Thirty years on, his business empire has made millions, giving him time to take his poetry and music into schools. David Newnham reports
On the face of it, Ian Wills is not the kind of bloke you'd want anywhere near your classroom. As a boy, he once stole eight cars in a single night and parked them in the school car park with their door locks super-glued.
Raised in poverty, with a violent, drunken father, he spent his youth stealing and cadging on a south London council estate. By the time he was 13, he was injecting heroin.
So how come he has been seen taking an English class at a Surrey comprehensive? What was he telling them about Shakespeare? And why did he roll up his trouser leg? To say that Ian Wills has come a long way since his joy-riding days is an understatement. Scared into giving up drugs when he fell into a coma at 15, he became an apprentice butcher and was soon running a meat wholesale business. After meat it was pharmaceuticals, and before long he had himself a business empire.
But his real love has always been writing poetry; the sort of rough and ready street verse that lends itself to being read aloud, or rapped out in front of a band. Now, at the age of 43 and with the spare time that comes with having made a million or so, that is what he does. And if the critics are anything to go by, he does it rather well. Ian Wills the Willing, they call themselves, and with Jesse Wood, the son of Rolling Stone Ronnie, on guitar, they have been described by one reviewer as "an eclectic mix of rap, poetry, blues, rock and Pink Floyd-style soundscapes".
So what was going on in that classroom in Guildford? Although Jason Knight, the band's keyboard player, teaches music at the Brighton Institute, and drummer Martin Wright used to teach music in Portsmouth, it was actually Jason's dad, Ricky, who got Ian back to school for the first time since he was 13. Ricky, who happened to teach at a school in south Devon, was helping the band out at the Edinburgh festival. "I asked him what I could do to say thank you, and he said he'd like me to come and talk to his kids at grassroots level," says Ian.
And talk at grassroots level is exactly what students at Pilton community college in Barnstaple got. Ian decided to do a poetry workshop with 12 and 13-years-olds, taking his own work as a starting point. "I did a poem about my father to demonstrate where I'm coming from," he says. "It talks about the whole frailty of my life." With his street credibility thus established, he proceeded to blow away the barriers between literature and life.
But if the class expected glamorous tales of a life of crime, they were in for a disappointment. "One of the points I made to them was that I did steal a lady's handbag, and the horrors of what I did to that particular individual have been haunting me for 30 years. They asked me about nicking cars, and I said, the thing is, I was nicking them out of hospital car parks. They could have belonged to someone visiting a sick relative or someone who had just been told they'd got terminal cancer. But at 13 years old, you don't think about it. So you do all these things, and as you get older you hate yourself with a passion."
As well as the poetry workshops, there were music and songwriting masterclasses with the band, lunchtime performances, and an evening concert at a local stately home. Ian and the band found the experience so rewarding that they decided to make working in schools a part of their routine whenever they were on the road.
And the next stop was Guildford. When Tony Ryan, assistant principal at Kings college for arts and technology, suggested inviting the band along (all they ask of schools is lunch and some help with loading their gear), the idea of "no rules" caused a few raised eyebrows in the staffroom. "It's a risk for any school, getting in someone like that," Tony Ryan says. "He might sit there and glorify what's happened in the past." But he had heard what Ian and the band had to offer at a Surrey Year 12s conference, and the idea of tackling poetry and music in ways that students might find motivating seemed too good to miss.
Faced with a group of sceptical Year 12 boys at Guildford, Ian rolls up his jeans and shows them how injecting heroin into his ankles at 13 has irreparably damaged his legs, and that gets their interest. And when he tells them "Shakespeare is more hardcore and rock 'n' roll than you'll ever be", and that if the Bard's words were translated into modern language, "there wouldn't be a school around that would be able to carry his books", they are hooked. He describes how he writes, and how he is convinced, having tried both methods, that a pen and paper are more effective than a syringe when it comes to sorting out life's problems.
The message hits home. "The workshop inspired me and will stick with me for life," says one boy later. Teenage boys who would not have been seen dead reading poetry are now passing Ian's poems between themselves, and the talk in the playground is of JD Salinger and Woody Guthrie. "The kids fell in love with him," says Tony Ryan. "We've been having boy problems with poetry, and he shattered all of that. We'd have him back tomorrow."
The band's debut album, Kerbside, is set for release in April; a book of poetry will be published later in the year. For information about school visits, email firstname.lastname@example.org