My one contact with Conrad Black was an exchange of letters following his review in the Daily Telegraph of a book about the 1798 Irish rising. In this he had described the French landing as their most successful military intervention in Britain since Hastings. Helpfully I wrote to remind him of their landing in 1216, when King John’s England was within a whisker of becoming a French province. For the man had, after all, described himself as ‘historian’ on his first marriage certificate.
His reply was brief and dismissive. The French army, he wrote, had just sort of wandered about. Well, in a sense they had, but only in the sense that Monty’s army on D-Day had wandered about Normandy: theirs was the last real foothold gained by a foreign army on English soil.
Still, Black’s idea was a fascinating and hilarious one, that 10,000 Frenchmen should have gone, like ramblers only in full chain mail, on an extended medieval b/b tour of England. ‘Ce soir, mon seigneur, nous allons regarder ce trou qu’on appelle Londres.’ I did think of writing to tell him this, but I then had a small stall inside the Telegraph papers which at the time he owned, and I had formed the impression that this chap might not have much of a sense of humour. From Tom Bower’s Conrad and Lady Black I suspect I may have been wrong.
It is an extraordinary book. For something like two thirds of its length it reads like the sort of fat paperback you see in airports, one of those books described, usually by its publisher, as a ‘page-turner’, the irony being that you turn the pages because you can’t bear to linger on any of them. But then Tom Bower follows the beast into the undergrowth, where you or I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, go, that is into the balance sheets which are its natural habitat. And suddenly the book isn’t a page-turner any more. I found I couldn’t bear to put it down.
It starts with the sort of preoccupations worthy of the great Harold Robbins. The scene is one of the marriages of Lady Black, then Barbara Amiel, and we are just two pages into the introduction. She is 44.
‘“She’s a wild and crazy girl,” said Fotheringham, speaking with the benefit of carnal experience of the bride.’ Three paragraphs on:
‘Sex is great with Barbara,’ confirmed one of her wedding guests. ‘A great body, and her breasts are big and beautiful. Like lovely fried eggs.’ ‘Yeah,’ agreed another connoisseur. ‘She wants to be admired for her brains, but she keeps pushing her breasts into men’s faces.’
Subtle it is not.
In fact Lady Black’s breasts figure so prominently in this book that at one point I turned to the index to see whether they had an independent entry: they did not, neither did her three noses and the extremities described by Germaine Greer as ‘great hobbit feet’, or the fat scooped out of her buttocks to smooth out the wrinkles in her face. But such stuff is self-defeating. I began to develop a sympathy for somebody whose anatomical features were being held up to ridicule like this, and kept turning to the endpapers to see what Mr Bower himself looked like. And of course there is the consideration that in her glory days no one would have dared describe her so, certainly not in this magazine.
Conrad Black has already made an entrance in the preface, sending a barrage of e-mails to Bower when he learned that the book was under way. One of these reads, ‘My trial will be timely. Thermidor will have dawned, and legally responsible capitalism will survive, like Talleyrand and Fouché.’ It is such a fascinating comment; it could be Mr Toad in full cry, except it is a touching one for a self-confessed historian. Bower makes no comment on this, but a man who can equate anything legally responsible with the two biggest crooks of the French Revolution is clearly not of this world. Either that, or he is making a very good joke. From that moment on I began to feel sympathy for him as well.
Bower does his best to destroy this from the start. His early chapters are so unremittingly hostile it is like sitting next to an excitable man during a football match. ‘See that? God strewth. Here, ref, get your glasses on.’ His narrative is one of pension funds plundered, widows outwitted, authorities closing in, until, with a bound, as in a comic book, our hero is free. Again and again. God strewth.
He seems to have been a man of simple ambitions. All he ever wanted was to be a billionaire, to own four houses and two jets, to be a celebrity, and, which is much more important, to possess the sort of power that would have people listening to him everywhere and all the time, so that at dinner he could describe to glassy-eyed guests the location of every capital ship at Jutland. The quickest way to achieve these ambitions, he found, was to own newspapers.
In this he was greatly helped by his partner, David Radler, who had made the momentous discovery that newspapers, previously the toys of rich families or political propagandists, could, if suitably handled, actually make money. The handling consisted of sacking the journalists, a formula that has since become standard practice. Radler’s ideal newspaper, he confided, was ‘a three-man newsroom — one journalist and two advertising salesmen’. His first instruction to the editor of a new acquisition was ‘Sack the music critic.’ The fact that the paper did not have a music critic was a mere detail.
They did not have to do their sackings in person; others did it for them. Max Hastings, appointed to the editorship of the Daily Telegraph, had a professional expertise that excited even Black’s admiration. ‘Max is good at drowning the kittens,’ he said.
The next discovery of this remarkable duo was the non-executive director. Such men, the more distinguished the better (though God, with whom Black, according to Bower, had regular chats, could not be persuaded onto any board), for then they could be relied on to pass just about anything at company meetings. The minds of Henry Kissinger, Lord Carrington and Richard Perle were elsewhere as they awaited the judgment of history on their grand careers. The result was that in their sunset years Conrad Black had history call on them. It is at this stage that the book becomes horribly funny.
For the duo had made another discovery. When you had a company which owned a company which owned a company you entered a hall of mirrors in which money could be made to disappear, while the great and the good, like Arthur’s knights, slumbered on under the hill.
And now it is all over, and there is to be a trial next year in Chicago, of all places. Lord Black — for Tony Blair gave him a title — alone seems to be looking forward to this (‘I promise a spectacular trial’). Those who prospered under him are probably not.