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What scares Conrad Black? Being forgotten

Sophie Elmhirst has coffee with the last tycoon.

At one point in our conversation in the bar of the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair, Conrad Black has a brief but ferocious coughing fit. He apologises and, with a flick of his hand to his forehead, explains in that deep Canadian drawl that he is being “bedevilled” by a bug. Most people feel under the weather; Black is bedevilled. His language is as inappropriately and flamboyantly rich as he once was.

Black is on a book tour for his memoir, A Matter of Principle, a near-600-page protestation of innocence. Book tours are usually fairly genial, cosy affairs: the odd bookshop reading and a Waterstones signing. Maybe, if you’re lucky, a panel event at the Southbank Centre and a slot on Start the Week. But this is Black, ex-publishing tycoon, former owner of the Telegraph, multimillionaire, convicted fraudster, semi-fresh out of US jail. He doesn’t do cosy, he does battle. The last line of his book’s first conclusion (there are three: Black has included an epilogue and a “postlude”) is “I win”. And in some of his interactions on tour so far, you’ll have seen him waging war with Jeremy Paxman (“priggish, gullible fool”), Adam Boulton (“jackass”) and Ian Hislop on Have I Got News for You.

There’s little point in arguing with someone like Black. You will never meet anyone so untroubled by self-doubt – it’s like talking to a mountain. Black is vast; his bulk takes up a corner of the room and his ego fills the rest. You can say anything to him and it bounces off the steel of his self-righteousness and smacks you back in the face. This is a man who had been “grossly defamed”, who talks of in terms of martyrdom, who makes passing reference to Kafka and Napoleon and the French Revolution as he tells you of his persecution at the hands of the US justice system.

If you think you’re right to the extent that Black thinks he’s right, nothing can touch you, not even your own fall. Why, I ask, does he think we are all so fascinated by public disgrace? He considers the question with the equanimity of the only sane man in the lunatic asylum. “It’s a naturally interesting and amusing thing to see something apparently imposing just crumble.

“In interwar films, you’d always see the façade falling down. Even when they demolish a building, you often see it in the news, it’s pretty interesting. It’s one of life’s naturally somewhat entertaining and interesting things, and that I understand. I’ve even been slightly amused and entertained myself. But it wasn’t quite what it seemed. I’m already in rebuild mode, you see.”

Opinion former

Ah, rebuild mode. It’s a thing to behold. A crucial part of this mode, it seems, is developing a congenital incapability of giving a damn about anyone’s opinion but your own. The views of colleagues, lawyers, judges, juries, journalists, even his wife, Barbara Amiel (“Well she’s Jewish and I’ve never met an optimistic Jew”), are dismissed. Also, he likes a challenge. “I’m a historian,” he says, “and you don’t have to look into history very far to see people who went on to great things having been absolutely at the bottom of the pit.” The joy is in prevailing against the odds. And if you fail, “you’re merely a trivia question”. If Black is capable of fear, it is this: to be the name you can’t quite remember in 20 years’ time when you’re playing Trivial Pursuit with your kids. A mere footnote.

Anyway, rebuild! “I’ve started a new phase. I had my phase as a warrior against injustice. Now I’m a writer and financier, and that’s what I’m going to do.” (I have never heard someone earnestly self-describe as a warrior, but Black says many things that I didn’t think it possible for a human being to say without a hint of self-parody.) The book’s intention is to draw a line under the past decade, so he can move on. And up. Because Black, in his prime, was socially imperial. His book reads like a dinner-party compendium as much as a memoir and he’s keen to emphasise the mathematical precision of his ongoing popularity: “For example, in this country, 90 per cent of the people I thought of as friends have proved to be friends.” (Woe betide the 10 per cent.) Boris Johnson is one: “a great Englishman. The nation is waiting for Boris.” Even Paxman: “I actually quite like Paxman as a person and we get on well . . . but he was trying to bulldoze me so I bulldozed him back.”

And those that aren’t his friends, well, who cares? “Murdoch’s Murdoch – he’s an awful man, but he is what he is and there’s no great mystery about what he is.”

In a strange way, it’s quite refreshing talking to someone who says things such as “I’m not a felon, shove it up your ass” and wants the government to “declare a national day of thanksgiving for Margaret Thatcher”. People usually try to please. Black doesn’t mind if you loathe him, as long as you buy his book.

“A Matter of Principle” by Conrad Black is published by Biteback (£14.99)

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?