the observer Sat 16 August 2008
Among the responses to the original version of this book in 2000 there was one that Tom Bower must have particularly relished. It came from Branson himself, who said with a customary flourish: 'What I have read has offended me on every single level ... it is a foul, foul piece of work from the first words to the last - really rotten, nasty stuff.'
Celebrity endorsements don't come much better than that, and the reasons for Branson's fury aren't hard to understand. Bower not only presents a damning alternative history of Branson's company, Virgin, showing it lurching from crisis to crisis; he also takes aim at what Branson holds most dear - the Branson brand. Bower repeats Branson's assertion that 'you don't have to be a complete shit to be a success' more than once, but the swashbuckling entrepreneur is presented here as petulant, publicity-crazed and mean-spirited.
There are some memorable passages. Branson's famous balloon trips are depicted as hammy set pieces of Boy's Own derring-do; Bower describes how Branson would display his will to journalists before taking off. And he cites Branson's colleagues' exasperation at his tendency to resort to puerile publicity stunts, generally involving nudity.
But the more sensational aspects of Bower's investigation are, actually, few and far between. His grasp of the details of Branson's dizzying array of business interests may be admirable, but the results are somewhat drier than the pacy sex, drugs and rock'n'roll account you might expect or want.
Since Branson has long since been supplanted in the public eye by Alan Sugar and the current crop of fresh-faced internet entrepeneurs, there's little in the updated section - including his pay TV battle with the Murdochs and his attempted takeover of Northern Rock - to justify the decision to republish.
The timing is intended to pre-empt a new book by the Virgin boss, published next month. But though Tom Bower may enjoy returning to haunt Branson, it's doubtful whether the reading public will have a great deal of time for either work.