I received a call from the Irish writer Paul Howard, who, as Ross O’Carro-Kelly (‘Rock’) has written a number of popular satires about Ross and the Celtic Tiger, a series now necessarily discontinued. Howard is presently embarked on a new project — a biography of Tara Browne, who famously ‘blew his mind out in a car’ in the Beatles’ song ‘A Day in the Life’, the one that begins ‘I read the news today oh boy/ About a lucky man who made the grade’. (He was similarly elegised in ‘Death of a Socialite’ by The Pretty Things.) I knew Tara well during the Paris phase of his brief trajectory and my first reaction to news of this biography was that it would be quite a short book, Tara having died in a car crash in Redcliffe Gardens in 1966, aged 22.
John Lennon affects detachment in the lyric, ‘He didn’t notice that the lights had changed’, but he knew Tara and it is clear from the song’s elegiac mood that his death stood for something in the life of the band, that it marked the end of the party. The last line ‘Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall’ expresses the mood of disillusion, or so I like to think, because that was the way I felt about Tara’s death myself. Before it, the innocent phase of the 1960s, the Twist, the mini-skirt, ‘I wanna hold your hand’. After it, long hair, old clothes, psychedelia, Altamont, the rock-and-roll deaths. Before it, for me at least, the carefree present tense. After it, fatherhood, work, the future.
Howard had assembled a few last witnesses of Tara’s life in the tearoom of the genteel Montcalm Hotel near Marble Arch. I was so keen not to miss anything that I arrived an hour early and fell asleep in the lobby, a shameful condition to be found in for one about to boast of his wild youth. I woke with a start and there was Godfrey Carey QC, Tara’s tutor during the Paris phase of his life, hired to try and get him into Eton. We were joined by Paul Howard, who placed a dictaphone on the table. I laid beside it a faded green Chinese brocade tie of Tara’s which I had hoped would sum up his colourful personality but which only looked small and sad.
At 15, in 1960, Tara was barely literate, having walked out of dozens of schools. He smoked and drank but he hadn’t got on to joined-up handwriting yet. He was living at home with his mother Oonagh Guinness and her third husband, a louche Cuban ‘shoe-designer’ presently named Miguel Ferreras, who was gaily going through her fortune. Tara was two years younger than me but years ahead in sophistication and fun, dealing jokes, insults and ridiculous boasts from an inexhaustible deck like a child delightedly playing snap. In his green suits, mauve shirts with amethyst cuff-links, his waves of blonde hair, brocade ties and buckled shoes, smoking menthol cigarettes (always Salem) and drinking Bloody Marys, he was Little Lord Fauntleroy, Beau Brummell, Peter Pan, Terence Stamp in Billy Budd, David Hemming in Blow-Up. His drawly Irish blarney was the perfect antidote to our public school reserve and what would come to be called ‘postwar austerity’.
All the white-gloved pre-debs doing time at Paris finishing schools found their way to Oonagh’s apartment, where they encountered their first taste of Sixties hedonism, without Daddy being around to say no to drinks and cigarettes and staying up past their bedtime. There was the chauffeur-driven Lincoln Continental to conduct us to the clubs and swimming-pools. There was fresh milk in the fridge picked up daily by the Irish butler from the American embassy canteen, the only place in Paris where you could find it in those days. If there was any embarrassment about money Tara would pretend to find a ‘dix milles’ note in the street. He had one of the first car record-players, which you could walk along with (‘Rubber Ball’ by Bobby Vee, ‘Cut Across Shorty’ by Eddie Cochran) and after the clubs we took it to the Aerogare des Invalides and danced for the cleaners and pilots, keeping the photo booth busy. Our childlike faces peer out of the little black-and-white squares in ecstasy at our newfound freedom in the adult world.
Godfrey Carey described arriving at the flat in the morning to find bodies everywhere. An hour later Tara would peer out of a blanket, saying his Irish ‘Sorrry, sorrry’. I seem to remember his lessons taking place in the back of the Lincoln on the way to somewhere like Eden Rock, where Jean-Paul Belmondo waved to him. These were the days of Godard’s A Bout de Souffle, yellow-T-shirted American girls crying ‘New York Herald Tribune’ in the Champs Elysees, Edith Piaf’s ‘Milord’ playing in Le Drugstore. I’ll never forget Tara facing my father over the drinks tray in Majorca. Would he like some orange or a Coke? ‘An orange juice,’ said Tara in the tones of Lady Bracknell. ‘I’d rather have a Bloody Mary, sir. But do you mind if I fix it myself?’ The photos have him building enthusiastic sandcastles on the beach next morning.
Animated anew by Tara’s memory, I was gabbling excitedly by now. When Godfrey could get a word in he told us of the desperate last bid for study time — a stay in the Drake Hotel in New York of all places. On the first morning he awoke early to find that Tara had been watching TV all night. After three days of ‘jet-leg’, Tara told his mother he did not think he should miss Lucy Lambton’s coming-out ball. He flew to London and Godfrey never saw him again. Miguel later accused Godfrey of having an affair with Oonagh, who was 55. I said the last time I heard Tara’s voice was when he asked me to testify in his mother’s divorce case that Miguel had made a pass at me. (I declined.) Howard revealed that Miguel had fought for General Franco in the war, joined the SS and was taken prisoner in Italy. He was still alive in Canada where Howard intended to doorstep him. Perhaps it would not be such a short book after all.
Tara could hardly have failed to be a success in Swinging London. While I was wandering around the globe in ’63 and ‘64, he embarked on the second and last phase of his meteoric progress. He got married, met the Stones and the Beatles, opened a shop in the King’s Road and bought the fatal turquoise Lotus Elan in which he entered the Irish Grand Prix. He let me drive it once in some busy London street: ‘Come on, Hugo, put your foot down.’ I had just got my first job and our ways were dividing. His money and youth made him a natural prey to certain charismatic Chelsea types who turned him into what he amiably termed a ‘hustlee’. He reputedly gave Paul McCartney his first acid trip. The pair went to Liverpool together, got stoned and cruised the city on mopeds until Paul went over the handlebars and broke a tooth and they had to call on Paul’s Aunt Bett for assistance. There is still a body of people — and a book called The Walrus is Paul — who believe that Paul is dead and is now actually Tara Browne with plastic surgery.
Everyone has got some golden boy or girl in their life whose death or sudden departure distils the period into the long party it should have been but probably never was. When my first girlfriend was trying to think of something really nice to tell me she came up with ‘Your eyes are nearly as nice as Tara’s’. I remember being tremendously pleased about this and could hardly wait to tell him. I discussed titles for the book with Paul Howard and there seemed to be no choice: A Lucky Man Who Made the Grade.