At the LRB, John Lanchester reflects on a new biography of Conrad Black and his wife (Lanchester's memoir is definitely one of my most-wanted books of 2007, he is an outrageously good stylist):
Conrad Black is not the only tycoon to have dreamed of global domination while buying and selling newspapers, and he is not the only tycoon to have had people fawning over him on the way up and shunning him on the way down; he is not the only tycoon to have lived large, issued writs and faced criminal charges; but he is the only tycoon with a wholly distinctive prose style. It is on show in a furious email Black wrote to Tom Bower, protesting that Bower’s forthcoming book about Lord and Lady Black was going to be ‘a heartwarming story of two sleazy, spivvy, contemptible people, who enjoyed a fraudulent and unjust elevation; were exposed, and ground to powder in a just system, have been ostracised; and largely impoverished, and that I am on my way to the prison cell where I belong.’ One can quibble with the punctuation, but as a summary of Conrad and Lady Black: Dancing on the Edge, that paraphrase is accurate to the point of clairvoyance.
Black’s deep love of fruity vituperation gets a thorough airing in Bower’s book. The headmaster who expelled him for stealing and selling exam papers was ‘an insufferable poltroon’ and his wife a ‘desiccated old sorceress’; the school was ‘an awful system whose odiousness was compounded by banality and pretension’. One reviewer of his first book was ‘a slanted, supercilious little twit’; another was a ‘quasi-fascist Jesuit myth-maker’ and another an ‘illiterate bootlicker’. The behaviour of one close associate – without whose help he would never have bought the Telegraph – gave ‘new depth, warmth and colour to the meaning of the word “shit”’. The Canadian attorney general was ‘malicious as well as pusillanimous and incompetent’: in fact Canadians in general are ‘whining, politically conformist welfare addicts’, almost as bad as lefties in general, who are ‘phoney, envious and mediocre bleeding hearts whining and snivelling about meritocratic Darwinism’. As for the concerned parties who first raised the allegations which have led to Black’s facing a court case in America, ‘those truly evil people are a menace to capitalism as any sane and civilised person would define it’ – the lead investigator being a former head of that notoriously anti-capitalist body, the Securities and Exchange Commission.
It is as if Black were never knowingly unbombastic. At Barbara Amiel’s 60th birthday party, he stood up and gave a speech in praise of his spouse. ‘The little woman’s body is agile and youthful. I’ve seen her naked, and it’s all natural.’ It would be nice to know exactly how many people in the audience were thinking: ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper.’ In any case: ‘She looks better with her clothes off than on . . . The little woman is perfect, vertically and horizontally.’ The party cost $62,870; two-thirds of the cost was billed to Hollinger, the publicly quoted company which owned the Telegraph. ‘The only charge that anyone can level against us is one of insufficient generosity to ourselves,’ said the man whose trial, due to start in Chicago on 5 March, sees him facing 12 separate counts of fraud, racketeering, money laundering and obstruction of justice.