Robber Baron: Lord Black of Crossharbour, by George Tombs

This intimate portrait reveals a man who's spent his life courting the rich and powerful
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The Independent Culture

This biography of Conrad Black is about power and confinement. It addresses his pursuit of, and entrapment by, the former, and his raging frustration concerning the latter: "a concentration camp" (his upper-class school), the stifling homespun of his native Toronto, the "constraints" of the Canada he until recently despised, and – in the biographer's words – the "world that was too small for him".

There are times when the smothered rage yields worrying symptoms. "In March 1970 ... Black went through a period of serious physical and mental distress," Tombs writes. Psychoanalysis revealed a "diffuse, paralysing, strangling terror ... often associated with feelings of impending doom".

The intimately detailed portrait has frequent references to Machiavelli. Here we observe a man whose whims are swiftly gratified by the crafty cultivation of some and by the ready servility of others, and who now finds himself in a position inimical to his material and perhaps mental advancement. After a few pages one begins to comprehend his wealthy parents' early concerns: "We have this strange child – we don't know what to do with him." His father, George, however, made him proficient at chess, exhorting his son to remember that "most people are bastards, and everything is bullshit."

Although the 10-year-old Conrad Black "regularly discussed the drama of power with his father", I think it wrong to diagnose incipient megalomania; rather, it might well be "magnophilia", a word invented by a former friend and colleague, Peter White, to describe Black's attraction "to people that he considers great and interesting". "Conrad was a magnophile, and he still is," says White about Black. The reader might even suspect Lord Black of Crossharbour, quondam owner of the Daily Telegraph and chum of Margaret Thatcher, to be a mattoid – a combination of genius and fool.

Black's behaviour does not point conclusively to the mattoid's erratic mind. But it does indicate passions and quests pursued in the stubborn conviction that they are not erratic, and with a mindset evident since childhood, when he was just "Con" who's "too clever to learn".

Passions and quests can define a man who doesn't quite know how to regulate his life, other than to be grandiose. A lifelong admirer of Napoleon, Black, subconsciously perhaps, longed to be greeted with the shout of "Vive l'Empereur!" without gauging the company he courted other than by his own notions of "heroic", rich, grand, powerful and tendentious. His heroes are mostly people with afflictions: Richard Nixon (Watergate); the former Quebec leader Maurice Duplessis ("hypospadias", or malformed penis); Franklin Roosevelt (polio); Ronald Reagan (some say brain dead); Margaret Thatcher ('nuff said!). He liked to write encomiums about some of these people (good scholarly accounts from an exceedingly well-read man), earning him a "Redeemer of fallen giants" tag.

Having once spouted liberal views, and consulted his shrink, Black decided that his liberalism had been "desecrated by cowards and hucksters" . Con was then reborn Neo-Con, to trill from a rightwing hymn-sheet and befriend anti-semites and fascists, before joining the Catholic Church (he esteemed the pope's power), marrying an English jew, Barbara Amiel, enlisting the support of other jews such as Henry Kissinger, and becoming proprietor of the Jerusalem Post.

All this enthralling material is placed in clever juxtaposition with taped interviews with the baron himself, insightful accounts of Black's myriad business schemes, including his artful acquisition of the Daily Telegraph, and verbatim extracts from his trial in Chicago for fraud and obstruction of justice. Currently he awaits sentencing. Unless an appeal is successful, it could be the final forfeiture of power and lengthy confinement for Napoleon of Crossharbour.

George Tombs occasionally compares his subject with Citizen Kane, the movie version of the life of the enigmatic media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Yet I believe Black's mind, motives and maladaptations more neatly reflect those of his greatest hero. One recalls Madame de Staël's intimate portrait: "[Bonaparte] neither hates nor loves; for him, no one exists but himself; all other people are merely 'number so-and-so.' A great chess-player, for whom humanity-at-large is the adversary he hopes to checkmate... He despises the nation whose applause he seeks; there is not a spark of fervour intermingled with his craving to astound mankind."

Emil Ludwig, whose splendid1927 book on Napoleon no doubt will have been consulted by Black, had this to say about the feisty Corsican: " Imagination... is the real driving force of his self-confidence and his energy. Continually at war with the calculating part of his nature, fantasy, in the end, brings this harbourer of opposites to destruction."

Crossharbourer Con ought to have learned this, if nothing else.

ECW Press £16.99