The quicker Richard Branson sells Virgin Railways and moves on the better. The last two occasions my wife has had the misfortune to use his wretched railway she has been 60 minutes and 110 minutes late. We are sick and tired of his artificial smile (it reminds us of Mr Blair’s) and his publicity forever in the press and on television. Perhaps he should stick to balloons – they are also full of air and unreliable.
Letter in the Spectator, 3 January
These are, as they often are, volatile times for Virgin Enterprises. The radio station has been acquired by Chris Evans (another, but younger, artificial smile); a Virgin Atlantic airliner was shown, heart-stoppingly, on national news landing on half its undercarriage; the Virgin West Coast rail route is detested by its captive users even more than it was when run by BR; Virgin-Cola is so unlike the real thing that (to borrow Billy Wilder’s joke) Ukrainian peasants are using it for sheep dip; the balloon went up, up and away – without Richard Branson in it; but there was the dramatic victory over Guy Snowden, late of GTech and, by extension, the National Lottery – and there are the dirty books, which are selling like hot cakes.
Branson got into the pornography business with the complicated acquisition of W.H. Allen in 1986-87, which after a series of mergers resulted in the formation of Virgin Publishing in 1991. The jewel in the crown was the BBC licence for Dr Who books with their sub-Trekkie cult readership. W.H. Allen also owned Nexus – which claims to be Britain’s longest established imprint ‘devoted solely to erotica’. According to responses from readership survey coupons, ‘almost half of Nexus readers left school at or before age 16, and have household incomes of less than £20,000 a year.’ The largest contingent of book-buyers among the population as a whole is, by contrast, women who left school at 18 and have household incomes of over £20,000.
Branson has an astute eye for niche markets. Usually he aims for the trendy young, but he has recently targeted the trendy middle-aged with Virgin pensions and personal equity plans. He packages his wares in ways that flatter the customer’s self-image, making us feel gayer dogs than we are. And from his ‘Earls Court hippy’ days, Branson seems to have retained the knack of working communally, drawing on the creative talent of his subordinates. He is, it seems, a good man to work for and – more important – with. Virgin Records (founded in 1973) and the Megastore retailing operation which spun off from it six years later were his first successes. Branson had some luck (Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, notably). But the main reason for Virgin’s sustained success in the music industry was Branson’s perception that young CD-buyers wanted to be catered for by people just like themselves. An initial reason for the failure of Virgin Radio was its dreary AM frequency and the disc jockeys’ incorrigible talkativeness – which meant it was never taken up as a music station, even in Oxford Street. But it also failed because, unusually, Branson failed to identify his niche audience: Virgin Radio did not consistently target a single age-group, but got lost somewhere between Led Zeppelin and Coolio.
Branson is at his best applying imaginative touches to a decent pre-existing product or service delivery system. This is why his airline is so successful and his railway isn’t. In international air travel there is such a surplus of seats over customers and so little competition in price and reliability that sexier music channels, newer movies, individual TVs all round, and limos for the Upper Classes are all-important factors. Railways are different. Passengers like Mr and Mrs Wainwright don’t want ambient rock and roll, stylish logos and chirpy cabin staff – like everyone else, they want their train to be on time. Branson’s first, and largest, problem is that he bought by far the worst line – the track needing most repair.
His greatest asset is his manifest belief in what he is doing. Hence his projection of the Branson image (that smile, those teeth, that beard) onto everything he does. It amounts to what in rhetoric is called ‘ethical proof’ – using yourself as an argument for the rightness of what you are saying or selling. Mr Wainwright is correct; it does resemble one of Tony Blair’s techniques: the Prime Minister’s wide-eyed defence of his Party in the Ecclestone business, for instance. By interposing his own reassuring image between the band and the public, Branson was able to take on the Sex Pistols (after they had been dropped as too hot to handle by EMI) and repackage them as something as cosily British as Benny Hill. At some point, we may be sure, the Monarch will be called on to honour the entrepreneur who gave us (to his own considerable enrichment) Johnny Rotten’s ‘God Save the Queen’ (‘She ain’t no human being’).
Branson’s sanitising touch has been used to more worthy effect on occasion. His decision to purchase London’s leading gay club, Heaven, for half a million pounds in 1981, was taken against the advice of his senior business associates. It would, they predicted, damage Virgin’s image. (One of BA’s dirtier tricks, in the great 1992 battle, was to circulate the canard that Westminster dustmen refused to handle Heaven’s refuse, for fear of Aids-infected needles.) There were no pink pounds for Branson in Mates condoms. He launched the brand in 1987 as a charitable trust, the profits (which were considerable) to go to Aids research. Again the board was appalled. And again Branson pulled it off.
It is in part thanks to Branson’s entrepreneurship that pornography is on the way to being acceptable. Virgin did little with Nexus other than use a better grade of photography on the covers and continue publishing two new books a month in 9000-copy print runs: February 1998’s offerings were Private Memoirs of a Kentish Headmistress by ’Yolanda Celbridge’ and Julie at the Reformatory by ‘Angela Elgar’. But Virgin did persuade High Street and railway station bookshops to stock Nexus books and others like them openly, on ‘Gay and Erotica’ shelves. This was an achievement – Smith’s had got their freehold on English stations in 1848 on the strict condition that they would not stock ‘filth’.
Nexus has never, of course, been an echt Virgin product. Branson has not allowed the firm’s logo to be put on the books or the publicity material for the imprint. Nor is the outlook for printed-word pornography particularly bright. The genre is caught in a vice between slumping literacy levels in the ‘C’ and ‘D’ social classes and the explosive growth of hard-porn videos and photosets. As the Nexus ‘Guidelines to Authors’ (a richly comic document) puts it, ‘whether we like it or not, we are producing books that people will use as aids to masturbatory arousal.’ For this practical end, image has it over text every time. Male prisoners – captive readers – have always made up a large part of the market for unillustrated pornography; as did National Servicemen in their time.
With Nexus, Virgin Publishing inherited a couple of editors, Peter Darvill-Evans and Kerri Sharp, who had the wit to see that there was an untapped market for ‘erotic fiction written by women for women’ – Femporn. Since John Cleland, men have written pornography for men under female pseudonyms: a tradition which had been continued by Nexus. But this would be the real thing. The Black Lace imprint was launched in July 1993. It has been a success. Between two and three million books have been sold – the imprint published its 100th title in September 1997. Boosted by Black Lace (whose sales substantially outstrip those of Nexus), Virgin now claims to sell ‘more than all other erotica imprints (for men and women) combined’. This month or next, Black Lace is planning a major launch in the US.
Like its proprietor, Black Lace is publicly respectable. Unlike Nexus it has been permitted to carry (albeit discreetly) the identifying statement: ‘Black Lace is an imprint of Virgin Publishing Ltd.’ Surveys show that the readership is 80 per cent female, predominantly thirty-something, better educated and with a higher income than the national average’. The discreetly classy packaging helps (Sugar and Spice has a four-colour reproduction of La Maja Desnuda on its cover). Women, it seems, are not embarrassed about buying Black Lace books nor about reading them openly.
The settings and main characters of the short stories in Sugar and Spice are university students, au-pairs and their randy mistresses, high-flying secretaries. The general tone is caught in the opening words (and the wry title) of ‘A Predictable Kink’: ‘ “White or red?” he called through from the kitchen.’ Mid-story, ‘he’ is pouring the stuff (red as it happens) on her ‘bud of pleasure’. Interesting other things are done to the bud with a dildo. ‘She’ is, we learn between multiple climaxes, a ‘top lawyer’ – ‘not just some junior assistant solicitor who worked a 16-hour day for a pittance and some praise’. It ends with her, having had all the bud-pleasuring she wants, walking out. In a tantrum ‘he’ smashes the crockery in his kitchen and tears up the tea-towels, muttering tearfully: ‘I feel so totally, utterly, betrayed. I was so sure of her ... I knew, just knew she would be moving in with me.’ Think again, wimp.
Black Lace products are strictly rule-governed. No male authors (although all the books are pseudonymous). No children, animals, bloodshed, parent/child incest, rape, drugs, satire, farce (‘a big turn-off’), water sports, necrophilia, coprophilia, menstruation, prostitution or working-class sleaze. Buggery, bondage, non-injurious flagellation, instrumental penetration, troilism and (sensitive) sibling incest are OK. A minimum of obscene words is preferred: ‘Authors should consider Anaïs Nin’s concept of a “female language”. Lingering, arousing prose is preferred to base anatomical description ... Women like fully realised characters,’ the authors’ guidelines stress, ‘and are interested in relationships between characters ... on the other hand, keep things simple. The equation is straightforward: more plot means less sex, and we want lots of sex.’ Who doesn’t?
In preparation for the US launch, Black Lace has been using American settings and authors. Ménage is set in Philadelphia. The heroine, Kate Winthrop (spot the allusion to the Puritan) runs a bookshop, Mostly Romance, on South Street and lives in a ‘two hundred year old colonial house’ on Society Hill (the topography is accurate). Mostly Romance is one of the new generation of niche bookshops, and is currently more profitable than the local chains and the next-door New Age store. Kate has a back room, in which she keeps ‘a collection of erotica from all over the world’. She is thinking of opening a second shop.
As the story begins, Kate is returning from work. Her evening’s programme is simple: ‘Masturbation first, then dinner, then TV, then to bed with my smutty book.’ But, like a modern Goldilocks, she discovers her two gay lodgers Joe (an introverted composer of great gifts) and Sean (a wayward Penn hardbody) frolicking in her queen-sized bed. They invite her to join in. The subsequent 260 pages follow, with ingenuity, the twists, turns, plungings, lickings, ticklings, cross-dressings, whippings and emotional complications of the threesome. It ends happily.