Mark Wilkinson did not have an easy time at school. He was severely dyslexic but it was the 1950s and nobody could understand what was wrong with him so his condition went undiagnosed. As a result, he spent most of his time staring out of the window. Nor did he find much support for his difficulties at home, a council house in Buckinghamshire. ‘My parents were fearsomely clever people, but they were also frustrated intellectually’, he says. ‘
They would have loved to have gone to university. I was obviously smart, so when I didn’t come home with good results they used to get cross with me. They were disappointed that I was not some form of achiever because they wanted that for themselves.’ He was encouraged to sing by a music teacher at school, and at the age of 13 was good enough to be offered a place at the London School of Music. But his family advised him to turn it down because they did not think he would be able to cope. 137 138 How I Made It Wilkinson’s time at school was not entirely wasted, however.
While staring out of the window he gradually taught himself the art of looking at objects in a completely different way. He says: ‘I spent a lot of time changing the geography around me and visually playing with the environment, moving tractors and hedges and trees round. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-thirties that I realized it wasn’t something that everybody could do.’ Happily, he was taken under the wing of the master of the craft who persuaded his other teachers to let him work alone at the back of his class. Wilkinson made stained-glass windows and carved things from wood while other lessons went on around him. He says: ‘I owe a lot to the master of my craft.
He understood what made me tick and he believed in me completely.’ Wilkinson also began to spend his evenings and weekends helping to make furniture with his father and grandfather, who were both carpenters. When he left school at Mark Wilkinson 139 at the age of 14 without any qualifications and hardly able to read or write, he realized making furniture was something that suited him. He says: ‘I learned that if I wanted to be accepted and not be called thick and stupid, as I was at school, then the way lay in making things beautiful. Since then making things beautiful has almost been a neurotic compulsion. It is something that gives me great solace.
’ By the age of 19 Wilkinson was good enough to be offered a place at college in High Wycombe to study furniture making. Once again, however, he turned it down because he was frightened of failing within the education system. Instead, when his parents moved to Somerset, he went with them and, on impulse, bought a derelict nine-bedroom monastery. Because he had no money of his own he did a deal with the woman who sold it to him to pay her the money in installments. Wilkinson renovated the monastery with the help of friends and then rented out rooms to them. He says: ‘I was the richest hippy around.
We used to race around the countryside advertising for Baby Belling cookers. It was great fun.’ He also started up a workshop in the garden of the monastery, where he began making wooden doors and windows for local building companies.