BOOK REVIEW / Up to a point, Mr Black

SHADES OF BLACK by Richard Siklos, Heinemann pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
WHAT ON earth would we do without newspaper proprietors? They are a special breed indeed, these men (and they are almost always men). Other tycoons, moguls and magnates are content to make their money from widgets, but newspaper proprietors want more: not only the thrill of the deal, but also the heady, massaging feeling that they can change the course of our lives on a whim if they so choose (not that they would ever be so irresponsible).

For this, they have to make sacrifices. I remember, some years ago, following Mr and Mrs Rupert Murdoch around the Accademia in Venice. They were moving at a brisk pace. Mrs M had clearly done a prior recce, and conducted Mr M through the rooms, pausing only at the most important works to give a brief resume. So much to do, so little time.

This, of course, is another cross to bear: the unconcealed pursuit of so artless an ambition makes it almost impossible to resist poking fun at them (unless, of course, you are in their employ). The Lords Copper and Gnome are magnificent fictional creations matched only by their more substantial brothers, Northcliffe, Harmsworths past and present, Beaverbrook, Captain Bob Maxwell and all. Even the least assuming have rewarded study; Lord Hartwell, for example, the former Telegraph proprietor, who maintained a garden, complete with lawn mower, on the fifth floor of his Fleet Street building, a man of such self-effacement that is was his daily but fruitless mission to slip in to the building unnoticed by the team of commissionaires who would noisily commandeer a lift to convey him upwards.

In this respect, the great cause of cheering us all up, Conrad Black, Lord Hartwell's successor at the Telegraph, has been an invaluable addition. The name and his frame, with their echoes of Welles and Kane, could not be bettered; nor could the background. Black is Canadian, like Thomson and Beaverbrook; he is also the son of an embittered tycoon who lived as a recluse in a gloomy Toronto mansion. "Life is hell, most people are bastards and everything is bullshit," he is supposed to have told his son shortly before crashing through the bannisters to his death.

Conrad, for his part, was observed hanging out dollar bills to dry on the washing line, and was expelled from school for getting hold of examination papers, copying them and selling them to his fellow pupils on fees gauged according to means and desperation. His great hero is Napoleon; he can name every ship of the Armada, with tonnage; he spends a lot of time playing war games with toy soldiers in his basement.

But he arrived in Fleet Street almost unknown, suffering, or benefiting, from the disinclination of Canadian fame to travel. He had to his name three university degrees, a string of small newspapers and a local reputation built on the swift, skilled and unsentimental way in which he dealt with company assets.

An initial investment in the cash-strapped Telegraph gave him first refusal on more shares should the need arise, which it did rather sooner than expected by most people, particularly Lord Hartwell. That was 1985; since then Black has progressed in satisfyingly classic fashion: expansion into America, Australia, anywhere, including Israel, where he bought the Jerusalem Post. He has lost one wife and acquired another, a fellow famous Canadian, the journalist Barbara Amiel. Their "intimate wedding dinner", in Lord Weidenfeld's words, was attended by the Duchess of York, David Frost and Margaret Thatcher, his company's "Honorary Senior International Adviser".

Richard Siklos, a Canadian financial journalist who works for a newspaper partly owned by Black, has written a very impressed book. It would be wrong for the general reader to complain that within the 400 pages he learnt rather more than he ever wanted to about Black's many business deals and doings. But I think it only proper to complain when Siklos seeks to destroy some of the most cherished Black myths: only one war game with toy soldiers, no such dying words from his father, and, dammit, only one dollar bill.

Still, he does provide some compensations, even if Black does dispute Peter Jay's account of being elbowed aside by the great man so he could get to meet Henry Kissinger. I liked, too, Lady Thatcher's reaction when he described the changes she had achieved as more important than the decapitation of Charles I and the deposing of James II: "That is very good, Mr Black. Do come back." And Black's unique way with words and bathos shine on through, although I mourned the absence of "In any significant career in the history of the world, except for maybe Alexander the Great, there are setbacks."

What we really need is the autobiography, an enormous tome entitled A Life In Progress, which, although it has entertained and outraged Canadians and Australians, has so far failed to appear here. The latest is that Black has "no plans in the near future to publish here". I do hope he changes his mind.