South sea sojourn was just the job

Geraldine Brennan meets Will Randall, also known as Chicken Willy of the South Pacific, who now has his sights set on Bollywood

Will Randall's account of his Solomon Islands adventure, Solomon Time, published this month, is dedicated "to anyone who thinks it might be time for a change". He was 31, 10 years into his teaching career, head of modern languages at a West Country independent secondary and watching his team lose a rugby match when change sidled up and tapped on his shoulder.

He got chatting to a retired naval commander who had run a plantation on the tiny South Pacific island of Mendali. Within six months, the commander had died, leaving money to set up a project for the welfare of the islanders, and the trustees asked Mr Randall to travel to Mendali and oversee the investment.

"I almost said, 'no thanks'," he says. "But it came when I wasn't sure what to do next. People were telling me I should be looking for a deputy headship, but I didn't want more paperwork, more logistics and less teaching."

He left Blundell's school, an 11-18 independent in Tiverton, Devon, in summer 1998 and set off for the South Pacific (two pupils gave him a lifejacket as a leaving present). Mendali is an hour by dugout canoe across shark-infested ocean from its nearest neighbour, and that's if the canoe has a motor. Solomon Time is an account of the year that followed, in which rats as big as cats and an unrelenting diet of sweet potatoes were the least of his worries.

"Solomon time" loosely translates as ma$ana, and Mr Randall had to learn patience alongside his daily pidgin English lessons. And the terror of a community looking to him for decisions he was ill-qualified to make might have been overpowering had he not adopted the island philosophy. "We are all busy achieving and acquiring; I was among people who had everything they needed for food and shelter and no reason to hurry. I learned from them and I got accustomed to the life quickly. I missed nothing except family and friends."

His willingness to learn on the job and make mistakes ("The first time I coached the school rugby team, the kids had to tell me the positions on the pitch") stood him in good stead over the next year as, alongside his new neighbours, he slowly and painfully settled on a suitable sustainable project - a chicken farm and, eventually, a fast-food outlet called Chicken Willy's on a neighbouring island (named after him) - which would help Mendali become self-sufficient and fight off foreign developers (Solomon Time is liberally seasoned with his caricatures of developers and aid workers).

It was always intended that he would hand the project over to the community, so once it was under way, he left to tour Australia, planning to return to the Solomons to teach (he had already volunteered at the tiny kindergarten on Mendali). But a coup in the islands in 2000 stranded him in Sydney and closed down the chicken farm, which at that stage still relied on supplies being flown from Australia. The islanders swiftly returned to fishing and subsistence farming.

With time to kill and almost broke, Randall worked on the first draft of his book at Sydney central library. He lobbied writer and TV arts pundit Melvyn Bragg for advice. ("I didn't even know how many words you needed for a book, and I saw him giving a reading at a bookshop, so I asked him how long his books were. He said 92,000 words, and that sounded good enough to me.") He had shown a BBC documentary producer around Mendali, and it turned out that the man's wife was a UK literary agent, Kate Hordern.

Last summer, back in the UK and in his third term of supply teaching in a Surrey comprehensive ("I was enjoying it - I thought my adventures were over"), he heard that Time Warner Books had bought the manuscript and offered to fund research for a follow-up. "I had always wanted to go to India, so I dropped my chalk and fled."

He offered his services to Akanksha, a Bombay educational charity that supports slum children through formal schooling and runs an out-of-school arts enrichment programme. Randall taught English and drama to five to 16-year-olds and was amazed to be headhunted by a Bollywood casting director. "I had directed school plays but I was not a serious actor. Nobody could have been more surprised than me." He's now in London to finish the India book, then he's due back on set.

Randall is from a teaching family; his mother was a primary head and a chair of governors in west London. His affection for his pupils at Blundell's shines through the school's brief appearance early in Solomon Time. "I had 10 fabulous years in teaching (at Blundell's and Wellington school, Somerset). I was happy with the workload. I have never considered it a nine-to-five job. The important thing was to be teaching kids who wanted to be there. Whether you're at an independent school or not, in the country there's simply less pressure on people.

"For the moment it's good not to have to abide by someone else's timetable, but if things change I would go back into a school tomorrow."

Solomon Time is published by Abacus pound;7.99.www.akanksha.org

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