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review: memoir

Conrad Black in New York CityMichael Falco

For all the howls of praise and execration aimed at and around Conrad Black seemingly since the dawn of man, one truth remains incontrovertible: The guy is interesting.

In the most obvious and uncontroversial way, he draws people's attention. Hacks write about him not because at one time he owned newspapers, but because he sells them, by the 18-wheeler. The day after he was convicted in a Chicago court in July, 2007, more ink was spilled on British, American and Canadian paper than at any time since D-Day (okay, that's what his lordship would call a liberty, but it's so much in the spirit of my subject I couldn't resist).

At any rate, it's four years later and inmate 18330-424 (as the author signs himself concluding the book's main narrative) has travelled a considerable distance, literally and metaphorically, from the House of Lords to Coleman Federal Correctional Institution to the Supreme Court of the United States and back – after a year out on bail – to Miami FCI (there to remain, according to the Bureau of Prisons, until next May 5).

And, as you might expect, the book that Crossharbour sends into the world as a chronicle of this caged odyssey is the scribbling equivalent of a rolling 50-car pile-up on the 401. You simply cannot turn away. He is by turns eloquent, mordant, funny (as hell), angry (ferociously and acidly), small (no slight too insignificant), generous and, above all, utterly unself-conscious and, it must be said, at times wincingly self-destructive.

It's a book that defies, even mocks, précis, so steep and profound are its roller coasters of insight, enlightenment and depredation. Take, for instance, Black's Damascene conversion on the subject of wealth distribution: "I cannot be described as a socialist in anyone's wildest imagination, but I feel there should in a decent society be limits to such disparities." This from a guy who in the past described himself as an "economic Darwinian," holding few illusions regarding the mitigation of the implied war of all against all. It's as though Vince Lombardi amended his famed dictum to read, "Winning isn't everything, it is only one in a plurality of virtues." I won't even attempt to convey the breadth of Black's new-found passion for prison reform.

For all that, there are still scores to be settled and, make no mistake, Lord Black has taken off the white gloves. Economist Marie-Josée Kravis went from Catholic girls school in Quebec to the penthouses of New York City and onto the board of Hollinger International, there to betray Black from the witness box in Chicago. And that favour, rest assured, is returned with interest.

"I had watched as Marie-Josée left the Bilderberg conference I invited her to … when she got into a taxi with Henry Kravis, whose acquaintance she had recently made. She was wearing a short pink mini suit to start, I surmised, a new life. … The wanton climber is morally clothed with some rules of the road. Once arrived at her destination, in that one sense, Marie-Josée was naked…" In short, she's more or less a woman who exploits her feminine wiles, sans a heart of gold. One suspects Conrad's not getting back on that particular Christmas list any time soon.

On a somewhat more consequential note, Black puts the boots into what he sees as the egregious, even corrupt exercise of prosecutorial authority in the United States. Given his ongoing contretemps with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, this particular line of attack would have to be considered foolhardy even if his passage through the Bureau of Prisons was well behind him. Given that he re-entered the BOP less than a week ago, thumbing his nose seems rather more like cutting it off to spite his face. The most electrifying of Black's charges turns on the corruption of the jury system, specifically the jury that tried him in Chicago.

"The foreman, whom we identified from his questionnaire as a supervisor in the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation, as well as the owner of an insurance appraisal business … seemed to us commercially knowledgeable, a member of the junior grade of the Daley political machine and unlikely to be an unusually puritanical person. Rumours abounded that that he was going to produce some guilty verdicts in exchange for Fitzgerald's getting off the mayor's back, and some preferments for himself. After the trial, someone known to one of our allies engaged the jury foreman as a valuator, took him out for a few drinks and elicited his confirmation that the fix was in from City Hall. St. Eve determined that the source was not sufficiently believable to take it further. The source perhaps was not, but the allegation was."

That's quite a statement. Federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald and the mayor of the city of Chicago allegedly engaged in conspiracy to tamper with a jury and thereby convict Conrad Black. Oh yeah, and an otherwise pristine Federal Court judge, Amy St. Eve, is said to have turned a blind eye besides.

If there's one thing Black knows how to do, it's throw a punch. Of course, one might again query his timing, if only in support of our common commitment as a species to self-preservation. But like the great Panamanian middleweight Roberto Duran, Conrad Black doesn't know how to take a backward step, and as a consequence is incapable of doing anything but give his audience its money's worth. I will leave the relative merit of bloodlust for another occasion.

Douglas Bell covered the trial of Conrad Black gavel to gavel for Toronto Life magazine.

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