Great Expectations

A Life in Progress
By Conrad Black
Key Porter, 522 pp.

As befits the larger-than-life story of a media mogul who has invested as much energy in the creation of his own myth as in his corporate holdings, Conrad Black’s autobiography opens with a whopper.

Reflecting on his less-than-happy childhood at Toronto’s Upper Canada College, he recounts how he and some of his Grade 6 chums once disturbed a senior form examination by their rambunction in the corridor outside. The exasperated invigilator burst upon them and, pointing to the sign “Examination in Progress,” inquired as to whether they could read. “No,” Black volunteered, “I’m receiving an inferior education” – a riposte for which he received an immediate thrashing with a riding crop. Looking back on the incident, he allows that “I have rarely been cheeky since.”

Ho ho. Given what follows in the subsequent 500 pages, the remark is not only disingenuous, it is itself knowingly cheeky, and he’s not fooling anyone. For if anything marks the spectacular career of Conrad Moffat Black it is his unrepentant cheek – not in the sense of impudence, but in the mischievous delight he so obviously takes in puncturing humbug, besting his betters, and baiting the purveyors of right-thinking cant.

It is this dimension that makes Black such a fascinating character and his autobiography, accordingly, a corking good read. Merely being filthy rich does not in itself make for riveting memoirs. K.C. Irving may have been one of the world’s wealthiest men, but he was also one of the dullest. By comparison (and no doubt by design), Black’s life reads like a Dickens novel, right down to the baroque melodrama, the impossible coincidences and the improbable names of certain players (Black’s right-hand man, for example, is surnamed White).

To anyone even remotely attentive to the workings of Canadian finance and the domestic and international media boardrooms, the outlines of the narrative will already be familiar, especially since, through his acquisitions, his writings, and what journalists decry as his hair trigger when it comes to defamation suits, Black rarely shrinks from public view.

He was born in 1944, the son of a senior corporate executive who raised him in circles such that some of the loftiest captains of Canadian finance came to know and like him. His education at Upper Canada College came to a tragi-comic end in 1959, when he managed to purloin the year-end examination questions and was discovered selling them to his fellow students.

After taking his undergraduate degree at Carleton University and following a disastrous year at Osgoode Hall law school, he and his pal Peter White purchased two small papers in the Eastern Townships, and Black ran them both, launching the newspaper empire that would eventually number some 250 titles, including Britain’s Daily Telegraph, the Jerusalem Post, the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday Night magazine and a sizable share of Canada’s Southam chain, owner of The Gazette.

He took a law degree at Université Laval and an MA at McGill, eventually publishing his thesis on Maurice Duplessis as a 743-page volume. But it was in the boardrooms of Toronto that he engineered his corporate ascent.

On the death of his father, he and his brother Monte ascended to directorships of companies in the stable of the venerable Argus Corp. Then, on the death of Argus chairman Bud McDougald, Black and his allies wrested control of the company and set about remaking it along more profitable lines. The upshot was a reverse takeover in which Hollinger, originally a moribund mining interest in the Argus holdings, became Argus’s corporate parent, and the company fortunes became focused on media proprietorship.

None of this was accomplished without episodes of acrimony, and over the ’70s and ’80s a caricature of Black emerged as an industrialist ogre who trampled widows and orphans when they got in the way of his insatiable greed. Like any such caricature, it was more colorful than correct, but it’s true that by his actions and his outspoken political convictions he infuriated the political left, from Bob Rae to the Can-Lit establishment. Nor did he endear himself to the scribbling classes by referring to journalists before the 1969 Special Senate Committee on Mass Media as “ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest and inadequately supervised,” or by his habit of returning floundering newspapers to profitability by showing reporters the door.

His autobiography is in part intended to answer his critics by riling them even further, and one suspects he had a rollicking good time writing it. No doubt his adversaries will dispute his version of the various boardroom struggles (he is apt to describe his enemies and occasionally even his allies in vituperative terms; Bud McDougald, for example was “a toady, a snob, a bigot, an elegant anachronism and an unlearned reactionary”) but the Black-eye view is never less then entertaining. If it’s sly and scabrous gossip you’re after, there’s a laugh-out-loud character assassination virtually every second page. Black doesn’t name-drop so much as name drop-kick.

And in an age when most newspaper prose has been mulched into anodyne pablum, almost no one writes like Black any more, but his style is perfectly suited to his purposes and persona. It is bombastic, yes, and quaintly old-fashioned, as though it properly belongs to a world of frockcoats and top hats, but it’s also elegant and eloquent and luxuriates in an evocative vocabulary. He loves deploying words like “irredentist,” “tompion” or “gasconading.” Have a dictionary at the ready.

In the end, his critics will not be much swayed by A Life in Progress. It will be pilloried inevitably in some quarters as self-serving and self-indulgent. His enemies will denounce his admissions of political machination as a subversion of democracy. They will find his continual military metaphors tiresome. They will deride him as a recalcitrant schoolboy who still collects toy battleships at the age of 40. They may concede that he’s an original, but will insist nonetheless that he’s one of an unkind.

Be that as it may, only the humorless and the sanctimonious can fail to give Black and his autobiography their due. He is, quite simply, the most tantalizing and picaresque Canadian of his

  • Montreal Gazette October 30, 1993