- Branson by Tom Bower
Fourth Estate, 384 pp, £17.99, September 2000, ISBN 1 84115 386 9
I find myself nostalgic for the time, long ago, when one thing the very rich and very famous could be relied on to do was shut up. Paul Getty, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Princess Grace of Monaco wrapped their money around themselves in the form of impenetrable walls and/or designer sunglasses and kept silent while the world wondered and chattered. And you would imagine that if money could do anything for you it would be to insulate you from having to care what other people thought. The people don’t have to vote for you, they don’t have to love you. But even princesses and tycoons have to seem to be democratic and lovable these days. They have to sell their brand by selling themselves. Sometimes their brand is themselves. There are power lists and personalities of the year, decade and century, and however filthy with wealth you are, you have to worry about ‘the people’, you have to care what they think of you. We’ve had our people’s princess, desperate to become the queen of people’s hearts, and we still have the people’s tycoon noisily committed to running the People’s Lottery, apparently free of charge. The pitch is to demand to be seen as ordinary, just like you and me, only richer and more glamorous, of course, because it does the populace a power of good to see heightened images of what they might have been, kitted out in fine frocks and indulging in dangerous sports no one else can afford. And they want it known, these rich people, that in spite of their morale-boosting high life, they devote themselves to the well-being of others, and the greater benefit of the nation. They nurture, they improve, they innovate, they care. They are also – well, they are modern icons – consummate moaners. They complain loudly and publicly about being misunderstood, underappreciated, and afflicted on all sides by the forces of repression, tradition and evil. Since they’re on the side of the people, any attack on them is tantamount to an attack on the ordinary folk they would like us to believe they represent. They are, it turns out, latter-day saints, deflecting and taking on themselves the slights and assaults of the elitist, convention-bound enemy, becoming martyrs and shields of the people. And my God how they whine, how they snivel, how they demand our attention and sympathy.
Still riding on a wave of sentiment that may not have had much more energy left in it, the Princess of Wales timed her exit impeccably. It is tempting to think that Richard Branson also understood, if only unconsciously, that public adulation is likely to tire and turn into its own opposite. Blonde, blue-eyed, apparently artless – like the Princess – he took what seemed to be life-threatening risks by boat and balloon, and nearly came a cropper once or twice, so that he, too, might have gone while the going was still good. As luck (or his carefully-chosen fellow adventurers) would have it, however, he has survived, and it may be that he is about to outlive his popular acclaim. It seemed appropriate that Branson’s grinning face, on the cover of Virgin Publishing’s ghosted autobiography, was seen in virtually every episode of Big Brother, and while the graspingly hopeful housemates came and went, the Branson book stayed, to be taken up by the decreasing remainder as a favourite read. Surely it must have been the devious, miscalculating and ultimately naive Nick who brought it into the house? Nick got sussed by the public and eventually his fellow inmates. Is the same thing going to happen to Richard Branson? He who lives by public relations will die by public relations.
There have, of course, always been those who had their doubts about Richard Branson’s status as a millionaire with a heart of gold, and who have declined on principle to fly on Virgin planes, drink Virgin Cola or wine, invest in Virgin life insurance, wear a Virgin wedding dress, ride a Virgin train or speak on a Virgin mobile. Among these hold-outs, I wouldn’t be surprised, might have been Tom Bower, who tells us that halfway through writing this biography he found himself in receipt of a writ for defamation after an article he wrote in the Evening Standard. One way or another Virgin gets into your life, though Virgin Writs is not, so far as I know, registered at Companies House. The writ arrived after Branson failed to get Bower to agree to submit his unfinished manuscript to him before publication; it was addressed to Bower rather than the Evening Standard. A ploy, Bower believes, to discredit him and therefore the biography. The case comes to court next year.