Express route to success

17th May 1996 at 01:00
I was a nice Catholic boy and went to a local grammar school - Wimbledon College - which was run by Jesuit priests. Its most famous old boys are the comedian Paul Merton, Martin Clunes of Men Behaving Badly and the former Education Secretary John Patten.

Very soon after I arrived something weird started happening. A priest would call you to the front or sit bedside you in class and start touching you. It was as if they were investigating you, fumbling around. Sometimes they would cause you pain like twisting your nipple really hard but you knew you couldn't do or say anything, not even make a sound.

It was two priests who picked on their "favourites" - and I was a ginger- haired, freckle-faced altar boy. They're dead now and I don't really like to think about it. It was just weird. We were so naive we didn't really know what was going on.

I think my parents should have taken me away because I was quite obviously unhappy by the age of 12 or 13. The only thing I liked about school was rugby.

I was always in trouble, even at primary school. I was beaten constantly - with the cane at Catholic primary school and with a "ferula" at Wimbledon College. They would hit you across the hand with this implement made of whalebone and leather. I became inured to pain.

At O-level I got a grade 9 in history which was what you got just for signing your name right. I was taught by an old priest who would read out notes that he'd had for years. The class was in bedlam, although he didn't notice.

Then I did a retake in a term with a different teacher who wasn't a priest. He was a young guy, straight out of college, and I got a grade 1. I thought this is ridiculous, I'm not being taught anything here.

I had a friend who lived next door to the school. It was a very hot summer in 1968 and he had a swimming pool so instead of going to school we used to go round to his house. After a couple of months the school called in my parents and I was expelled.

I was a lost soul when I was expelled from school at the age of 17. My parents were so cross they refused to finance me through any more education so I had to go out and get a job.

My teacher figure was a sculptor called David Wynne, whose daughter Nicola was one of my group of friends. He did the hands on the back of the 50p piece issued in 1973 and the boy and the dolphin beside Albert Bridge in London.

He said: "Don't worry about it - what you have to do is find something you want to do and if you're bright you will get on in that field."

I thought I wanted to be a teacher. So after two or three years of work I went to teacher training college. I wanted to be a teacher because I had been taught so badly. Both my sisters are teachers. I think a lot of people go into teaching because they didn't like their school and they think they could do better.

But I wasn't a very good teacher - I lasted one term. I had a row with a school inspector so that was the end of my teaching career. I wanted to make the lessons fun but in their opinion I was making it too much fun with not enough content.

While I was at teacher training college in Kingston upon Thames I did washing-up and was a waiter at Pizza Express. I got the opportunity then to run a restaurant or to teach. As restaurants involved women, alcohol, food and money, it was a bit better than teaching.

David Wynne is very successful, generous and funny. He's the sort of Terence Conran of the sculpture world. He knew and still knows a lot of groovy people, like the Beatles and Yehudi Menuhin - at the age of 14 or 15 I was very impressed by that.

He taught me that you could make money out of the arts. There was no art around in my home - I was brought up to be a teacher or a social worker. In fact, my parents still think I ought to get a proper job, like driving a community bus.

I didn't come from a very well-off background so I was probably impressed by the discovery that you could make money doing something you enjoyed rather going off to the City like all my friends' parents did.

David Wynne encouraged me when I had left school and felt that I was a complete failure. He had a very nice wife called Gilly who is now dead. She was the first woman I'd met who was really her own person. She just talked to me as if I were grown-up. In 1967 or 1968 there weren't many people who talked to you as if you were their equals.

The other person who taught me a lot was my first employer at Pizza Express. He was a chap called Hugh Godfrey. We had a great time. He taught me about opera and wine and we used to go out with girls together.

In 1980 he discovered the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and went to live in Mentmore Towers. He has been there ever since. He was a brilliant sportsman. He liked to be the best at everything and now he's probably the best meditator. He taught me about business.

I have learned by experience. I've had loads of jobs. I've worked as a florist, a cartographer, a porter in a mental hospital. All the jobs you do teach you something. Teaching was quite useful because the average restaurant staff size is about 25 and it's a bit like a classroom - you have to get them alert and excited but you've still got to be in charge. It's entertainment psychology. In the early days I used a lot of that. I'm still learning, I'm learning all the time. In business you have to do that or your competitors will steal a march on you.

David Page, 43, is chief executive of Pizza Express, a public company with a capital value of Pounds 210million, 2,000 employees and 105 restaurants in British towns and cities. Three new branches open in London soon and one in Belfast this autumn.

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