How My Uncle Jim Showed Me the Fine Line Between Barmy and Genius

A story by Richard Branson

Characters team May 23. 2016
by Characters team

On previous occasions when I have been asked to write about my mentor, a few people always spring to mind. The first is always my mum, who has been there every single day of my life offering unceasing love and support. The second is my dad, who showed me in his own quiet, fun-loving way how to be a leader, a father, and a man. The third is Sir Freddie Laker, the entrepreneur who advised me so wisely when I started Virgin Atlantic.

This time, I thought I would speak about a mentor who didn’t have such a personal impact upon my life, but had a huge effect on the way I think about the world. My great-uncle Jim was an infamous member of the Army, who fought bravely in the Second World War. But he was best known for a quirk of character that made him quite notorious amongst the ranks: he enjoyed eating grass and thought it was a healthy practice! 

Uncle Jim lived in Balham, and was often seen eating his favourite meal. In fact, the Picture Post even ran a photo of him with his nosebag in hand, eating the hay he had grown in tubs in his bathroom. 

My father suffered in the army due to the quirk, with some of the other officers teasing him due to his connection with Uncle Jim. “You must be Jim Branson’s son! Here have some grass! You’re a sprightly looking colt. When are they going to geld you?”

But as the war progressed, the SAS set up a special regiment to travel light behind enemy lines. The news soon spread that Uncle Jim was secretly working for the SAS, advising the elite forces how to live off grass and nuts when food was scarce. After that, Dad was more than happy to let the connection be known.

While I always found this story amusing, Uncle Jim had also set me a quite wonderful example. Whenever everybody else thinks your idea is absolutely barmy, it could actually prove to be a stroke of genius.

There have been countless occasions in my business career where everyone has urged me to make one decision, and I have gone in the opposite direction – from setting up Virgin Atlantic to fighting to get Virgin Trains West Coast back on track, from signing The Sex Pistols to launching Virgin Brides. Not every move has worked, but that’s part of the fun and the best way to learn.

A story told by Richard Branson

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