Whatever one may think of Conrad Black, few would dispute his consummate command of the English language. His conversations and his books tend to be sprinkled with choice, polysyllabic words, plucked from the dusty recesses of Roget’s Thesaurus, and deployed with laser-like precision. At least on linguistic grounds, his new memoir, A Matter of Principle (McClelland & Stewart), does not disappoint.
Some select samples:
- After acquiring control of London’s Daily Telegraph in 1986, he meets the former owners – the Berry family: Lord Hartwell, and his sons, Adrian and “the fissiparous Nicholas.” Fissiparous means factious, or tending to break into parts.
- He calls former Australian prime minister Paul Keating a “larrikin,” an Aussie term, defined as a person given to comical or outlandish behaviour.
- Describing the annual dinner of Hollinger Corp’s advisory board, he says it was “transmogrified into a snob’s ladder for social climbing.” Transmogrified means to change in appearance or form, especially strangely or grotesquely.
- How’s this for a sentence? “In the egalitarian levelling that has made glamour repulsive and social fraternization at any more intellectual a level than the bowling alley into an orgy of toadyism or vulgar exhibitionism, going out to a sit-down dinner is a sign of Ludovican self-importance.” Ludovican refers to the eccentric, castle-building, 19th-century king of Bavaria Ludwig II.
- When Lord Black attempts to persuade then-prime minister Jean Chrétien of the legitimacy of his bid for British peerage, he is fobbed off on the PM’s chief aide, Jean Pelletier, whose tone is one of heavy condescension. “I was treated like an unsuccessful mendicant.” Mendicant means beggar.
- At one point, planning a vacation, Lord Black and his wife, Barbara Amiel, settle on the Polynesian island of Bora Bora. It proves to be aptly named – “no town, no colonial buildings, no churches of note, no bars or restaurants. … The hotels were an infestation of honeymooners: large loutish men and their perky brides. … The hotel manager was slightly bibulous.” Bibulous means marked by the consumption of alcohol.
- One by one in the book, Lord Black’s friends and associates desert him. Informed by one of his company directors, Marie-Josée Kravis, that hedge fund manager Richard Breeden is out to destroy him, Lord Black writes: “But for the fact that Marie-Josée was such a glamorous woman, images of rodents descending the hawser would have commended themselves.” A hawser is a ship’s rope.
- Of Graham Savage, a former CFO of the Rogers organization who was appointed to a special committee struck to investigate Hollinger’s non-compete payments, Lord Black writes, “He was the allegorization of the colourless Canadian accountant: soft-spoken, slight, earnest, and to me instantly forgettable. A cipher.”
- Barbara Amiel, returning to New York after a lonely period away from her husband, describes their London home as a pathetic fallacy. “Its limbs were in necrosis.” Necrosis means the death of living tissue.
- While decrying the schadenfreudian tendencies of his adversaries (to delight in his miseries), Lord Black on occasion seems to commit the same sin. For example, he experiences “real delight” when Cerberus Capital Management, a vulpine New York hedge fund that failed to come to his financial rescue, loses nearly $2-billion in another transaction. The New York Times, he notes, “reports this unlikely freshet of muscular Americanism with becoming and wry amusement.” Freshet means flood.
- Taking stock of his increasingly hopeless situation, Lord Black says: “It was a classic revolutionary sequence, as the moderates … were replaced by radical reformers, then terrorists, until common sense asserted itself, Thermidor shone forth, and vengeance was visited on the extremists.” Thermidor alludes to the period during the French revolution that saw Robespierre sent to the guillotine and the Reign of Terror ended.