Conrad Black


A story … a magnificent fable of pride and retribution..

In this age of social mobility, when the cereal packet of society is being endlessly shaken .. it is all the more galling if you don’t achieve very much

The essence of all tragic literature is that the hero should be conspicious..swagger around and that some flaw should lead to a catastrophic reversal and collapse

That is the tragic cycle, and how amply Conrad and Barbara have fulfilled it

We owe Conrad and Barbara gratitude

What a circus. What a show. What a wonderful way to cheer a bleak March morning. The English spring seems to have had a crisis of confidence and relapsed into winter. The English cricket team is collapsing – and yet all the way from Chicago there wafts a story to warm the cockles of the heart, a magnificent fable of pride and retribution, and we are indebted to one extraordinary couple for providing it.

I know I shouldn’t be rooting for Conrad Black, and I want you to know that I in no way condone his alleged crimes. In so far as he is guilty of rampantly raiding the corporate cookie jar, he must pay his debt to society. If it is true that he snuck down in the middle of the night and ate – in financial terms – the entire chocolate cake that had been set aside for the school picnic, then obviously that was very wrong; and if Jeff Randall was right in his analysis the other day in these pages, then the matter is plainly extremely serious.

But I want to stick up for Conrad today in the sense that we all, as a society, are in his debt. I don’t just mean that we ex-hirelings are in his debt (though we are); and I don’t just refer to the gratitude he is owed by the many hundreds of hacks, politicians, Peter Mandelsons and other general liggers who used to pitch up at his parties and glug his champagne and munch his canapés.

I defend Conrad and Barbara because they are now bestowing on the human race a very special and personal gift. They are doing far more for British happiness than the Chancellor, with his bogus recitations of double-counted cash. Lord and Lady Black are distributing lashings of lovely old Schadenfreude, and how sweet it is to the British palate. Though Conrad and Barbara might not know it or even desire it, they are doing their bit for social cohesion.

Not long ago, I visited a mental hospital, and the director told me a sad and fascinating thing. Mental illness was increasing in Britain, she said, and she thought she knew why. It was because people saw so many things around them that they could not have; and the more intensely they were bombarded with images of material success – cars, clothes, attractive members of the opposite sex – the more inadequate they felt, and the more prone to a sense of exclusion and depression. And of course it made no difference that people were objectively far richer than they had ever been. It was the comparison that was important, the judgment of themselves by reference to others.

These feelings of unhappiness and frustration were greatly intensified because people no longer took much sustenance from religion, and also because of a profound change in society. If you fail to achieve any status or recognition these days, it is increasingly difficult to blame anyone but yourself. That is the price of the socially mobile and dynamic society we are meant to extol; and we don’t often see that its very fluidity is a great potential cause of unhappiness.

For most of human history, we have explained huge status differentials with some variant of Plato’s Noble Lie. You remember: when Plato divided the republic into guardians, auxiliaries, farmers, and so on, the common people were pacified with the assertion (the lie) that these divisions were divinely ordained. It was just the way it was; and though this thought is bleak, it is also deeply consoling.

It means it’s not your fault if you’re at the bottom of the heap, and it helps to explain the amazing durability, for instance, of the caste system in India. But in an age of social mobility, when the cereal packet of society is being endlessly shaken, and when talent is expected to rise to the top, and when anybody can in theory achieve anything, it is all the more galling if you don’t achieve very much.

Most of us lead lives of blameless bourgeois domesticity, and on the whole we are pretty pleased with our lot; and yet from time to time we may behold some titanic figure cruising past in his Roller, or pushing past us at the airport to board his Lear jet, with short-skirted glamour-puss wives bobbing in his wake. At that moment, a certain antsiness can descend, even upon the most equable. Oi, we think to ourselves, what about me? Why am I just a drudge, a wage slave, churning out articles when that fellow is an intercontinental tycoon?

We feel the same self-dissatisfaction that is rampant in our increasingly egotistical and materialistic society, and the best answer to this status anxiety, of course, is just to grow up and be thankful for the many wonderful things the Lord has given us. Alas, over the millennia that admirable teaching has not been enough, and that is why, from the moment man began to write and tell stories, we have invented a more satisfying narrative, an essentially literary way of palliating our anxiety. It is the essence of all tragic literature that the hero should be conspicuous, that he should swagger around and that some flaw should lead to a catastrophic reversal and collapse.

That is the tragic cycle, and how amply Conrad and Barbara have fulfilled it. We needed them to puff themselves up; we needed the folie de grandeur and the dressing up as cardinals and queens; because if Conrad had not been so splendidly bombastic, and if Barbara had not been so full of magnificent hauteur as to call other journalists “vermin”, then the rest of humanity would not feel such pleasure, secret or open, in witnessing what would seem to be their imminent comeuppance.

For those of us who will never be global bigshots, who despair of ever owning a Lear jet or a chateau, for those of us with status anxiety – and that is all of us, baby – the hubris and apparent nemesis of the Blacks is a chance to feel just that little bit better about our place in the order of things, and that behind every great fortune there is indeed, as alleged, a great crime.

Unless, of course, Conrad gets off; in which case they will clamber beaming into their jet, and everyone else will have such a bad attack of status anxiety that they have to go and lie down.

22 thoughts on “Conrad Black”

  1. Let me get this right, Boris old cucumber, are you saying that only the richest person in the world can be happy, the rest of us are always going to be envious? That the pursuit of material wealth will not bring happiness? That the bedwetting, miserable, animal-molesting twit Adam Smith got it all wrong? That perhaps our society should be based upon co-operation and harmony instead of trying to stab each other in the back constantly?
    Come off it, old chap, that could never work.
    I say let’s get on with the serious business of messing up the planet in the pursuit of each of us having a 48 room house with 25 acres of land attached.

  2. Interesting Vicus, but in my view that should not be forced. By all means live a life of co-operation and harmony, I may even join you. However, surely a better way is to leave people the choice? ‘Pursue wealth if that makes you happy, I shall live in my co-op’?

    I suspect that is better than taking eveything everyone has and putting them into a box with the instruction “co-operate and live in harmony”.

  3. Can you please all co-op to make me the richest person in the world so I can tell you if it makes me happy?

  4. THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN FOR JUNIOR DOCTORS ! I’m a junior doctor facing the sack (as we all are) and could easily start suffering from Depression / Generalised Anxiety Disorder / Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – take your pick!

    We all face unemployment, and I frequently ponder how my life might be “at the bottom of the heap” – as Boris puts it!

    Does this mean Boris thinks it’s all right for junior doctors to compete like this for jobs – ‘survival of the fittest’, so to speak?

  5. Conrad must keep BABS on a leach as she is so stupid.She will remarry in a few years to an old guy when the cash Conny stashed away for her runs out.

  6. After more consideration, I don’t think Boris’ article was relevant to the increasing stress of junior doctors.

    His article discusses mental health problems related to a desire for material reward. We junior doctors seek recognition for the job we do and the hard work that has gone into everything.

  7. Rattling good piece, Boris, packed with uncomfortable truths.

    “I want it, and I want it now” – the mantra of the 21st century – has done untold harm since the concept of fatalism was expunged from life. If you don’t get whatever it is you’re goaded into wanting, disappointment, depression or turning to crime to obtain it are the most likely result.

    To “know your place” is seen as an outrageous proposition in this egalitarian age. But people who knew their place were on the whole a lot happier than people who are constantly told the only measure of success is how much you have acquired, whether you wear the latest trainers or have the biggest widescreen TV.

    How about taking pleasure in being alive, having enough to eat, and knowing that Blair’s days are numbered?

  8. PaulD said “taking pleasure in being alive, having enough to eat, and knowing that Blair’s days are numbered?”

    a delicious thought 🙂

  9. I haven’t read it yet, I’m too drunk to read it having spent all day in the pub watching cricket. But if he did nick $60 million I hope they give him hard labour!

  10. Now I’m a bit more sober, and have read it, I’m not sure I agree that the increase in mental illness is caused by people being ‘more prone to a sense of exclusion and depression’.

    There is another theory on this; that the sheer amount of conflicting information people have to cope with in their day to day lives burns them out.

    I’ve worked as a ‘battery hen’ in many a call centre, and all the big companies do exactly the same thing to you. They bombard you with a conflicting set of statistical and subjective targets. They are never happy with what you’ve done for your £6 an hour. There’s always room for improvement in the eyes of the hierarchy, many jobs are now not only mundane (as many jobs always have been) but they are unrewarding thankless and degrading to anyone with an IQ over about 80.

    If a call centre worker scores 90% on their ‘quality’ appraisal, it’s never a case of ‘excellent, you’re an asset to the company’. It’s a case of ‘you only missed by 10%, if you’d just remembered to get a ‘is there anything else I can help you with today’ in at the end of that third call you’d have got a hundred.

    ‘Come on, she practically slammed the phone down on me’ just doesn’t wash. ‘You still have to say it, in future, just say it anyway, even if she has hung up, then at least they can’t mark you down’ is what you’ll get off your team leader. I’m not joking, or exaggerating, many of these places insist that you talk to a dead line in the name of ‘quality’.

    One place I used to work (a horrible US based directory enquiries company) insisted that if a customer hung up I had to say ‘Hello, hello, I can’t hear you, please call back for a better connection.’ Not just if the line went dead, even if a customer said ‘Sod it, I’ll use the Yellow Pages’ and slammed the phone down while you were grappling with their unfit for purpose, over-worked, cheapscate, out-of-date, so called database, you still had to say it, to thin air. If you didn’t either you’d get a disciplinary from your manager or some patronising Yank would come running down the stairs to ask you why you weren’t enjoying your job enough to use the ‘protocol’. ‘Protocol is very important, we know that agents not using their protocol are sometimes unhappy at work, or don’t enjoy their job, is this the case Steven? Do you not enjoy working here’ It wasn’t the fact he arrived in a Porsche turbo that used to drive people around the bend, far from it.

    Of course the ‘quality team’ in these places never can make their mind up what they want you to say at the start, in the middle, or end of the call. They change the criteria every month in some places, probably to justify their very existance. So there you are, eight am on a Saturday morning, headset plugged in, PC switched on, waiting for the first unhappy customer (let’s face it you never call a company to say ‘thank you, what a wonderful service you are providing) when someone comes around waving a piece of paper under your nose. ‘It’s from the quality team, you have to start saying “thank-you for calling XYZ, is there anything else I can help you with” instead of “is there anything else I can help you with” and then “thank you for calling XYZ” if they say no.

    That’s what they do, spend months drilling you into operating with the consitency of a robotic parrot during your ten hour shifts, then change ‘the script’ at a moments notice and expect immediate adherence. One place I worked had statistics about the average length of a call being six minutes, more than thirty seconds either way and the team leader would be on your case about either wasting data or wasting time.

    One place I worked sent out mailshots a load of customers offering a ‘free’ service suggesting it could just be added onto their mobile contracts without any fuss. At the same time another department is sending us rules about which customers are ineligable without changing their price plans. The IT department has decided to make sure we can’t add without changing the customers price plan. Of course they mailed it to thousands of customers for whom changing a price plan wouuld have meant an increase in line rental unless manual discounts were added, or who were not ‘eligible’ for it in the first place because of the price plan they were on.

    What do you do? The customer wants it, they want it ‘free’ like it says on the flyer they’ve been sent. If you rig up their account to make it ‘free’ their bills are going to look awfully different with the amount of discounts you have to apply. They might not be too happy about that, the bills are confusing enough to start with. They are going to lose the 400 minutes they’ve rolled over. You can’t put them back on 400 minutes a month because only 350 or 500 exist on the new price plans.

    Do you keep the customer happy, give them the 500 minutes a month at the same already discounted rate at they were paying for 400 so they can have the free service the flyer in their bill says they can have? Then you get grief from quality or your team leader for breaking procedures. Or do you deny the customer the service and say there has been a mistake? Or tell them they will lose 50 minutes a month and pay an extra £10 for the ‘free’ service? Of course you might get shouted at by an irate customer, who then demands to speak to your manager, shoving up your average call time up for the day and getting you grief from quality about your stats?

    You end up getting cheesed off with the overpaid cretins that are supposed to be running the damn place, but can’t, and leave you to take all the stick either from their customers or their ‘quality’ team, take your pick.

  11. Nice piece, Boris.
    A very wise gentleman once declared: ‘One of the greatest sources of stress is unrealistic expectations’. Trouble is – how do you calculate what is ‘unrealistic’ until you’ve tried it?

    The 1960s introduced into our society a Niagara of ‘you can have it all’ philosophy, assisted in no small measure by TV programmes like ‘Oh Boy’, whereon our kids witnessed talentless, tuneless, gyrating airheads earning fortunes, and overnight achieving a degree of fame hitherto reserved for the likes of Nelson and the Duke of Wellington.

    You can, of course, have it all – with two reservations: you can’t have it all at once, and there’s always a price to pay (ask Kylie, Whitney and Sir Paul…oh, yes, and Conrad.)

    For that matter, ask me. Aged 77, I could undoubtedly qualify as the aforementioned hero in tragic literature. Having had it all, or pretty much all, I (together with my dear wife aged 64) have just spent two years in litigious hell, defending our dismissal from our day-time job for ‘gross misconduct’.

    What gross misconduct? I wrote a book. An innocuous, funny novel that has sold 130 copies worldwide, and has hurt nobody.

    The outcome: damages sufficient to buy a high-mileage, V-Reg Astra, and a great bewilderment as to why, especially at a time when the Government is begging us to work until we drop dead because of the pensions crisis, a tax-paying, ex-Army, British subject is forbidden to sue for ‘Unfair Dismissal’ because he is over 65. Over to you, Boris.

    In conclusion: are we downhearted?

    Not in the least. Being 77, I was born in the Great Depression, was bombed and evacuated during the war, experienced severe shortages and rationing, learned valuable lessons from stalwart parents, and realise by comparison just how comfortable, protected and safe our lives are in Britain today.

    Is it doubted? Go visit Afghanistan, Zimbabwe or Colombia.

    So, folks, by all means go for it – but if you don’t quite make it, do as Boris suggests and count your blessings.

    And visualise this: the guy in the Roller undoubtedly has ulcers, tax problems, a cheating wife and the Roller is probably rented.

    Have a good day.

  12. What a fantastic piece of writing!

    It is so true – uncomfortably vulgar, but too true for words!

    Greener grass is a simple analogy but the truth is, we much prefer to aim for something than to actually get said item.

    However, learn to be content, and the world is your lobster! 🙂

  13. Congratulations Boris. The only thing that improves the oh-so-English feeling of Schadenfreude is a traditional tipple of Liebensfraumilch.

    And when it happens to your ex-boss!

  14. Solution to all this materialistic, advertising imposed status anxiety? Take up a musical instrument or singing – it’s the best solution to melancholy and it is its own reward. Oh, and don’t vote Tory or New Labour, ever.

  15. I say old chap, were you sitting on the opposition benches on the day Gorgon Brown treated us to a live display of picking his bogeys and eating them? Beware of the “pick and flick” I say and never shake hands with the new “dirty digger”!

    It seems the French have already been treated to a display of Gorgon’s eating habits on TV. Old Sarko will be turning the French presidency down if he realises he has to get up close to the grumpy green giant.

  16. Oi, we think to ourselves, what about me? Why am I just a drudge, a wage slave,…?

    Hang on a mo’. Who’s writing this?

    Is this Boris the common man, wearily cycling miles to work every morning between the enviable Hansom cabs trotting past, to take his place as some drudge at the benches of the work-house of Poorly Men, and scrawling mostly-rejected pamphlets by candlelight at night to supplement his meagre earnings, while the trouble and strife boils up the oxtail giblet soup yet again downstairs over the coal fire in the rat-infested scullery, and the ragged children fight over who gets to sleep in the single straw-palleted bed tonight?

    I thought so.

  17. Something meant to be – I have just been able to tune in Radio Oxford after one year and the music was playing “something meant to be and cant help falling in love with you.” Isnt this amazing.

  18. Re: Steven_L said: “…protocol…”

    Read “The Rats of NIMH”? It strikes me that most people love puzzles, and some of them think you can extend that to all spheres of human interaction, including work. Conflicting demands, as shown by Skinner et al, leave lesser-brained creatures helpless, unable to make any choices at all. If you could apply that to human behaviour you’ve got your robots – but the point is we aren’t lesser-brained, so fight back with actions that mirror theirs. We’re all human. Tell them what’s what, and spread the word! Bad work practices left unchecked and unmentioned spread like cancer. No company likes it to be known they suffer from poor administration which dents confidence and, more importantly, profits.

    With regards to mental ill-health, the reason why it’s increasing is the broadening of the spectrum of what’s considered to be mentally unhealthy, which is part of the movement to prevent mental ill-health in the first place, mainly on grounds of cost. Get them early enough, I suspect is the logic, and hey presto! problems solved.

    But little doubt a crippling lack of self confidence is a major factor in underachievement (which can become pathological) – so address it by giving people the confidence that their own efforts will reward them through learning from experience, and sussing out what is shoddy by teaching them to be objectively self critical, thus automatically capable of objective (and constructive) criticism of others. Who knows, this may eventually enable them to look a manager in the eye and tell them what is what, and win the argument…There’s no magic wand that will solve it, just plain dogged determination and sheer bloody-mindedness (or persistence if you prefer).

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