10 OCTOBER 1998, Page 39

The greatest one-man show on earth

James Hanson

LOSING MY VIRGINITY by Richard Branson Virgin, £20, pp. 469 Have no fear, Branson is here! He grabs you on page one and never lets go. His story is compelling reading and would be a classic 'how to' lesson for life, if you had the will to follow his example. He's larger than life, and it shows on every page. Hurry, hurry, read all about it.

Branson is the most admired business- man in Britain today, according to the poll that concerns itself with that. And so he should be, as not only does his enterprise inspire others, but he works hard on his image. He's knocked the establishment 'grey suits' out of the box and the public, not just the business world, rightly admires him. You name it, he's started it, and most- ly succeeded. And talk about foresight! He formed his own publishing company in 1991, probably just to produce this book.

He knows he's the business image of today, and it's all there in his far from mod- est autobiography. His life has been a roller-coaster ride, and he writes that way. Dramatic ups and downs, simple, bright, exhilarating, leaving you safe and sound at the end. 'I believe in you,' as the window- cleaner later to become chairman of the board sang to the mirror in How to Succeed in Business. That's Richard. He believes in him. But there's nothing wrong with that. Britain, more than ever, needs more entrepreneurs, and here comes Richard to fulfil your every need — on anything, friends, from cosmetics to an airline ticket.

But the 'grinning pullover', as Lord King described him? Is there substance? I think so. Is he as nice as he seems? Or is he a snake-oil salesman? His book tells all and reveals that he's something of each.

The Virgin child: pushed hard by his par- ents to achieve more and more, even at the age of five he was desperate to win the ten shillings his Aunt Joyce had promised him if he could learn to swim during that sum- mer holiday. (`I had never held that amount of money before.') Oh, he made it all right, but only on the car journey home, in a river where he insisted on having a last try and nearly drowned in his.. . yes, suc- cessful attempt. And his life has been true to that pattern. Try, try, try again.

The Virgin student: his early outstanding sports ability came to a sudden end with a serious accident in a school soccer match at the age of 12. Being a non-sports student, a disaster, as he says, at British public schools, he occupied his afternoons in the school library where the ideas about his future career began to germinate. He had time to think and consider his destiny and, even at that age, he had a million ideas.

The loss of Virginity: time spent seduc- ing the headmaster's daughter ended in expulsion, overturned shortly afterwards because of his carefully leaked suicide note. Not that he was forgiven, but no doubt a suicide would not have looked good on the school's record. This was the first example of Branson's aptitude for spin control which continues to serve him well today. A dyslexic who became a prize- winning scholar, he admits to cheating his way through some exams, exposing his frankness and remarkable ingenuity.

The Virgin businessman: hot air has played a major role in his career, and liter- ally in his brave but disastrous ballooning activities. He tells all of that and more, but his start in business is a kaleidoscope of everything from growing Christmas Trees (a failure) to the magazine Student (a huge effort); from a student advisory centre to. . . suddenly Virgin Records and history. His career finally took off in spectacular fashion. (Lots of pop-star names follow.) An escapade with Customs and Excise over purchase-tax evasion on some Virgin records, a night in jail followed by a hefty settlement enabled him to avoid a prison sentence and persuaded him to stick to the straight and narrow. 'I've always enjoyed breaking the rules,' he says, but he realised that 'if you lose your good name, you'll never be happy'. And happiness is someone called Richard Branson.

The rest charts the development of his remarkable empire and the start of his own airline. Bankers don't come out too well — always asking for their umbrellas back when it starts to rain. Perhaps there's too much on his court action against BA. Does he protest too much? It is fascinating stuff and obviously obsessively interesting to him, but it could have been cut to save the reader so much detail. Court cases are like morning newspapers: interesting on the day, but of little general concern the next.

Buy the book and read what makes this brilliant and hard-working man tick. You'll enjoy it, and, as Branson himself might say, 'It's a bargain.'

Lord Hanson is Chairman Emeritus of Hanson plc.