Dr Ian Wilson, founder and chairman of Wexas, passed away on Friday 20th November 2020, just after his 77th birthday, following a cancer diagnosis and sudden complications from resulting surgery.
Given Ian’s indomitable spirit, recent medical assessments were for him, when we last spoke, summarily dismissed, surmountable details. In his optimism, penned to pragmatism, there never was a problem he couldn’t overcome, in the knowledge that he’d seen them all before, and was rarely defeated. Not in his twenties, not in his seventies. That takes a certain amount of confidence. To be fair, that confidence needed talent and will to give it impetus.
Ian had impetus enough. To abandon a gilt-edged, secure and predictable future for an uncertain toss of the dice on founding a travel company, is testament to his maverick genius. Shortly after graduating from Oxford, Ian was set on a trajectory of London glamour, an account executive in advertising, destined for life of assured ease. Yet, out of some stubbornness and an acknowledgement of the appeal of a wider world, he founded Wexas Travel in the early Seventies, on the basis of a bet. One summer evening, he set his fellow lodger Richard a challenge: that if he started a travel club, it would be more successful than the student travel operation Richard had started at Oxford and was still running.
Ian’s germ of an idea grew into a thriving and distinguished company, with an honorary board of members that represented the great and good in exploration, including Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Colonal John Blashford-Snell, Sir Wilfred Thesiger, Sir Michael Palin and many others. He sent tens of thousands of people on their way to discover the world, and invented the idea of annual travel insurance in 1982 – a common concept now but he was years ahead of the competition. He made it easier for every other traveller, because he believed discovery, exploration, and time spent somewhere else, were important. He was an original, a pioneer. He was absolute in his ideals; for him, travel was an experience, as opposed to a week or two away. He never, ever, believed he was wrong about that principle.
This attitude of invincible conviction, against the odds, propelled his fledgling company into a successful business, and his magazine Traveller into a fine publication. It fuelled many of the friendly arguments we had over the years, he as publisher and I as editor. We were both impassioned about every page and prepared to endlessly argue the last word, each photograph. Most of the debates were held over his vast desk, as he sotto voce insisted upon what he thought was right, and we batted ideas back and forth, Traveller table tennis. His talent as a linguist and his obsession for detail often took articles that were already good to a more polished place. Ian didn’t need to care as much as he did, but the point was that he did, because he was as proud of the magazine as he was of the company he founded. He could have insisted on the magazine being a commercial brochure – he insisted on the very opposite.
His instinct was to buck the trend, despite his commercial convictions and seemingly conventional lifestyle. He’d been living in Chelsea for over 40 years and was Chairman of a notable company for 50, so on the surface, seemingly establishment.
Except Ian wasn’t. He was a part of it, but apart from it, a true loner. Perhaps this was because it was always so. He was born in Edinburgh, and thereafter had a here and there life – a childhood in England, where he was considered a Scot, years labelled a Pom in New Zealand, where he took his first degree before returning as a perceived Kiwi to take his masters at Oxford.
This made Ian something of an iconoclast, and the most extraordinary hippy – in that he really was – he never followed the crowd that refused to follow the crowd. His son Mark told me that when everyone else around Ian was heading to Woodstock, Ian decided to head for California and some surf instead. Mark and his sister Jackie expected Ian to surf on forever, they thought he would be doing it even if he had to attach a Zimmer frame to his surfboard. He picked up that surfboard in 1963 and carried it everywhere he went, every year.
He went to islands beyond far-flung decades ago, many of which are still so, and was proud to have visited over 130 countries in his lifetime. There was hardly an article I ran where he didn’t say – “Ah, I went there years ago”. The only exception and place was an account on surfing in Antarctica.
Ian also pushed boundaries as an author, delving into the identity of Shakespeare’s mysterious dark lady, published as the novel Black Jenny and later on, compiling the idiosyncratic Little Dictionary of Big Words. He graduated with a first class Honours Masters Degree in French from Auckland University and a doctorate in French political philosophy from Brasenose College, Oxford. He held numerous other accolades, but I will always remember him for his kindness when most needed, his insistence on perfection on the pages of Traveller, and despite his privileged position, an intuitive understanding of how the world turned. On the surface, we could not have been more disparate in our
backgrounds, but in many of our editorial instincts we were similar, and his grace and wisdom allowed many thoughts, debates, ideas, and directions to flourish. I will always be grateful for his ability to see beyond the surface, and over horizons.
He is survived by his three children – Mark, Jackie and Thomas – and three grandchildren, Otto, Elska, and most recently Rainer, born just weeks ago.
Written by Amy Sohanpaul
Read a tribute for Ian in the Telegraph
Image credit: Ian Wilson
Dr Ian Wilson (1943 – 2020). Image credit: Ian Wilson
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