Corona's corporate victims continue to pile up, from Playboy magazine and The Jewish Chronicle to airlines around the world. I had a crummy flight on Virgin Australia - Perth to Adelaide - a few years back, and have eschewed it ever since. But I may not be able to maintain my boycott: It has now gone into bankruptcy administration, and Virgin Atlantic looks to be heading the same way. Richard Branson has been forced to explain that, even though he's worth Â£4.7 billion, it's not kept in a silo on his private island where he ploughs it back and forth like Scrooge McDuck, and right now he's having a bit of a hard time laying his hands on the folding stuff.
The suggestion that the Government of the United Kingdom bail out Virgin Atlantic has not been well-received. Sir Richard is domiciled in a tax haven - the British Virgin Islands, of course - and so Fleet Street's finest have pointed out that the great man does not personally support the National Health Service with his taxes yet expects everybody else to divert their taxes from the NHS to rescue his flagship brand.
Is this the end of Britain's most flamboyant entrepreneur? I wouldn't bet on it. As I noticed in this profile of him for The Sunday Telegraph twenty-two years ago, Branson has spent his entire life being rescued by the government:
When he was four, Richard Branson's mother left him on the side of the road and told him: "It's time you became a man." By nightfall, young Richard still hadn't made it home and, not for the last time, a rescue crew had to be sent out.
In the years since, many of us have wondered why Richard Branson can't just get lost. Instead, like that other resiliently bearded opportunist Rasputin, Branson has proved impossible to dispatch.
When he was skydiving, he pulled the wrong cord. Rather than opening the parachute, he jettisoned it and plunged into free fall at 10,000 feet. Anyone else would have wound up splattered like pizza across the asphalt far below, but, in the sort of stunt you only see in action movies, Branson's instructors managed to catch him.
Then there was his first attempt to cross the Atlantic by balloon. The thing fell apart, and, assuming he was about to meet his maker, Branson scribbled a hasty farewell note. But, amazingly, he happened to come down in the middle of a Royal Navy exercise, and Her Majesty's bemused seamen were there to fish him out of the briny.
And what about his transpacific flight? His balloon, instead of landing in California, blew way off course and crashed in the Arctic wastes of Canada's North-West Territories. For six hours he sat huddled on the tundra. It was 55 degrees below freezing and frostbite had set in. Then, in the nick of time, a rescue team appeared on the horizon.
And then there was...
But enough. Later this month Branson is due to take off on yet another round-the-world ballooning attempt - that is, if he's finished giving evidence in the libel suit arising from his allegation that he was offered a bribe to withdraw his bid for the National Lottery. This week Branson begins giving evidence in the High Court. If he's not finished in a week, he'll have to postpone his scheduled take-off from Morocco on January 20. On the other hand, the judge could just recess for a day or two, knowing that, on past form, Branson's balloon will almost certainly be coming down after 48 hours, quite possibly over the witness box.
Between his ballooning feats and his ballooning legal costs (he's doggedly litigious, as British Airways well knows), Branson somehow found time to set up a worldwide business empire, extending at various stages from record stores to pensions. In its way, Virgin is even more insidiously ubiquitous than Disney. The compleat Virgin man can board a Virgin Atlantic flight in New York, relax on board with a Virgin V2 CD and a glass of Virgin Cola, land in Britain, take a Virgin Railways train, bump into a supermodel from Branson's agency Storm (possibly even Kate Moss or Elle McPherson), catch a movie with her at a Virgin Cinema, send her off to the one-stop wedding shop Virgin Bride to book a Virgin Travel honeymoon at a Virgin hotel, decide to drop in for a nightcap at Branson's gay nightclub Heaven, get blotto on Virgin Vodka, pick up some muscular hunk in buttock-hugging Virgin Jeans and go back to his place, listening to Virgin Radio in the car and, of course, stopping off at the all-night chemist for a packet of Branson's condoms (Mates, not Virgin).
Otherwise, God forbid, you might catch some grisly disease not covered by your Virgin Insurance policy. Mind you, even if you do, by then he'll probably have started up Virgin Coffins, the new interactive casket that enables you to play state-of-the-art video games even when you're six feet under.
Branson himself is the ultimate Mate, bouncing jollily from one outpost of the empire to another like a giant anthropomorphised prophylactic in a Scandinavian public health announcement. Perhaps if he wore a huge condom on his head, we might be less at risk from his lethally infectious charm. As it is, whatever his claims for the Virgin brand, it doesn't in practice seem to be anything more than an expression of his personality. Other airlines' frequent-flyer programmes offer you upgrades and discount flights; Virgin's offers you - what else? - ballooning holidays on Branson's very own Virgin Island, Necker in the Caribbean. For the opening of the first Virgin Bride shop near Trafalgar Square, Branson appeared in a white bridal gown with big bow and fluffy train and threw red roses to the world's press as he showed off a fishnet-clad leg. To launch Virgin Touch, his in-flight massage service, he posed nude on a table for a rub-down from twelve of his trolley dollies.
This sort of thing can rub people up the wrong way. One of his party tricks is to grab a female guest by the waist and up-end her, thus exposing her knickers: Ivana Trump did not take it well, but winners of Virgin Atlantic's Flight Attendant of the Month award have learned to grin and bare it.
If Branson seems not so much virginal as a chronically immature college student, that may be because it's the one thing he's never been. The son of a lawyer and a former air hostess, he had a comfortable Fifties childhood and then went to Stowe. In 1966, aged 15, he started a magazine called Student. It proved so successful he was able to drop out of Stowe to run it full time. Today, at 47, he's the second best-known businessman in the world after Bill Gates, who admittedly doesn't feel the need to appear publicly in bunny suits and Spiderman costumes. Unlike Gates, Branson has made his money not in new technology but in old businesses - shops, radio stations - dressed up in new ideas. There are many who wish the genial Freddie Laker had been the one to see off British Airways, but in their hearts they must know that Branson is more in tune with the spirit of the times: where Laker offered a no-frills service, Branson offers an all-frills service - non-stop rock videos and party games across the Atlantic. In an age obsessed with amusement and diversion, his insight was that every humdrum activity could be turned into an entertainment: today, the Virgin Megastore in Paris attracts more visitors than the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower. Recalling the early days of Virgin Records, he said: "People thought that because we were 21 or 22 and had long hair, we were part of some grander ideal. But it was always 99.5 per cent business."
It still is, even though the professional virgin retains his long hair, boyish smile and unpressed garb. To the public, that seems to be enough to set him apart from the sharks in suits and even to endow him with unique moral insights: in one poll he was named the person most suitable, after Mother Teresa, to rewrite the Ten Commandments. At present, he keeps most of the old ones: he doth not commit adultery: he frolicks wildly in his publicity stunts but always goes home, albeit at 3am, to his second wife, Joan Templeman, and their two children. Even so, the people's faith in him is puzzling. The only public-service role he's ever attempted, when Mrs Thatcher put him in charge of tidying up the streets, dribbled away to nothing: Branson found cleaning up Britain far harder than cleaning up in business. His empire is reportedly worth pounds 1.7 billion, but analysts are uncertain about the true worth: Its complex structure makes its financial position difficult to assess.
But that's for the bean-counters. In the end, Branson's best-known product remains himself: When the British are polled about becoming a republic, his name inevitably crops up as potential President. That surely would be Virgin on the ridiculous, but who knows? Richard Branson could be the first Virgin since Elizabeth I to go all the way.
~from The Sunday Telegraph, January 11th 1998
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