Thursday 18 January 2018

The Guinness heir who inspired The Beatles

Non-fiction: I Read the News Today, Oh Boy, Paul Howard, Picador, hardback, 384 pages, €19.99

Swinging Sixties: Tara Browne and his wife Nicki photographed for Vogue in 1966
Swinging Sixties: Tara Browne and his wife Nicki photographed for Vogue in 1966

Hilary A White

Tara Browne's death 50 years ago was immortalised in the song 'A Day in the Life' and now Irish author Paul Howard has released his decade-in-the-writing story. Was it worth the wait? Oh boy, yes, says our reviewer.

All journalists sooner or later encounter a story so broad and layered that the quick-turnaround 1,600-worder is simply inadequate. Snipping away at a great story so that it can fit the allocated space can be a disheartening exercise, especially when key details have to be sacrificed to the editing room floor.

Before becoming a big-selling novelist, non-fiction author, playwright and rugger-bugger scourge, Paul Howard was, of course, a jobbing hack. This sensation was particularly pronounced following his submitting of a Sunday Tribune article about Tara Browne in 2006. It was the 40th anniversary of the flamboyant Guinness heir's death and what Howard had learned about Browne and the family background from brother Garech left him dismayed about his wordcount constraints.

Thus began a decade of research and compilation that has culminated in this thorough biography 50 years after the death of the man referred to by Rock Brynner (son of Yul) as "the Prince of Ireland".

What quickly materialises in the awkwardly titled I Read the News Today, Oh Boy is that Tara Browne's life would certainly have merited an elaborate treatment even had his tragic death at 21 not been immortalised by John Lennon in Sgt Pepper's… sublime coda, 'A Day in the Life'.

Howard puts forward a strong case for Browne being a prism through which to view the cultural paradigm shift that was the first half of the 1960s. While it's hard to argue with this assertion, there are very much two Taras on display here - the angelic, unschooled but precocious youngest son doted over by libertarian mother Oonagh, and the free-spirted, taste-making, thrill-seeking pretty thing preening himself around London's emerging hotspots.

It is the latter, with a supporting cast featuring Brian Jones, Paul McCartney, Marianne Faithfull, Peter Sellers, Roman Polanski, Amanda Lear and even Salvador Dali, that is the lasting memory of Browne that the world was left with in 1966, the physical embodiment of the age when mutating attitudes to music, drugs and sex revolutionised a society rebuilding itself after the War. Howard does excellent work contextualising Browne's every footstep in a rapidly changing world where a young, employed middle-class had shed the baggage and was calling more and more of the shots.

Browne, with his security and wealth a comfort to celebrities, was at the coalface of this change. He seems to have played the role of an unknowing catalyst, modelling for Vogue with equally stylish wife Nicki, getting papped out and about and introducing various movers and groovers to each other at Leicester Square's epicentre of cool, Ad Lib. Threads, tabs, tunes and engines consumed him as part of a rather dissolute lifestyle that led to his mother Oonagh taking his two young children away from him and Nicki. It was the newspaper report on this custody battle that sparked the lyric-writing hand of Lennon (who apparently was "too class-conscious" to befriend Browne to the extent McCartney had).

For the other Tara we must go back to Ireland, the country of his birth and the place that chiselled his persona. Life began in the sprawling halls of Castle McGarret, the Mayo superfarm where his father Dominick Geoffrey Edward Browne, 4th Baron Oranmore and Browne (or "Dom"), presided over a staff of 150. Oonagh was the youngest of Ernest Guinness's three blonde, blue-eyed daughters, all considered "extraordinary beauties" in their day and all known to the gossip columnists as the "Golden Guinness Girls". When that marriage collapsed (in part due to Dom's "sexual wanderlust"), Oonagh, Garech and Tara decamped to Luggala, the exquisite gothic-revival lodge nestled into the steep-sided valley walls surrounding Wicklow's Lough Tay. Tara and Garech (who lives there to this day and hosted Howard on some 70 occasions during his research) frolicked unsupervised and were lavishly provided for. Around them buzzed such names such as Kenelm, Brinsley, Candida and the triple-barrelled mouthful of Basil Sheridan Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood.

What a time it was, and what stories Howard has unearthed. Luggala emerges during these formative years of Tara's as somewhere akin to Gatsby's West Egg pile, a place of luxury and wild hedonism where Oonagh (the Gatsby of the tale) imported her kicks in the form of distinguished artists, intellectuals and rabble-rousers. Brendan Behan, Lucian Freud and Garech's prototype Chieftains would mix it with royalty, peers and ministers. This smashing together of backgrounds was Tara's education, and by the time he was a teenager, he was perfectly at home in conversation with an adult about topics such as classical music or the sights of Paris or New York. He was also well adept at spending by that age, burning through more than the average industrial annual salary each month.

Browne is but another chapter in the saga of Ireland's most famous family, the history of which reads like a litany of scandals, ruinous romantic choices, legal battles, jaw-dropping extravagance and tragedy (he was not the first to either die before his time or indeed at the wheel). Much of that ancestral backdrop is provided here by Howard, and the reader is none the worse for the refresher course.

Although prone to the odd corny chapter cliffhanger ("Neither of them could have imagined they'd just spent their last Christmas together."), Howard reverts to his feature-writing roots here, drawing up the progression of Browne's short lifespan and sidestepping into recesses to explain the landscape.

The title and Christmas release suggest Picador have an eye on a corner of the Beatles/rock-biog market, but in truth there are broader themes - Irish class history, post-war Britain, pop culture - that speak to one another throughout.

In the meantime, Rolling Stones and models party by a stout-coloured lake in deepest, darkest Wicklow, a sybaritic Adonis hurtles towards immortality, and a former journalist finally releases a caged story to the world.

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