25.4.20

RICHARD BRANSON AND THE BLACK SEA RESORT

In 1986, on behalf of Omnibus Press, I commissioned Artemy Troitsky, Russia’s best known rock critic, to write Back In The USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia, an account of the history and development of rock music over the past 25 years in what was then the Soviet Union.
         After unravelling a great deal of red tape, the following year I was able to bring Artemy to the UK to promote the book, his first ever trip outside the USSR. Before he arrived, however, he asked me to arrange meetings with some of the UK’s most prominent rock figures, among them Richard Branson, then best known for Virgin Records, along with McCartney, U2, Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno. As it happened, I was fairly well connected in those days and able to do this. Fortunately, they were all eager to meet Artemy, perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps to learn something, perhaps to see a way to further their interests behind the Iron Curtain.
         Branson’s people arranged for Artemy and I to meet him an art gallery in Mount Street in Mayfair which had stayed open late specifically so he could shop there. When we arrived I noticed a chauffeur driven car waiting outside. The driver told me that his boss was inside the gallery but that we were expected and that if I rang the bell we would be admitted. This I did, and we were ushered inside and down a flight of stairs and into a dark and heavily fortified vault where Branson was gazing intently at a bejewelled figure of Buddha, very fat and about three feet high, illuminated with spots and perched on a pedestal. Hovering nearby was a man in a suit that I assumed was the gallery’s proprietor.
         Even though we hadn’t seen one another for years, Branson greeted me like a favourite uncle. I introduced him to Artemy. “I’m thinking of buying this Buddha,” he said. “What do you think?”
         The question was evidently directed at me. “How much is it?” I asked.
         “Three hundred and fifty thousand pounds.”
         “Well,” I said after a moment’s thought. “If I had three hundred and fifty thousand pounds to spare I certainly wouldn’t spend it on that.”
         Branson considered my response then, to my surprise, heeded my advice. Turning to the proprietor, he said: “My friend is right. I don’t think I’ll buy it.”
         The proprietor looked as if he wanted to kill me, but he didn’t, and we all trooped upstairs. Branson, Artemy and I found ourselves on the street. I proposed we go for a drink in a pub about 50 yards away and Branson agreed. The chauffeur followed us slowly in the car as we walked along the pavement.
         Once inside the pub I bought us all a beer and we settled down in a quiet corner. I opted to say nothing while Artemy and Branson chatted about the music scene in Russia, pretty inconsequential stuff I thought.
         The conversation took on a different hue, however, when Branson asked Artemy about the facilities at a particular resort on the Black Sea.
         Artemy smiled knowingly. “Ha ha ha. Do not go there,” he responded in his less than fluent English. “It’s very bad. Not much beach, bad hotels, smells from oil refinery. It is horrible place.”
         I sensed that Branson had been making inquiries about business opportunities in the leisure sector at Black Sea resorts and that this particular coastal town had been recommended to him by someone from the Kremlin. So the real reason he wanted to meet Artemy was to get some objective advice on this issue. “The man from the Kremlin told me it was lovely there,” he said.
         “Well he would, wouldn’t he?” said Artemy, echoing the delightful Mandy Rice-Davies. “He’s just trying to fool you. You will lose your money there.”
         “What should I do?”
         Artemy then told Branson about another, far better, Black Sea coastal area. “That’s where all the government and apparatchiks go with their wives,” he said. “It’s lovely there. No factories for miles. Very nice place. Tell your man at the Kremlin you want to go there.”
         “Thank you very much.”
         The conversation petered out after that and we went on our separate ways, but not before Branson had told Artemy that whenever he was next in London he could stay at any of the several houses he owned, largely in the Holland Park area. As far as I am aware Artemy never took him up on the offer. Either that or Branson forgot about it.

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