Extract from Chapter 1: Upminister Kid
Ian was five years old when he started at Upminster Infants School in St Mary’s Lane in September 1947. Local parents and children knew the school simply as ‘The Bell’ as it stood opposite The Bell Inn, a popular watering hole that dominated the busy crossroads in the main street. Starting on the same day at Upminster Infants was his neighbour from Cranham and his closest pal, Barry Anderson, whose family ran The Plough pub. Just six weeks younger than Ian, Barry lived above the pub with his parents, his older brother John and sisters Jean and Janet. Ian also became friendly with John, who was of a more artistic bent than Barry and who went on to become a fashion designer to The Queen. But it was Barry from whom Ian was inseparable, racing dirty-kneed through the fields and farms of Cranham, scrumping apples and causing such mischief as little boys are duty bound so to do.
Barry, who now lives in Switzerland, recalls these early missions with his best friend. “When we were four years old, he had all the books,” he says. “He could read so much better than me so he would read me stories. Even at that age, I wasn’t up to his standard. I used to let him out of his window in the evening so we could go scrumping for apples. My parents were running the pub, so I could get out whenever I wanted. There was a front door with two big bay windows either side and Ian’s room was the left-hand window which had a sloping garden up to it. I used to put some kind of truck wheel against it, he’d open the window and he’d come out in his pyjamas. Ian was the one who said, ‘Get me out. Come and collect me at seven o’clock, I’ll come out the window’, and we did whatever we did. He was old even when he was young.”
Ian’s precociousness, however, came at a cost. Initially he had refused to go to school and, concerned about his erratic behaviour, his mother had taken him to see three psychiatrists by the time he was five. “My mum was a totally brilliant mother,” said Ian on Radio Four’s Desert Island Discs in 1996. “She steamed into me from a very early age and taught me to read before I went to school, so I think by the time I went to school, I didn’t want to go there. I didn’t see the point.”
Ian was bright for his age and did well at school, although his early school days were disrupted by prolonged bouts of illness, according to his Aunt Molly. Chicken pox, measles and other such viruses were, of course, common among children, but Ian was beset by such ailments and missed the best part of an entire term as a result. Ian’s young life was far from typical of the era and was in many respects more liberal and cultivated than most. Although his father paid regular visits, his home life was shaped by the well-educated Walker sisters. Much of his spare time as he grew up was filled with trips to theatres in London’s West End and other cultural excursions. “His mother used to take us to places like The Old Vic,” says Barry. “We saw Richard Burton playing Richard III and we had seats in the front row. I was excited by what was happening on stage, although everything else was above me, but it wasn’t above Ian.”