Popping inside and realizing it was not an open day, we bumped straight into the headmaster, David Christie. Rather than show us where to go, he insisted on whisking us around on a whirlwind tour of his school instead. The tour and his passion for the school were very impressive indeed. It had, until recently, been an all-boys' school up to sixth grade but was now taking girls.
There was a progressive air about the place, an unstuffy feel compared to the crammers I had experienced. By the time we left, both children were bound for St. Edwards. It was a real sliding doors moment in more ways than one: as it turns out, a young boy named Freddie Andrewes, whom Holly would get to know rather well in the coming years, was already studying at St. Edwards.
When Holly was later named the school's first Head of School, I was overflowing with pride. But I was equally pleased that she was making friends, enjoying herself and growing into a fine young woman. She was already acquiring a taste for tackling injustices, and when she came home bemoaning the fact that girls were not allowed to wear trousers I helped her draft a letter to her headmaster demanding equality for all students. It reminded me of when I was at Stowe School, though in my case I would have campaigned for all students not to wear ties.
There were some amusing antiquated perks to being Head of School, one of which was the right to be able to graze your own goat in the school grounds.
"Holly, this is too good an opportunity to miss," I told her over the kitchen table. "Whenever you come across absurd rules, take advantage of them."
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"I think you should buy a goat."
"Don't be silly, Dad," she replied, wisely resisting.
As Holly prepared to graduate in 2000, we spent an evening hunched over her desk together working on her big speech to the whole school. I went to see her make the speech and was amazed how she had already become a better public speaker than her dad. She was shy, but concentrated on her words and spoke unwaveringly in her beautiful, clear voice. Not for the first or last time, I wept with pride.
Although sending Holly and Sam to St. Edwards was well worth it, it did take some getting used to the children not being at home. I was accustomed to being away from the kids a little, due to traveling with work so much. For Joan, it was a real wrench—to begin with she would cry every day: she missed her babies so much. She took to driving to Oxford quite a lot, and would "just happen" to pop by the school near midday, and take Holly and Sam out for lunch. Back home, after one of these lunches, there was often no food in the house. I remember standing in the kitchen one evening, rifling through bare cupboards, and saying to Joan: "Look, I know the kids are gone, but we still need to eat!"
"Well, you know where M&S is, too, Richard," she replied.
It was a fair point. I got used to driving to Marks & Spencer. But she soon took pity on me!
Sitting there on Necker Island on New Year's Eve, staring at my blank piece of paper, I'd decided it was time for a new start, to look to the stars. The following year, I followed up on that decision, literally so, with the setting up of a new company.
My fascination with space first started thirty years earlier. It was 20 July 1969 and I had turned nineteen two days before, still nursing the type of hangover that any teenager celebrating their nineteenth birthday could expect. My father turned on the tiny black-and-white television in our home in Shamley Green and I, along with countless millions, watched the extraordinary sight of images from space being beamed back to earth. More than 238,000 miles above, Apollo 11 had landed on the moon. I was gripped as Neil Armstrong uttered the immortal words: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Whether he fluffed his line or not, it was inspirational.
I was instantly convinced I would be going to space one day. I assumed that if NASA could land on the moon, in the near future they would be able to take anybody who wanted to go to space. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind. But when the Apollo missions ended, and the years started to pass without new breakthroughs, space travel felt further away again.
Nevertheless, I was sure it was just a matter of time, and my enthusiasm remained undimmed.
In 1999, I was to take the first small steps toward fulfilling my own dream.
For all the remarkable travels around the world I took that year, the most exciting journey started with a short stroll from my then home, across the icy greenery of Hyde Park, to a dreary bureaucratic building. I walked into Companies House and officially registered a new company: Virgin Galactic Airways. (Being a born optimist, I also registered Virgin Intergalactic Airways!) I did not know how to start a spaceline—nobody had ever done it before—but I loved the name and the idea thrilled me. It seemed an exciting way to enter a new millennium, looking up to the stars and thinking about how to get up there—and back again.
All that, though, was in the future. Back on New Year's Eve it was time to dance with my wife. I put down my pencil, left my to-do list of possibilities on the table and joined our guests downstairs as Prince sang on: "I was dreamin' when I wrote this, so sue me if I go too fast. But life is just a party and parties weren't meant to last ..."
***** TABLE OF CONTENTS *****
2 What You See Is What You Get
3 Building a Business from the Back of a Beer Mat
4 Let's Get Physical
5 How to Start a Train Company
6 Answering Madiba's Call
7 "What do you call a Virgin employee with a tie? The defendant"
8 The World Turned Upside Down
9 The Elders
10 "They're building a spaceship!"
11 An Englishman in America
12 The Rebel Billionaire
13 Crossing the Channel
16 Holly and Sam
17 The Elders Assemble
18 Climate Change
19 Back on Track
20 Becoming a Banker
21 Planes and Mergers
22 Plain Sailing
23 "Somebody mentioned the word hurricane'"
24 A Lost Night in Melbourne
26 Revealing Character
28 Like a Rolling Stone
30 Weddings Chapter
32 Calculated Risks
33 The Accident
34 Moving On
36 Audacious Ideas
38 Good Morning, Vietnam, Good-bye, Madiba
41 "We're free!"