His father, Ted, descended from a long line of barristers and judges. Though more inclined toward archaeology than the law, he bowed to family tradition and became a barrister and magistrate himself, but he did not force his son to follow him. It was from Eve that Richard inherited not only his Nordic blue eyes but also what one of Branson's biographers, Mick Brown, calls "an indefatigable energy and a determination which could border on the obsessive."
A svelte, beautiful blonde, Eve trained and worked as a dancer, then turned to acting on the West End stage and later worked as an airline hostess for British South American Airways, serving in a converted Lancaster bomber in the days when, flying above the Andes, passengers had to wear oxygen masks. As a young woman she also learned to fly gliders, and during World War II she taught RAF cadets to fly. "I had to pretend I was a boy," she says. "They wouldn't allow me to do it otherwise."
Eve forbade her children to watch television. Her enduring message, Richard says, was firm and clear: "Don't watch other people doing things. Do something useful. Stop messing around in front of the box. Get off your butt and go out and climb trees!"
He must have climbed every tree in Devon, where the family spent summer holidays, and he hunted rabbits with his father and explored the fields and woods of the countryside. Eve decided to turn him into an explorer when he was very young. When Branson was a curly-locked, angelic boy of four, she looked at him one day and said to herself, He isn't spunky enough. How can I make this little laddie spunky enough? The family was driving through Devon one afternoon, about two miles from their house, when Eve asked Ted to stop. She then told Richard to get out of the car and find his own way back. "He climbed over a hedge," Eve recalls, "and I said, 'We'll meet you at home. See you in about half an hour.' "
Hours passed and still no Richard. As darkness fell, in a kind of panic—"I told you so," Ted harrumphed—they started beeping the horn of the car and flashing its headlights and calling his name. Then the phone rang: "I have a little blond laddie with blue eyes named Richard," said a neighboring farmer. "Is he yours?" He had been out in the fields chasing butterflies and wandering among the hills and hedges.
No wonder, given the family's inclination to nurture boldness, that he came to adulthood with a dauntless self-confidence that fueled his overweening drive. He was not a reader—the midnight fires burned in him, not in front of him—and he found his boarding school experience, at Stowe, in Buckingham, to be wasteful and confining. "I rebelled against it," Branson says. "I thought the way I was being taught was archaic. So much of the day was wasted."
In 1967, with students in Europe and America protesting the Vietnam War and espousing assorted social causes, Branson left Stowe and threw his seething energy and enthusiasm into founding a magazine, Student, that he hoped would be a voice for young activists. He was 17. The first issue of Student came out in January 1968. With a small staff, Branson not only solicited advertising, using a public telephone to make his spiel, but also cajoled contributions from notable writers. Early issues of the magazine included articles by French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, who had won, but declined to accept, the 1964 Nobel Prize in literature, as well as novelist Alice Walker and poet Stephen Spender.
Branson was relentless. Having learned once that James Baldwin, the eminent African-American writer, was staying at a London hotel, he lugged his outsized tape recorder—a two-foot-square console—to his door and requested an interview. When Baldwin saw him standing there, holding that machine, how could he refuse? "I was young and enthusiastic, and people found it difficult to say no," Branson says.
The press run of Student reached 100,000 copies, but keeping it alive was an endless ordeal. It never made any money. "It just about washed its face," Branson says. "But it was a good education for me. It taught me all about business and how to survive."
The popular music business was booming in the late 1960s, and Branson, seeing his first real business opportunity, opened a discount mail-order business to undercut the inflated prices that shops were charging for records. Virgin Mail-order flourished, but when British postal workers launched a lengthy strike in 1971, closing down that business, Branson did not blink. "We try to be chameleonlike and adapt quickly," he says. He opened up a record shop on Oxford Street in London and sold discount records there.