"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 5 May 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Richard the Fourth


[X on British Flag]

Freedom won't be the only thing

squashed by China's takeover of

Hong Kong. When the Union Jack

is lowered in July, the British

Empire will be, at last, de

facto and de jure, dead. Am I

the only one who secretly hopes

Tony Blair will, in the 11th

hour, decide to strap on a pair

and make a bloody row over the

island colony? (If the roles

were reversed, that's what

China would do.)


[Tall Dollars]

Britain long ago made peace with

second-world status, and if you

want proof that being subject to

an empire with a bright future

behind it is still pretty damn

good, look no further than the

astonishing career of Virgin

Group poobah Richard Branson.

Music industry muckamuck,

globetrotting adventurer,

peddler of everything from

Virgin computers to Virgin soda

pop, sky king of Virgin Atlantic

Airways, and, inevitably,

waterskiing guest star on

Baywatch, Branson reinvents the

empire as a vast kingdom of fun.

While that fun may at times seem

unduly strenuous, and Virgin's

array of luxury items merely

bewildering, Virgin has breathed

new spirit into a profoundly

dispiriting culture. When

London, the Philadelphia of

Europe (with funnier accents),

can seriously be called the

hippest travel destination of

the late '90s, you know there's

a magician at work. If

disposable income were the true

measure of a nation's health,

Branson would be prime minister.



Even without that office, Branson

is England. For all his rebel

poses, the head Virgin upholds

many of the sceptred isle's

finest traditions. His business

savvy flourished in the nation

that invented capitalism. His

cheeky flirtiness with buxom

birds, while not always terribly

charming belongs in a long

line of randies like Benny Hill,

Robin Asquith, and James Bond.

Even Branson's daredevil

shenanigans pay homage to

England's swashbuckling

19th-century adventurers. And

he's every inch a king. That

trimmed beard might seem vaguely

Claptonesque, but to me Branson

has always resembled a heartier

Derek Jacobi doing his most

flamboyant Richard III.


[Branson as a Hippie!]

In America, where we bend the

knee to no man, ideas about the

UK generally stand on one basic

equation: England = wankers. But

it's essentially impossible to

dislike Branson, or even to lay

a spiteful glove on him. His

genius for brand extension

includes an agility with

personae that puts David Bowie

to shame. He's been a hippie

entrepreneur in the early '70s,

a punkers' sugar daddy in the

Sid Vicious era, a New Wave

yuppie and Thatcherite in the

'80s, and a public figure

dealing with global concerns

after that. These days, he's a

proponent of our own social

cure-all, public lotteries.


Oh Branson's had his share of

Dunkirks: Among other things,

the Virgin empire's flotation on

the London Stock Exchange was

greeted by a disinterested

"Right, then" from the

business-school crowd. Indeed,

since the company has retreated

into private ownership and was

forced to sell off its "crown

jewel" music group in 1992, we

might speculate that Branson's

life-threatening balloon trips

show a subconscious wish to join

Robert Maxwell in the next world

before financial reality catches

up with him in this one. For

now, though, the Virgin empire

is still imperial, and Branson

is as resourceful as T. E.

Lawrence when it comes to new

and useless innovations. One

current scheme has Virgin

Atlantic adding sleeper

compartments on its

business-class flights, an

effort to make what Branson

calls "the first true Mile-High

Club." Nudge nudge, wink wink.

Thus has Britain's Age of

Discovery reached its logical

end in the service economy of

the global village - from Virgin

Queen to Virgin King in only

four centuries.



When he was hacking his way

toward the White Nile, could Sir

Richard Burton have foreseen

that in the global village,

success would belong to the

merchant who sells the gaudiest

worry beads? There's one major

problem for Branson's UK, and

for our own rapidly growing

"service" economy: People might

pay a lot for entertainment, but

that doesn't mean it's worth

anything. With his Cheshire grin

and regal mien, Branson is not

the Empire's modern reflection,

but its fun-house-mirror

caricature. Those gentleman

pirates who raped, swindled, and

plundered most of the non-white

world (or at least those regions

of it that the US didn't get to

first) weren't fooling around

with pop stars and in-flight

massage therapy. They were

helping themselves to the stuff

of life - petrol, minerals, and

tea. If the Royal Navy wanted to

discipline Napoleon or the

Kaiser, it had merely to cut off

the continent's supply lines.

But how is England, or America,

gonna keep Li Peng in hand -

threaten to cut off his Spice

Girls CDs? Life in a service

economy might be fabulous and

profitable, but it sure isn't

awe-inspiring. And that's why,

my wish notwithstanding, come

July the red flag will be flying

over Hong Kong, the British

Empire's last crown jewel. Queen

Vic must be spinning in her

grave, but the UK don't have

that kind of muscle anymore.

'Tis the curse of service.

courtesy of BarTel D'Arcy

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