near to the centre of Reading. I have some very, very early memories of the place, stored in some kind of infant memory bank; I think it’s quite rare to have memories of that early time. I remember the way the sunlight used to stream through the windows; I also have very early, warm memories of my mother. I remember breast-feeding, and an incident when I saw a person – somehow I knew it was my sister – opening the door of the room and saying, ‘Oh, excuse me,’ and shutting it again. I have no idea how old I was when that happened. I remember that the material of the old cloth nappies was a bit itchy; I remember the feel of dirty nappies, how awful it felt when you were all dirty, and how nice it was when you were clean. I can remember wearing a bib and hating it, and preferring to be covered in food. I remember I always loved having buttons to push. Perhaps every baby loves buttons – push something and something happens, like magic.

When I was still very young, about three or four, we moved to a small, detached house in Western Elms Avenue, just a short distance from Monks Way. It used to be a well-to-do district of Reading: my father was a local GP so I suppose my parents might have been considered quite well off. My mother had an Irish helper called Kathleen, I think. It’s all very hazy: I can remember having a brother and sister, but because they were older and closer in age to one another (Sally is six years older than me and my brother Terry is four years older), they were a pair and were quite distant from me. They were playmates, and I don’t think they wanted much to do with their little baby brother. They weren’t particularly nasty to me, but they didn’t seem to like me very much either, at the time. Occasionally Sally was asked to baby-sit me for the afternoon: she used to take me to the cinema and I remember being dragged along the road and dumped in a seat at the pictures. Meanwhile, Terry occasionally deigned to allow me to join in his games of cricket.

My mother was a vibrant, very strange character. She was Irish Catholic, but I remember she used to answer the telephone in a very upper-class voice, like the Queen. ‘Doctor Oldfield’s residence,’ she would say, but I knew it wasn’t really her natural way of speaking. From time to time she would recite poems that went on for hours, these epic, Celtic stories, and when she was happy she could also do proper Irish dancing. She would do it completely naturally. It was extraordinary: she was a pure Irish woman, totally Celt.

As I got older, my mother started becoming more distant. Before starting school at five, I spent long periods playing on my own, waiting for my father to come back. I presume my mother was busy getting on with other things, so she left me to be on my own. Of everyone in the family, I got on best with my father. I remember when he was out at work, sometimes my mother would lock me in a playpen, which felt like a cage. Maybe I cried a lot or irritated her in some other way, because she would say things like, ‘Wait till your father gets home, he’s going to smack you!’ I think all I had done wrong was whining or crying, and he never did smack me. I adored my dad. We got on really well and I would always look forward to him coming home.

In those days, patients could ring up any time they wanted their doctor: they had my father’s personal number. I can hardly remember a time that he wasn’t phoned up in the middle of the night at least twice, sometimes three or four times. He’d have to get up and go and see them. I would hear his car coming back, he’d come up the stairs to bed and then, ‘ring, ring’, the phone would go again.

To this day, I have a terror of telephones because of that.

I have so many happy memories. We used to go on holiday to the Isle of Wight, which I loved for various reasons. It took quite a long time to get there in those days: there weren’t any motorways, so it was a fair journey. Mum and Dad would sit in the front of our Morris car, and us three children would sit in the back. To pass the time, my mother would recite her long, epic poems, which were fantastic. She could also pronounce the longest village name in Wales – Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogo goch. We were all terribly impressed by that, and I remember we would keep asking her to repeat it.

From Southampton we would cross on the ferry to the Isle of Wight, and go to this little cottage. Most exciting of all, it had two channels on the TV; back home we only had BBC, but the cottage had ITV as well. I remember seeing my first TV advert, which was brilliant: it was for Colgate toothpaste, I think, with some kind of fountain twiddling down. I remember fossil hunting on the beach, and on one holiday I started learning to swim with my father; unfortunately a wave knocked me over and everything went blue. I was scared of the water for quite a few years after that.

Travelling anywhere always took a long time. We’ve got some old film from an 8mm camera of the family visiting Beaconsfield model village – from Reading, that was probably a couple of hours’ drive. Once or twice a year we would go to stay with my grandparents in Margate. That was a heck of a journey as well, taking six or seven hours. Margate was a lovely seaside town – I don’t know if everybody thought that, but it was lovely to my little eyes. It had funfairs and rides on the pier, and the sea was amazing: I’ve always loved the sea air and, though I wasn’t much of a swimmer, I just liked to be by it.

My grandfather used to run a duty-free shop on one of the ferries, a really old paddle steamer with two wheels, one on either side. It was called the ‘Queen of the Channel’ or something like that. I can remember going with my grandfather on a wonderful trip to Calais from Ramsgate. He was a charming man, indeed both my father’s parents were gentle, lovely people: visits were always peaceful and happy. I remember my grandmother playing at her upright piano; I was told she used to play in the pub, years before. I used to love sitting at the piano, with all those keys laid out in front of me, the feel of them and the sound they made.

When was it that I knew I was different? From when I was very young, I was always watching, observing, taking it all in; but it was more than that, I knew there was more to life than I could grasp. I couldn’t have explained what it was to anyone at the time, or how it felt to me, but even when I was small I had what you could call ‘atmosphere antennae’. I would pick up signals, like a radio, it was all very strange. Still today I have this ability to feel atmospheres of places.

It was, and is, like tapping into another world. I’ve always had the feeling that there’s some ‘big thing’, somewhere out there but not quite reachable, like a fairy castle, up in the clouds or on top of a mountain. I remember once, on the Isle of Wight, I was sitting on a little beach on a beautiful, sunny day. From a distance, I watched as a massive ship was pulled out across the Solent, I imagine from Portsmouth. Later I learned it was the last voyage of HMS Vanguard, the last battleship in the British fleet. I know it was a terrible machine of warfare being towed away to its demise, but it just looked dignified and proud, very beautiful in a way. That ship always reminded me of the feeling that there was something else, somewhere in the distance, unreachable.

Sometimes I would pick up closer feelings: they were more like presences around me, not on our physical plane but on a spiritual plane. It felt almost as though if I could only lift this invisible veil I would actually be able to see them. Sometimes the presences would feel good, sometimes not so good. Even now I often feel there is some entity, call it my muse, my inspiration or my guardian, somewhere around me, protecting and helping me. I also think there are a few of the opposite around, being extremely unhelpful. I don’t know what to call them, my little demons, perhaps, or gremlins: they are always trying to make things go wrong.

I didn’t know if it was just me that had these feelings, or whether everyone felt like that. I did know I wanted to find out what they were. I always wanted to try to get closer to that place, to lean out towards wherever it was. With my ‘antennae’ I could sense so much that was unknown, if only I could find the door I felt I might be able to reach it. It’s very hard to explain, but I think all these feelings inspired me, much later. I wanted to use music to explain how I felt, but also to reach out, to get closer to the unknown. If I were a talented poet I would probably try to write a poem about it.

When I was a bit older, I used to go with my father on his rounds. He would take me to some interesting places: once, we went to a couple of appointments on Battle Farm in Reading, where they have the Reading Festival these days; back then, it was just a little farmhouse. Sometimes I would actually go in with him and see the patient; other times I would sit in his old Morris car. I would notice how people were so pleased to see him. ‘Oh, Doctor, thank you, I’m so glad you’ve come,’ they would say.

We didn’t talk much, my father and I. I’m still not a conversationalist, but there were so many interesting things happening, I enjoyed just observing, soaking them up. His interaction with his patients, the way he kept his appointment book. I can still remember him listing out the names and addresses, and crossing them out when we’d visited them all. I remember driving to the different locations, visiting him in his surgery and seeing all of his sterilisation equipment – he used to do minor surgery, removing warts and so on (I think he even did vasectomies).

Once or twice when I was with my dad on his rounds, I experienced this strange feeling. He wouldn’t let me go in with him, and I knew something must have happened. It was like that extra-sensory feeling you get in the middle of the night, when you think you have heard something downstairs and your consciousness spreads out and becomes super-sensitive. When it happened, time seemed to slow down and everything around me seemed to be aware of it: the trees, the grass, the air, the sky, the sunlight, the wind. I would be sitting in the car listening to the birds, when suddenly they would be singing really loudly, much louder than usual. When my dad came out he would be carrying his death-certificate book, a big, long thing, flapping like a sheet in the wind. Only then would he say to me that somebody had died but, somehow, I already knew.

At that time I didn’t know what death was, but there was this definite feeling of finality. I think older people know it, anyone who’s been to a funeral, there’s the sensation of something having come to an end. It was only much later on that I really ‘got’ what death was, but I had the earliest glimpses. I had a cat called Sooty around that time. When Sooty died, it was such a tragic, devastating event that it became ingrained in my character. I felt that if I really liked something living, it was going to disappear before long.

Of course, I didn’t connect any of this with God, or religion or anything like that. My mother sent me to Sunday School – catechism we used to call it – and I would sit in this very cold little chapel with various other children, learning about something incomprehensible which had no relevance to anything I knew or understood. I remember once the priest, Father Scantleberry, asked this little girl, ‘What is sin?’ She said, ‘If you are naughty, God puts a big spot on your tummy.’ I think he had been explaining it was a stain on your soul, and she interpreted that as a spot on your tummy. The priest and his helpers would talk about death then, the fact that you had to be good in your life, because if you sinned too much you could go to hell, or to purgatory. When I asked about the awareness I felt of a spiritual presence, it was explained to me as Jesus or God, with all the complicated theology that was associated with it, the Holy Trinity and all that. I tried to grasp what they were talking about, and learned the basic Christian moral code, which I still try to practise.

My mother wanted me to have a social life, which was probably quite logical, but for me it was hell on earth. Unfortunately, I just wasn’t that good at getting on with kids of my age. I wasn’t that interested, and even when I tried to interact with other children, it always seemed that my gremlins would mess things up. I did have a younger friend for a while but I didn’t like him very much. I remember we were experimenting with my father’s golf clubs in the garden: Dad had been trying to teach me how to swing the club back and turn your head as it swept behind you. Then, as you thwacked the club back down, onto the ball, you were supposed to follow through with your head. Of course, as I swung the golf club backwards and looked up to the top of the club, skywards, I didn’t realise my little friend had put his head where the golf ball was. Completely innocently, I swung it back down and I smacked him right in the eye with the club. To my surprise, his mother went completely bananas at me. ‘How could you do this to my poor little boy,’ she screamed, as she shook me. I told her it was an accident. I didn’t think I had done anything wrong but that was the last I saw of that kid.

I remember how my mother would send me to parties or organise a party for me, for my birthday. I would be dressed up in a pair of shorts and an itchy shirt, then all these strange children, boys and girls, would walk through the door. They were complete strangers to me, I didn’t know who on earth they were. They would give me a present – I quite liked that part – but then I had to play with the strangers. I didn’t know what to do with them. It ended up that they played on their own, while I sat twiddling my thumbs and shuffling my feet. We would sit down to a children’s tea of trifle, jelly and all that, then they would all troop off and say to my mum and me, ‘Thank you for having me.’ Once they’d all gone, at that point I dived into my presents, thinking at least I’d got something out of it.

I was quite happy in my own company, anyway. From when I was very young, I was a very ‘laddish’ kind of boy, doing macho, daredevil things. Once, when I was only about five or six, I fashioned a home-made parachute out of bed sheets so I could jump off the roof of the house, much to the dismay of the old lady over the road, who instantly came over and told my dad that his son was trying to commit suicide. To me it felt quite logical to strap on the sheet and jump off the roof. I didn’t know what fear was in those days, I felt invincible! That didn’t mean I was particularly brave; I just didn’t realise that I could hurt myself, I didn’t have a concept of fear. I have probably been lucky that I haven’t had too many bad accidents – at the time I thought I could get away with anything. My God, did that change later, but in those early days I was completely fearless.

I’d been very impressed by the way the lifeboats had slid down the ramp on holiday, so in the garden I made a cardboard-box lifeboat station, with a little pulley winch made out of a stick and string, tied on to a little boat. I made the whole garden into a playground to resemble the ocean. It was all real to me, all in miniature. I did the typical thing of building plastic kits as well – I loved Spitfires and Hurricanes – and I was determined to become an RAF pilot when I grew up. I did it all quite happily on my own, just for my own enjoyment. Looking back, it was a great gift that I was not doing things for the approval of others; I think I got that from my father. He would sometimes have a day off and then we would spend time making stuff together. He was into making model aeroplanes, real ones that he could fly. He had a film he used to show us of him flying his models from the runway at his base in Egypt, when he did national service just after the war.

Off the back of my parents’ bedroom we had a little attic, which was our workshop. We’d have a test bench where we would start model aeroplane engines. We even had a tiny diesel engine, which worked on compression. I remember flicking the propeller hundreds of times until it eventually got going. From a very early age I’d had a curiosity of how things worked. Dad took the time to show me how things could be put together, how the pieces would fit, and then he would encourage me to build the model aeroplanes with him. It would take months to make one. We’d build them properly with balsa spars and cover them with paper, then paint them beautifully. Ever since, I’ve always loved building things. I still love model planes.

My dad was part of the Reading Model Club, so we would go out to different places to fly them. The way they worked was magnificently ingenious: each aeroplane had a huge elastic band through the middle, not to work the propeller but to give power to the mechanism that turned the rudder. You could only turn the rudder left and then sequentially right, so if you wanted to go right twice in a row, you would have to go right then left–right; if you wanted to go left, you would have to go left then right–left. You always had to remember what you did last time, as the transmitter box only had one button on it.

Unfortunately, Dad wasn’t very good at controlling the aeroplanes. As soon as he launched a plane after months of work, it would crash and he’d take it back in the car in hundreds of pieces. Or, ‘What was my last command to this thing . . .’ he would ask, as it rapidly disappeared from view. He was far better at building the planes than flying them.

He was also a great handyman. I helped on lots of projects – when he laid a new concrete path, I drew the lines in the concrete. The slabs were unbelievably heavy for me. I tried to lift one up but couldn’t; of course my dad was able to lift it, but he didn’t suggest we lift it together. Because of that incident, perhaps, I’ve had a whole lifetime of DIY phobia. I can put a model helicopter together, or insert a piece of circuitry into a Macintosh computer, with the tiniest screws and pieces; however, if it’s anything to do with building work, I’m useless at it. If I try to drill a hole, either the drill breaks or it goes scooting off somewhere and ends up scratching the whole thing. Perhaps it’s because of a feeling of not being as capable as my father. It’s one little mistake I’ve tried not to make with my own children. If I was to see one of my kids trying to do something that was too difficult for them, I would suggest, ‘You won’t be able to do that yet on your own, let me help you,’ rather than have them fail to do it by themselves.

I was very determined, however; I think I got that from my father as well. I remember once he built me a kind of box-cart. It wasn’t like any old go-kart, it actually had the gears from a car in it. We went to the local junkyard and found a gearbox from an old car. My dad installed that in my box-cart, then he put in a gear stick so I could actually change gears. Unfortunately, due to the gear ratio, even at full pedal the car would only go at 0.01 mph. With the models and the box-cart he taught me that if something doesn’t exist you can create it – even if you have to go and find something, cut a piece off an old car and stick it on. Still today I have a terrible reaction if someone says something can’t be done. I get outraged, and I bloody well find a way it can work. I’ll never give up.

It was the same with the feelings I had about the unknown presences, this sense of yearning. I wondered whether I could work out what they were, if I thought about them hard enough. I don’t know if later I sensed I could bridge the gap with my music.

All in all, though, my early experiences were those of living within a normal family. We would have family meals together, my mother used to cook for us every evening, things like shepherd’s pie and steak and kidney pudding. On Sundays we always went to church, and then we had Sunday dinner together as a family. My mother didn’t seem to have any problems, but I later learned from my father that she did, we were just not aware of them. My father says she was moody and would switch off from time to time, but to us she seemed to be a reasonable, strong woman, very proud of her status as a doctor’s wife. I think I was fairly secure and fairly normal, apart from the fact that, when you’re a child, you think your parents are the same as everyone else’s: everybody’s dad gets up four times a night and has people ringing all the time!

Then, suddenly, it was all turned on its head.

My first school was a Catholic convent school called St Joseph’s on Upper Redlands Road, on the other side of town: my sister Sally was already going there. I vividly remember my first day: my God, what a shock that was. That morning, my parents dressed me up in my school uniform, which felt horribly itchy. I had to put on this thing called a tie, which I had never worn before. My mother and father took me by car and went with me into the school. All around me, everyone looked completely alien, like nothing had ever seen. All the teachers were nuns, dressed in black and white habits. There were a lot of other children around, with strange-looking toys. All I could do was stare around me, taking it all in. I felt lost, like a fish out of water.

I was just five years old. When my parents left I was completely lost. I felt abandoned.

It was from that moment, I started to realise I wasn’t the same as everybody else. I could see other children were all joining in, quite happily playing games in little groups. The other children didn’t approach me and ask me to play; I didn’t want to approach them either, so I just skulked around, watching. One part of me was wondering why they didn’t invite me to join in, while another part of me was thinking, well, I wouldn’t want to, anyway. It wasn’t that I felt particularly different; more that everybody else seemed to fit in with each other, but not with me.

I knew I was being left out, but had no idea why. In one way I longed to be able to play, to run around with the other children, but I didn’t know how to change the way things were. I just had this feeling there was something wrong with me. The other boys and girls used to chase each other but no one would be interested in chasing me; I saw some children who were very popular, who everybody wanted to know and be with, but nobody wanted to try and be with me. I don’t know what put them off. I was on my own, I didn’t really understand anything about it, and I hated it.

Things didn’t improve as time went on, and I started to be singled out by the others. On one occasion, I was standing in line waiting for something and this older child, a girl I had never seen before, came up and smacked me, for no reason whatsoever. I chased after her and smacked her back. Unfortunately the nuns only saw me smacking her, so I was dragged off by the scruff of the neck and shaken. I was told I had sinned and was going to be punished. I was absolutely terrified: I thought my nice, calm little life had gone completely crazy. I said to myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ All I longed for was when I would be taken out. At the end of every day my dad would be there to pick me up and I couldn’t wait to get in the car, back to safety with my father.

I was only about six months at St Joseph’s, before I was sent to a junior school called Highlands. I don’t know why I was moved. It was a pretty little school, up in Tilehurst in Reading. The school was run by this old lady called Mrs Peach. Highlands was a little better than the terrifying world of the nuns at St Joseph’s. It was almost in the country, a collection of buildings set in a kind of garden or park. When it was good weather we had our lessons outside, under the trees. I remember smelling leaves in the sun, that sun-drenched, nature smell.

At Highlands, I think the boys left at eight and the girls stayed on until they were twelve. It wasn’t a bad school, and I probably got the most useful education I ever had there. I can remember learning to read, having trouble with the word ‘all’. I couldn’t work out how you could have two ‘l’s, and you didn’t say, ‘al–l’.

Mrs Peach would always read to us from the Bible after assembly; she would encourage us to ask questions about God and the Bible. We would put our hands up and ask, ‘What does it mean when it says God is the Trinity?’ but she would explain in religious dogma, and we would end up none the wiser. I had no experience of religion, or God, or spirituality apart from what came out of those times, and my experiences at catechism classes: it was only when I reached my thirties that I really started to appreciate what a beautiful world we live in, and connected the spiritual side of being human with anything remotely religious.

To me, church was just something you did. We often went to a church in Pangbourne: I remember sitting through the ceremony with everybody talking in Latin, swirling incense around the place. On the way home, my mum and dad would stop at the pub. They went in and had a beer, and they’d leave me in the car with a packet of crisps and an orange juice. That was my favourite part of going to church! I did like the organ music as well – later, I had a friend who I used to call ‘the reverend’ because he was quite religious. He used to be able to play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on the organ; he can’t have been more than about twelve years old. I remember how he used to hammer between one note and lots of other notes, seesawing between different notes to build up that lovely, repetitive riff. Perhaps that was my first inspiration for Tubular Bells, all those years ago.

Some time around my sixth birthday I was deemed ready to take my first confession, and to take the sacrament. I went into the cubicle with Father Scantleberry and he asked me to tell him my sins, but it just so happened that particular week I couldn’t remember having done anything wrong so I said, ‘I haven’t sinned.’ Father Scantleberry seemed to be very upset about that, particularly as I couldn’t go through the ceremony unless I actually confessed to some sins. He said, ‘Yes, you have, tell me,’ so just to shut him up I told him that I lied to my mother, I hit my brother, I stole this and that, and so on. He sent me off to say ten Hail Mary’s, and I thought, ‘What on earth is going on?’ I really, honestly, couldn’t think of anything I had done wrong, but I was being punished for it anyway.

After I had said my Hail Mary’s and I’d had my first sacrament on a little plate, my mother must have thought she had done enough for me. They let me off after that and I didn’t have to keep going to church any more.

I must have been quite a worry to my mother, thinking back on it. Presumably for good reasons she had wanted to teach me how to have a social life, but it wasn’t the kind of life I wanted. There were some kids I got on with, but that was more on my terms. They were older kids, about eight or nine, and I suppose they didn’t fit in, like me. Our garden backed on to a railway cutting and, as children do, we climbed over the fence and went down and put pennies on the line, pranks like that. These were the last days of the steam trains: I remember the different kinds of engines, they were fantastic when they came rolling through. For some reason they used to stop right at the end of our garden and make this kind of ‘choo-choo-choo’ sound, where the wheels would spin on the tracks and the steam would go ‘shhoooop!’ pushing out huge globules of smoke. I was fascinated by it all.

We would creep down the side of the railway through the trees, me and my older friends. We’d go a long way following the line: further on there was a bridge, from where you could get down to the ground by holding on to a big branch. It was quite long, about twenty or thirty feet, so it would bend at just the right speed to act as a lift: we would hang on to it and lower ourselves down. We made a camp in the trees, down beside the railway, out of bits of boxes and plastic sheeting; we used to keep stuff like chocolate bars or bottles of Coca-Cola in there. Seeing the trains going past from our camp was just fantastic. Then one day a big gang came in and mucked it all up, and that was the end of our camp.

For some reason things weren’t so bad with the older kids. They accepted me, perhaps because I was happy to join in with what they wanted to do, and they seemed happy enough to join in with me. I remember happily playing in our street in Reading with my friends with our box-carts and footballs up and down the road. At night we used to look at the stars. I had a star map, and me and another boy would regularly stay up late and, with the map, try to identify all the different stars, the planets and the constellations, trying to grasp the distances involved. We would spend an entire night, until the sun came up in the morning, just looking at the stars. I just loved it, and I still do.

I was always an inquisitive child. I remember a book at home called Medical Jurisprudence and Toxicology, which I later found out was about medical pathology and the law. There were photographs in there that had me reeling in horror, people with their throats cut or impaled on railings, or being savaged by dogs, all things a doctor might have to know to practise. It was horrific but it was real – of course, your average six-year-old would be fascinated by that. That’s why I have always had so much respect for doctors, or people like paramedics and firemen. My God, what these people have to deal with.

Apart from my older friends, all I wanted to do at home was be with my dad and his models. Eventually I started to build some of the aeroplanes myself, at the model club. Dad sent me down there with our kit, and I sat there with these people, sticking screws in and working the soldering iron. I still love soldering irons.

The last big family holiday we had, we managed to get all the way to the Costa Brava in our little Morris. It was a mammoth drive, through France and across Spain. We had to fly across the Channel in an enormous car transporter, from Bournemouth or Southampton airport. They were quite popular for a while: I believe they could take four cars, the passengers would sit in this small compartment with about twenty seats, and this big twin-engined machine would take off, somehow. It was my first ever plane journey, and when we landed in Cherbourg it was my first time in a foreign country. I was very excited.

It took us a week to drive all the way down through France. Eventually, in some mountainous region, probably the beginning of the Pyrenees, the engine on the Morris clapped out. We took the car to a local garage, where the very helpful French mechanic worked out what was the problem – something to do with the pin in the float chamber of the carburettor. It looked as if we’d have to order a part so we’d be stuck there for days, but this mechanic found a pin from somewhere and managed to solder it in. It was a Heath Robinson kind of repair, but lo and behold, the engine started up again! Off we went, across the Pyrenees and down towards the north of Spain.

Back then, the Costa Brava was still being built. The entire place was a building site, I don’t remember seeing one hotel that was finished. We stayed in a little bay called Rosas – they had just about finished a few rooms of our hotel. We drove round the coast and found a tiny, old fishing village, not a touristy place at all. Next to the sea were some rocks: I still couldn’t swim then, but I remember jumping off the rocks and into the water. It was so glorious, I suddenly started swimming for the first time.

That was a wonderful holiday. I remember going on to a beach and never being so hot in my life; I remember drinking Cacaolat for the first time, this Spanish chocolate milk, which was delicious. I drank bottle after bottle of it. One morning, the hotel waiter appeared and one side of his face was puffed up like a balloon, he was in desperate agony. He’d seen the internationally recognised ‘physician’ sign on my father’s car, the snake and the sword, so had come to ask my dad if he could help. Dad gave him some antibiotics, and thereafter he was the big hero of that little hotel.

If the holiday had been a delight, the journey home was a total and utter nightmare, spent with my mother being sick by the side of the road, or being up most of the night. We didn’t know what was wrong at the time, but my mother had contracted salmonella food poisoning, perhaps from some shellfish she’d eaten. She was not just a little bit sick, but desperately sick. My dad tried to get the journey over with quickly: he must have driven overnight because instead of taking a leisurely week, we did it in about three days. I think Dad wanted to get Mum back to England as quickly as possible, to get her into hospital. When we got back to England, my mother was put straight into quarantine, in the isolation ward, it was that serious. She had to stay in hospital for a week or two.

It was soon after that, that she became pregnant.

2. LOST IN MUSIC – 1960

CHRISTMASES AT HOME were glorious, traditional family affairs. My mother would decorate the house, dress the tree and make the dinner with all the trimmings; she was a really good cook. I remember being taken to church to midnight mass, sitting through this ritual and not really understanding anything that was going on, but that was all part of it. The best part of all, of course, was the presents.

The best Christmas ever was in 1960, when I was seven years old. That particular year, my dad had made me a beautiful model of the Ark Royal aircraft carrier. It was complete with little tiny planes, each one individually painted. I remember that Christmas like it’s locked in my brain, because of that model. The fact that my father made it and hand-painted it himself really impressed itself on me. When I was later to write music, maybe that was part of why I wanted to pay great attention to detail, to make sure it was something really special. To be worthwhile I knew it had to be really big, epic and important, not something to be thrown away. Perhaps those feelings all go back to that wonderful Christmas present.