I Read the News Today, Oh Boy review: Like an Irish ‘Great Gatsby’ by way of ‘Ripping Yarns’
Paul Howard’s biography of the Guinness heir Tara Browne – fan of fast cars, modern jazz and recreational drugs – is a masterpiece
A Day in the Life: the Beatles song alludes to Tara Browne, who lived fast and died young, at the age of 21
I Read the News Today, Oh Boy
This doesn’t look good: a decade-in- the-writing biography of a privileged Irish fop who was only ever a footnote in the cultural history of the 1960s by being alluded to in a Beatles song. The Hon Tara Browne, heir to the Guinness fortune, lived fast and died young. Aged just 21, in the throes of a bitter divorce, having lost custody of his two young children to his mother and having never done an honest day’s work in his life, he was speeding through London one night when he was killed in a car crash.
But by a process of literary alchemy Paul Howard has transformed this short and gilded life into a dramatic and engrossing sociocultural treatise. Stylistically, it bears comparison to Brenda Maddox’s masterful biography of Nora Barnacle. Both works deal with subjects who found themselves in remarkable surrounds, and Howard, like Maddox, is scrupulous about details and eschews psychobiographical intrusion.
The book opens with Browne’s 21st-birthday party at his childhood home in Luggala, Co Wicklow. Anita Pallenberg, stoned on LSD, thought that Mick Jagger was the Devil, so she locked him in a courtyard; David Dimbleby mingled with John Paul Getty and Marianne Faithful; Brian Jones got out his sitar. The aristocracy were introduced to their heirs, the popocracy, and in the middle of it all stood a beaming Browne: “rich, handsome, effortlessly cool and always at the centre of everything”.
The opening chapters read like an Irish Great Gatsby by way of Downton Abbey and Ripping Yarns. “Tara grew up liberated from the concerns of ordinary children . . . and he was sophisticated to a degree that disarmed people” is how Howard introduces him.
As a child, in his blue satin pyjamas, he would walk barefoot along the table whenever his mother, Oonagh, Lady Oranmore, would be hosting a dinner party. “Hello, I’m Tara,” he would say to the guests in turn. Once, at Claridge’s in London, he caused diners to drop their spoons when he shouted, “I asked for cold vichyssoise, not hot, you c**t” at the waiter.
He left school when he was 11, continuing his education instead in the independent principality of Luggala, where he would listen in to “the Duke of Brissac and Brendan Behan having a row with the director of the Bank of England about the Grand National”.
A velvet-suited, Gauloises-smoking 13-year-old who instructed his mother’s friends how to mix his cocktails and who had a monthly allowance that was more than the Irish annual average industrial wage, he was in fact lovable in all his precociousness and privilege.
It’s the way that Howard conveys this that gives this book its dynamism. As a “son of Irish royalty” Browne was a celebrity here to the extent that the “Guinness heir” filled the social columns for the duration of his life. Reporters would doorstep him, anxious to know if he would ever take up his allotted place at Eton, then Oxford.
But Oonagh (who is deserving of a book herself) instead brought him around Paris, Venice and the south of France, where figures such as John Huston, Igor Stravinsky, Lucian Freud and Salvador Dalí wandered into his life.
Indeed, the supporting cast here is a thing of wonder: you turn a page to find names as diverse as Roman Polanski, the Everly Brothers, Richard Nixon and someone delightfully known as “the biggest bitch in London” entering the action.
It was a spoilt, vertiginous life, yet it yielded a young man who, though being cynically self-aware enough to know that “people only like me for my money”, was so abundantly charming that Paul McCartney would seek out his company in London nightclubs.
“Fast cars, modern jazz and recreational drugs” was all he could put on his CV, but there was obviously something about Browne, and, as Howard shows, his life was as a palimpsest.
Given that this book screams about its Beatles connection, only the final third is given over to Browne’s London days. It becomes a different sort of book. Gone are the beautifully evoked scenes of Tara and Oonagh cruising the Champs-Élysées in their white Lincoln Continental and the richness of detail surrounding his early life; in their place comes a young man not yet turned 20 in a faltering marriage with two children he doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with.
There’s a different tone here: Howard has some astute observations about the way the casual use of LSD changed the course of the decade – it was Browne who gave McCartney his first acid tab – and there’s a well-worked argument that what we know as “the Sixties” was actually only the period between 1962 and 1966.
“It was like a death knell sounding over London,” Faithfull says about Browne’s early death. This book tells us why so many felt that way about the young Irishman’s death.
Just eight months after the bell-bottomed trousers and miniskirts had celebrated his 21st on a night remembered by many as the high-water mark of the 1960s they were back “to Tara’s home at the bottom of a valley in the Wicklow mountains, openly weeping as they said goodbye to him”.
“A lucky man who made the grade”, as The Beatles have it in A Day in the Life? This book removes Browne from a song lyric and repositions him as an alluring figure of wonderment.
It took 10 years and more than 100 interviews to produce this biography. The sources and endnotes take up 56 pages alone. Was it worth it? Jesus, yes. This is a masterpiece.
Brian Boyd writes about pop culture for The Irish Times