UK: BOOK REVIEW - Naught for Sir James's comfort.

UK: BOOK REVIEW - Naught for Sir James's comfort. - Billionaire: The Life and Times of Sir James Goldsmith.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Billionaire: The Life and Times of Sir James Goldsmith.

By Ivan Fallon.

Hutchinson; 489pp; £18.99.

Review by Dominic Prince.

There have already been two books about Sir James Goldsmith. Goldenballs, by Richard Ingrams, the then editor of Private Eye, was - as the name suggests - a none too flattering portrait of the business magnate. Ingrams, of course, had an axe to grind, having become involved in a long and acrimonious High Court action when Goldsmith sued both him and Private Eye for libel. The other volume, Sir James Goldsmith: The Man and the Myth by Geoffrey Wansell, must have seemed decidedly more agreeable to Goldsmith, if less than satisfying to numbers of other readers.

Both books were written when Goldsmith was at the height of his powers, in the early 1980s. The battle with Private Eye was then all but over. Yet there still rankled within Goldsmith a smouldering resentment at his perceived mistreatment at the hands of the British press - not just by Private Eye but by the Fourth Estate in its entirety. As it happens, Ivan Fallon's biography is published in the year that Private Eye celebrates its 30th anniversary. Had it not been for their conflict the present book would have been a lot less interesting, the magazine would have been a little less notorious and, to the great British reading public, Goldsmith would surely have been less famous.

This is unquestionably the most comprehensive - and the biggest - book to have appeared on Goldsmith yet. Fallon writes engagingly, but without ever being seriously critical. Certain passages, indeed, read as though they had been composed by Wansell. There is no mistaking that Fallon is on close terms with his subject. Given that, he must have found some chapters difficult to write. But for all his bluster about objectivity, and about Goldsmith not being allowed to 'change a word', there's not much that would be likely to give offence. It would he surprising if Goldsmith wanted to change anything.

Goldsmith doesn't actually make his appearance until page 52. By that time the reader has been given a fascinating insight into the environment that created this most controversial of financiers. The man himself first became newsworthy in the late 1950s when he eloped with the heiress Isabel Patino, daughter of a Bolivian millionaire. Her father strongly disapproved of the relationship, and it ended tragically when she died in childbirth. It would be perverse indeed to remain unmoved by Fallon's account of this episode. In Goldsmith it seemed to bring about an extraordinary metamorphosis.

Up to that point he had lived in a luxurious haze, with few cares. From the day of her death on, he was a driven spirit. According to his brother Teddy, the ecologist: 'Jimmy just worked for about eight years.' When asked by a similarly bereaved friend how long it takes to get over an event of this kind, Jimmy himself replied, 'I don't think you ever do.'

Perhaps this is the clue to Goldsmith's make-up. His adversarial instincts, together with his commercial skills and his ability to ride roughshod over every kind of obstacle, made him a fearsome boardroom warrior. But the most interesting parts of the book are those that deal with his uneasy relationship with the press. It is also here that Fallon slips up. Surprisingly for one who, as deputy editor of The Sunday Times, has always been most scrupulous about hearing both sides of a story, he fails to adhere to his own rules. He always accepts Goldsmith's account, and in at least one instance he neither checked nor spoke to the journalist concerned. This is not only unfair to the journalist, it is also unfair to the reader.

Nevertheless this is a fluent and entertaining account of Goldsmith's life, and particularly of his business life. Barring one major omission (the Goldsmith analysis that Charles Raw wrote for The Sunday Times and then published writ free in Private Eye after Rupert Murdoch had thought better of it) the story is fairly told. The pity is that one reaches the end wondering: What did Goldsmith ever achieve? In fact, the answer is a good deal. He bucked the market in 1987. And by the time he failed to acquire BAT perhaps his heart was no longer in the business of money making. From then on he could content himself with his Mexican estate, with his wife, mistress and children, and let the battles of yesteryear drift away into the mist.

Dominic Prince is deputy City editor of the Sunday Express.

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