Not pure, just determined

Losing My Virginity: The Autobiography
By Richard Branson

Are you ready to be humbled into admitting that you have, after all, been a pretty lazy git for most of your life? Are you ready to be energised into vowing that you will achieve what you want to, however many years ago it was that you originally planned to do so?

A summary of this book might be the title of the prologue: “Screw it. Let’s do it.” It’s not technically a self- help book – would you trust a guru who plastered his goatie- adorned face on the cover? – but it may as well be. Richard Branson’s ghost-written autobiography is a ripper of a read – it’s both exhausting and embarassing to review your own meagre achievements by the time you turn the final page.

As a piece of autobiographical literature, it’s standard, almost dumbed-down fare. The story of the first 43 years of Branson’s life – he makes clear that this is just Volume One, and he recently turned 50 – is not deep or philosophical. It begins with an account of a close shave on one his famous balloon world record attempts, when he and his copilot make an emergency landing in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria.

Then, predictably enough, we flashback to his happy, family- centred childhood. Like many successful entrepreneurs, Branson does poorly at school, and still couldn’t read by the age of eight due to suffering from undiagnosed dyslexia. Nevertheless, he excels at sport, and being England, this is enough for him to get by, although an injury eventually means he has to knuckle down and study seriously.

When he was just fifteen, he and a mate fatefully decided to put together a school magazine, called Student: The Magazine for Britain’s Youth. It was eventually published in January 1968. And that’s where Branson’s life begins to be woven with the social and commercial history of England in the second half of the twentieth century.

Branson interviewed such icons as Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Gerald Scarfe and Dudley Moore. He shifted, however, away from journalistic aspirations towards the practical side of running the business, desperately trying to sell advertising and using every hilarious trick in the book to do so.

Then Branson and his mates decide to branch out into the record retailing business, and the name Virgin is born. Then the record label is born, and Mike and Sally Oldfield are signed, and business really takes off, albeit for a bouncy few decades.

The inside story behind Branson’s trips to Baghdad during the Gulf Crisis, and the long-winded Virgin and BA dispute are given just as much attention as Branson’s love life. While the latter might be an interesting read, it’s the BA dispute in particular that’s rivetting and is likely to make you refuse to ever fly with them again.

In Branson’s words, the episode is “one of the fiercest, most focused and vicious attacks ever launched by an airline against a small competitor.” It’s about the British class system as much as anything else, with an upstart entrepreneur giving the established airline a run for its money. And Branson doesn’t hold back from naming names.

In one exchange, Branson tells Sir Colin Marshall, the chief executive of BA that their engineering was so bad it could have brought an aircraft down. The response, according to Branson? “That’s one of the perils of being in the aviation business. If you’d stuck to popular music you wouldn’t have had this problem.” Ouch.

Throw in a a near capsize during a fishing trip, a few almost catastrophic balloon rides, and it’s clear that Branson is a man who’s time should have come many years ago. His accounts of escaping with his life by a whisper are hair- raising, and told with typical British understatement, although a Canadian does manage a good line.

Branson and his companion land in Canada, 3,000 kilometres away from where they should have: “ ‘We’ve landed on a lake surrounded by trees.’ ‘It’s a frozen lake,’ came the laconic Canadian voice. ‘It’s quite safe. The only trouble is that there are about 800,000 lakes in your vicinity and they’ve all got plenty of trees.’ “

Branson is also humble enough to recall stories where he has played the fool. For example, there’s the honeymoon couple who ask him for a photograph after Virgin’s win against BA has been splashed all over the papers in the UK. He says sure, and strikes a pose. “ ‘Sorry’, the husband said. ‘We were hoping that you could take our photograph. I’m Edward, and this is my wife Araminta. What’s your name?’ “

The beauty of Branson and his achievements – both in the business world and in competitive sport, although the line between the two can be blurred – is that he actually doesn’t seem like an awfully sharp or conventionally business-minded chap. He makes business deals seem like a mere matter of thinking things over a little, and then going for them. It’s about taking risks and having fun, and not getting bogged down in details:

“Some people say that my vision for Virgin breaks all the rules and is too wildly kaleidoscopic; others say that Virgin is set to become one of the leading brand names of the next century; others analyse it down to the last degree and then write academic papers on it. As for me, I just pick up the phone and get on with it.”

Branson continues to lead an amazing life, having recently been granted a knighthood. Catch up on the life behind the man whose businesses are making headlines at the Virgin empire continues to grow. You’ll be inspired by the breezy read and be shown that all it really takes to be successful is enthusiasm, passion and persistence, no matter where your ambitions lie.

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