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In Wiltons, a restaurant on Jermyn Street, London, that has been around in various forms since 1742, a man with a hearing aid seated at the next banquette is recalling how much it cost to rent a flat in St James’s in 1972 when Conrad Black arrives. I don’t notice the Canadian press baron until he is near because, although substantial, he glides across the carpeted room silently, offering me a flat handshake and a guarded look.
He dined here, he says, with Jacob Rothschild and Peter Carrington – two fellow barons – the last time he was in London. He was then jailed in the US in 2008 for securities fraud and obstruction of justice, finally being released in May this year after appealing indignantly all the way to the Supreme Court. “I’m a bit out of touch with London restaurants,” he says with uncharacteristic understatement.
We have barely started to talk when a waiter rolls up a trolley on which sits a special – a side of fragrant ham – and describes it in a thick European accent. As he leaves, Lord Black leans towards me confidentially and asks, “Is my ability as a dialectician failing or are people in this city progressively less comprehensible than they used to be?”
“I didn’t understand a word he said,” I confess.
“Thank God. Neither did I,” he declares. “For obvious reasons, I always was a little behind at picking up the subtleties of British class and geographic particularisms but when I lived here I got to be reasonably adept at most of it. I’m not a xenophobe – I think immigration is a good thing for most countries – but they transmute the foibles of their native tongues into English in a way that’s difficult to figure out.”
The last discipline that seems likely to fail Lord Black of Crossharbour, who rescued the Daily Telegraph in 1985 and built a global media empire before his disgrace, is dialectics. His two biggest weapons, deployed against all critics and enemies, are his extensive vocabulary – which he started to build as a boy in Toronto – and his aggressive, admit-no-blame style of self-justification.
By the time we meet, he has already described Jeremy Paxman of the BBC as a “priggish, gullible, British fool” for crediting the US courts with trying him fairly, and called Adam Boulton of Sky News a “jackass” on his tour to promote his new memoir, A Matter of Principle. I congratulate him on the amount of free publicity he has generated. “Well, there’s a slight element of pride,” he admits coyly.
I imagine that Wiltons makes a change from prison food but he denies it. In jail in Florida, he shared a cell with a chef from Boston. “Everything was stolen from the commissary and they’d come round and say, ‘What would you like this week?’ We’d reply, ‘We’ll have filet mignon.’ When the shrinkage was especially ambitious, they’d borrow a golf cart and carry everything out. It was hilarious.”
Pleading “sumptuous dinners every night of the week in London”, he orders simply – a tomato juice to start and lamb cutlets with roquette salad to follow, while I order smoked salmon and Dover sole as a main course. Black grasps the wine list and again leans close.
“May I ask you a mundane and indeed slightly avaricious question? You are the host?”
“I am the host.”
“And if it ends up being an expensive bottle of wine that we do not deplete, I will not be pilloried for the rest of my natural life by the Financial Times as a spendthrift?”
Reassured, he selects a £75 bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé.
“My guess is they are trousering a 300 per cent margin, but they do have things for £1,000 a bottle. I wasn’t going to lay that upon you.”
Our starters arrive and Black sips at his tomato juice while I slice my salmon. At £28 a portion, I expect something exceptional but, although pleasant, it does not justify the price. We both sip wine and I tell him that I enjoyed his book, which is full of amusing anecdotes and character assassinations, interspersed by theatrical outrage at the US justice system.
So far, many of his words have been delivered at a level just above a mutter. Even with the Wiltons banquettes and cushions to absorb background noise, it has been hard to distinguish his rumble. But at the mention of his book, he raises his volume and his broad face becomes animated.
“You read it?” he says. “Splendid. We’re breaking new ground here. You’re leagues ahead of the others I’ve discussed it with.”
Forewarned by interviews in which he claimed virtually to have defeated all charges, I read some of the court judgments, which tell another story. I cite Leo Strine, chief judge of the Delaware chancery court, the main corporate court in the US, who ruled in 2004: “I found Black evasive and unreliable. His explanations of key events and of his own motivations do not have the ring of truth.”
That kicked off Black’s legal troubles. He has not forgiven or forgotten, and his opinion is strident. “Strine is a ghastly little twit – one of these people who grabs for cases, is terribly declarative ... and just moves on without a thought. He’s a fundamentally irresponsible man.”
I thought Black’s description of the Delaware court was ridiculous, I retort. It has a reputation for favouring executives and downplaying shareholders’ concerns – Judge Strine is hardly a “shareholder activist”, as Black has described him.
“I wasn’t giving a discussion of the evolution of the commercial bar and bench in Delaware,” Black says. “I was just talking about what I saw.”
All the same, I tell Black that I reckon he was guilty of civil fraud, if not criminal fraud too. He was convicted in 2007 of taking illegal payments connected with the sale of newspapers by Hollinger International, his former company, although two of his four convictions were later overturned by the Supreme Court.
My companion leans back in shock. I await a verbal lashing but he appears more surprised than angry.
“You cannot be serious,” he says, as if he had taken me for an intelligent man.
“You cannot be serious,” he repeats. “Where was the fraud?”
We launch into a debate on the definition of securities fraud, interrupted by a waitress bringing the main course, and Black requesting mint sauce for the lamb. He does not seem to resent my impertinence.
“What’s your first name again?” he asks.
“For God’s sake, call me Conrad. Don’t call me Lord Black. Is that for you or me?” He indicates a small bowl of thin potato chips, which has been placed between us.
“I don’t know. It’s ambiguous.”
“Like so much in life,” he murmurs, taking a chip.
Black writes in his memoir that, while innocent of all charges, he regrets some aspects of his behaviour. As it is not clear from the text, I ask what they were. He picks his words carefully.
“I think the answer is, I was a bit insouciant. While my conduct certainly did not stray into illegality, as my – and I don’t doubt it, your – ancestors would say, I was in the boldness of my muse giving hostages to providence and it did cause me great inconvenience.”
This does not really clarify matters and I am posing a follow-up when he interrupts.
“Excuse me. She did purport to bring some mint sauce, didn’t she? I don’t see any on the table.”
We search around the plates, but find nothing.
“It doesn’t matter, I’ll press on,” he says amiably, making another incision in his cutlet. “As Louis B. Mayer once said, press on irregardless.”
I take another stab at the question of regret, asking whether, as a Roman Catholic, he made a resolution to behave differently in future. He laughs. “With the greatest respect, John, and I do respect the Financial Times and, the little I know of you, I respect you, too. But it is not a role for which a financial reporter of a newspaper has an obvious licence. I mean, these questions of how I conduct my life as a Catholic are normally discussed with people more formally qualified in that area.”
“So if I were a priest, you’d tell me?”
“If you were a priest to whom I considered myself answerable, I would.”
That seems like a dead end, so we move to what Black will do now, between writing books, such as his well-received biographies of Richard Nixon and Franklin D. Roosevelt. He says he intends, “to relaunch myself in my old stamping grounds as a financier”, this time investing privately.
I remark that, while he may still have a remaining fortune of perhaps £60m, that doesn’t go far in Mayfair these days. We are within a stone’s throw of billionaire oligarchs, after all. By their standards, he’s not wealthy.
“Quite so,” he chuckles, tickled by the idea. “No, in my father’s old phrase, I’m not much better than a run-of-the-mill millionaire. Maximising my wealth was never my chief thing ... But now it’s time to replenish the inventory of miniature portraits of George Washington.”
We have finished the sole and lamb, of which his judgment – “not world-beating but adequate” – is sound. “I’m going to do something I guess a mother would tell us we shouldn’t do,” he says, reaching across the table for a plate of salad. “Oh, I’ve started by putting my sleeve in the salad. Could you propel that plate ... ? Thank you.”
I ask about his father, a Canadian industrialist and financier. “He was a considerable intellectual but somewhat morose, although very amusing, as morose people often are ... He became moderately wealthy and retired, thinking it would be paradise, but he couldn’t admit to himself that he didn’t like it. There was something mulish about it.”
Having retired at 47 and died at 65, George Black left his son – who is now 68 – determined to do neither. “My brother was 61 when he died and my mother was 63. So if I want to give us an average lifespan of 70, that requires me to live into my nineties. It is a pseudo-selfless way of wanting to live longer.”
I ask whether he feels old. “Not a bit,” he insists. “I feel physically and psychologically the same as I did 30 years ago.”
We order coffee – cappuccino for him, espresso for me – and I ask whether he had ever felt his downfall was psychologically too much to bear.
“Not quite, but something similar, which I’ll describe now, if I may. I wondered at the outset, when it was clear it would be very rough, if it would kill me physically.” He describes being woken in the night, “by just my heart beating thunderously, in a cold sweat, not being able to remember the dream”.
Since his release, he has returned to Canada. What does he make of his native country? “It’s a more interesting country than it was and, frankly John, it’s not that hard to make money. It’s a treasure house and it only has 33m people in it. There are almost no poor people.”
He contrasts that with his youth. “I was a great admirer of General de Gaulle and I remember when he came to Toronto in 1960. He was the first person of any importance to set foot there. I was 15, and I couldn’t believe it. I went to stand by his motorcade as it came down the highway. I had tears in my eyes. Now we get all these great swells and world leaders coming through all the time.”
London, however, has been “very refreshing” – especially his book party the previous night. “[There were] lots of people I hadn’t seen in years and you start up right where you left off. Subconsciously, it made me feel that these horrible nine years happened but they don’t matter, because I still feel well and my mental equilibrium hasn’t much changed. I can rebuild from here.”
So he doesn’t feel disgraced in respectable society?
“Look, you must take this in the right spirit, John. A skilful journalist such as yourself can challenge me effectively – not insuperably, I think, but effectively. But people attempting to bulldoze me on the supposition that I’m a criminal? If I can’t deal with them, I’ll quit. I’ll join a monastery.”
Perhaps recalling his years behind bars, he adds, “A monastery that allows conjugal visits.”
John Gapper is the FT’s chief business commentator
55 Jermyn Street London SW1Y
Smoked salmon £28.00
Dover sole £48.00
Lamb cutlets £29.00
Green salad £6.00
Roquette salad £7.00
Double espresso £5.50
Sparkling water x 2 £11.00
Tomato juice £4.50
1974 Pouilly-Fuissé £75.00
Total (incl service) £246.94