During the London Toy Fair, I attended the brilliant UK Inventor's Dinner and sat next to the most intriguing person – Torquil Norman. He was engaging, entertaining, charming and a proper English gentleman (the latter until he told stories of past inventor dinners and running across table tops to elude the police and such).
You know Torquil is an interesting person when his Wikipedia entry starts out, "An Old Etonian, graduate of Harvard and Cambridge, he stands 6' 7". Torquil gained his pilot’s license at eighteen, did National Service in the Fleet Air Arm and when he left, bought a Piper Comanche, flew in No. 601 Squadron RAF and took up skydiving, a passion shared by his wife Anne.
After working as an investment banker in the United States for eleven years (years in USA during the war as a child, then a year at Harvard and five years at JP Morgan), he returned to the UK in the 1960s and subsequently entered the toymaking industry, first as chief executive of Berwick Timpo toy company from 1973, and then in 1980 founding Bluebird Toys, makers of the Big Yellow Teapot House, the Big Red Fun Bus, and the very successful Polly Pocket line of dolls."
There’s more. He was knighted, is a philanthropist, designed and built a barge on the Seine to escape, piloted a plane over the Atlantic and North Pole and still more. Click on the wiki link to read highlights. He recently wrote an autobiographical introduction to a book he is penning about lousy government, Kick the Tyres, Light the Fires. I asked if I might share a part of it. It was quite difficult to choose just one story from the 62 pages, but the idea of giving back to the world, in particular to children, resonated. I think you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I did.
Torquil: "I should explain a bit of background to my involvement with the Roundhouse. In 1986 my wife Anne, who was always a wonderful supporter of good causes, had been giving my overdraft away at such a rate that I couldn't keep up with it, particularly as we had five young children approaching school age.
So to try and buy time to catch up, I persuaded her that we should take around a third of our shares in Bluebird Toys and put them into a charitable trust which, if it was successful, would be dedicated to good causes – mostly, we agreed, related to young people. The other two thirds we divided among ourselves and our children. The company was only small at that time (just five years old) so to me it didn't seem a huge sacrifice and Anne was happy with the idea. To our surprise, largely due to the worldwide success of our miniature doll Polly Pocket, Bluebird started to fly from that moment on. By the time I retired from Bluebird the charity had built up a significant amount of money.
When Anne and I discussed it we both thought the best idea was to devote the money, which amounted to over £6 million, to a large project related to the well-being of young people, rather than spread it around among large numbers of small projects. We felt, for a lot of reasons, that during our lifetime many young people in Britain had received a lousy deal.
I remember as a young man after the war thinking that the country could only get better and that Britain was a wonderful place in which to live and work. It was full of energy, life and exciting ideas and the future seemed unlimited. Thanks to an excellent education and a small amount of capital inherited at a young age following the death of my father, it was clear that my own life had been especially privileged. Although, during the intervening years, the country has got richer, the gap between rich and poor has grown ever wider, and all around us so many young people with so much potential have been poorly educated, remain in poverty and suffer all the problems related to that. Society also suffers as a result.
We wanted to spend our money on something that would demonstrate how to work with large numbers of mostly deprived young people and show them a better way of living their lives. Perhaps over ambitiously, we wanted to build a model that might be copied all over the country – to actually do something rather than talking about it – which could leave young people better off than when we started.
Most of the varied projects which I had worked on during my life had one thing in common. They seemed fairly straightforward in concept but turned out to be much larger, more complicated and time-consuming than I had ever imagined when it came to seeing them through. The phrase ‘biting off more than one can chew, and then chewing it’ used to occur to me.
The idea for the Roundhouse came to me in the bath. This was where I got most of my ideas (both good and presumably most of the bad ones too). Perhaps it was the hot water that stimulated me. It probably followed something I had read in the local paper. Anyway, I thought I would try to research the ownership of the famous Roundhouse in Chalk Farm to find out whether it could be bought. Anne and I had fond memories of taking our children there for musical performances when they were young, but it had been a pretty wild place in those days and had subsequently fallen on hard times and stood virtually derelict for years, immune to all attempts thus far to resurrect it.
By strange coincidence I was introduced at the very same time to the daughter of one of my Cambridge rowing crew. She came for a drink one evening with her partner, who happened to be a leading London estate agent. I asked, by way of conversation, whether he thought the Roundhouse could be bought. He answered unequivocally that he was pretty certain it could be. I discovered later that his brother, a property developer, was actually occupying the car park adjacent to the Roundhouse. This seemed to me divine intervention, and as a non believer I guess I shall never come closer to the real thing.
A couple of weeks later I had made an offer to the owners of around £3 million in s cash from our Trust, which was accepted, and without any form of due diligence (beyond my wandering around the smelly, pitch-dark undercroft with a torch and inspecting the title) Anne and I, as sole trustees, became its new owners.
Be all that as it may, we did eventually buy it and in fact we needed all that time (and a good bit more) to raise over £30 million to pay for the construction and the equipping of what has since become one of the finest venues in London as well as a huge creative centre for the benefit of young people. Most of our personal funding was set up as an endowment to support the Roundhouse for the indefinite future. We gave the Roundhouse Trust a 99 year lease on the building and the car park for the particular, defined purpose of supporting work with young people in exchange for what the agreement calls ‘one red rose’.
When I last enquired, the Roundhouse Studios had worked with well over 20,000 young people, many very disadvantaged, from a wide range of social, cultural and religious backgrounds. It is interesting to note that throughout the ten years that we have now been working with these young people, none of the team has lost or had damaged or stolen a single piece of equipment and the young people themselves have been exemplary in every way. It has proved to me what I suspected (but had had no experience of beyond the personal): that young people respond to encouragement, help, support, responsibility and the feeling of belonging in surprisingly generous ways. They grow in confidence and their attitudes change. It is verging on the miraculous how people can change in such circumstances.
We have to inspire young people to become creative themselves, rather than passively sitting around, watching their pop idols on TV, listening to their iPods, playing computer games and feeling excluded. They could be designing the games, playing the music and performing on stage! We know this because we have done it over and over again."
Pictures (in order): The 1936 DH Dragonfly Torquil flew to Oshkosh from England in 1995, Anne with two eldest boys – Jesse and Casey in 1965, Torquil with Big Yellow Teapot (first toy) and friends, the second barge Torquil designed for vacations, the 1993 DH 85 Leopard Moth en route to Oshkosh from England in 2000 and the Roundhouse in London.