One Hundred Summers
by Vanessa Branson
Reviewed by David Herkt
When Vanessa Branson, sister of Richard Branson, the often-controversial billionaire entrepreneur, loses her virginity, she recounts the moment when her partner "gently worked his beautiful being into mine". How a reader reacts to that description will very much reflect how they will respond to her autobiography, One Hundred Summers, as a whole.
Autobiographies by a person – a family member, a friend, or even a hairdresser – who has an association with someone more famous are very common. They are a staple of the publishing exploitation market. The focus is always odd, split between an often-mundane life and the alluring edge of fame. Vanessa Branson's book, despite all her efforts otherwise, is a complete example.
There is no denying that Vanessa has her own story. Everyone does. She sketches her family background with brio, beginning in the early 1900s, then focusing on her parents – her father, Ted and her mother, Eve. It is a compilation of tried and true family anecdotes, some amusing, others with more laboured impact.
The marriage is somewhat of a mismatch. Ted has a legal practice, while Eve is a former air hostess. Ted appears genial. Eve is more brittle. Even the children are aware of possible extra-marital affairs. Money initially is tight, but the family pulls together. From the beginning, brother Richard is a budding business star, breeding budgies for sale as a child.
As a teenager, Vanessa begins to inhabit Richard's orbit. Virgin Records has just been launched with the unexpected mega-success of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells. The last half of the book effectively begins as Vanessa's life becomes intertwined with the success of the ever-increasing Virgin Group of companies.
Subsequently, Vanessa opens a gallery in London's Portobello Rd, creates an arts festival in Morocco, "turns an ancient palace into a world-famous hotel and finds a real-life Neverland in the Scottish Island of Eilean Shono, where J.M. Barrie once wrote a screenplay for Peter Pan". But most importantly, there is a mismatched marriage with Robert Devereaux, a founding shareholder of Virgin.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
One Hundred Summers provides occasional glimpses of the famous: the Young Brit Artist Tracey Emin, singer Annie Lennox, award-winning transvestite potter Grayson Perry, even Tony and Cherie Blair. It is an era seen slant-on, from a privileged position – "Were we really flying on a Virgin plane to Richard's private Caribbean island?"
Then Vanessa's marriage explodes when her husband has an affair with a younger woman.
The value of the book is curious. One Hundred Summers is "memoir-lite". It doesn't stick in the mind. While it is admirably frank, its reader will inevitably be left with questions, perhaps most relevantly: why?