Black’s witty musings hit the target
Backward Glances: People and Events From Inside and Out
In his foreword to Backward Glances, a collection of the controversial journalism of Conrad Black, fellow journalist Mark Steyn writes the following: “Every aspect of federal prison is designed to crush the human spirit. I confess that I thought it would crush Conrad’s. Instead, swapping the company of the very highest in the land for that of the very lowest did indeed in some strange way deepen and enrich his writing.”
Steyn’s observation is everywhere evident in Backward Glances, a 727page volume of opinion and reminiscence, thoughts and rumination which have marked Black’s high-profile professional career.
There are few subjects Black doesn’t touch on in this collection, a timely reminder of the depth and range of the former newspaper baron’s preoccupations.
These preoccupations are on full display in Backward Glances and reflect a remark once made by Black’s wife, columnist Barbara Amiel, when she noted she had married a corporate titan only to see him become a freelance writer.
In this guise, Black’s landmark candour on current and past subjects of interest both inform and engage the reader.
Black has trimmed his topics to such predictable categories as Canada, the United States, Europe, International Affairs and the Middle East, to the more personal Celebrities and Friends, Book Reviews, Religion and Media.
“Collections of past writings are a lazy and often dubious excuse for writing a book,” Black admits in an author’s note that introduces the collection.
But the book’s attractive format leaves the reader free to select topics of interest as inclined.
Readers in this country might be most drawn to Black’s reflections on Canadian affairs. Sometimes judgemental, sometimes humorous, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, his observations seldom miss the mark.
Jean Chretien, he notes, was “a capable caretaker, but no statesman,” one burdened with “twee nostalgia” about the value of the United Nations and one with “the dubious distinction of being the only elected incumbent prime minister to be jettisoned from the highest office by his own party.”
Stephen Harper fares better, even though Black labels the former prime minister’s successive governments as humourless, often paranoid, and as media-inaccessible, authoritarian and peevish.
On the other side of the ledger, however, he praises Harper’s competence and diligence, his avoidance of fiscal imprudence, robust foreign policy decisions and common sense attitudes on both environmental issues and on the Canada-U.S. relationship.
Justin Trudeau remains, Black declares ,“a largely unknown quantity ,” a rookie prime minister about whom he, for now, withholds judgement.
He has no such qualms about NDP leader Thomas Mulcair who, he felt in 2015, would take Canada over Niagara Falls if elected federally. He decries the NDP’s “eco-lunacy” on the environment, its economic wrongheadedness, its reluctance to tackle ISIS and other terrorist groups and its position, if faced with a Quebec referendum, on the Clarity Act.
Black covers American affairs with an authority and style which reflect the time he has spent in the United States and offers enough interesting commentary on presidents and policies to call for a stand-alone book.
The same could be noted of Black’s assessment of the West’s past failures and present dangers in the Middle East and of the explosive situations which have led not only to political stalemate, but to tragedy.
His coverage is a timely tour and a sometimes frightening one. Black notes: “The cross-currents of Middle Eastern ambitions and loyalties are so treacherous and complicated they are almost impossible to plan for durably.”
In Celebrities and Friends, Black serves up brief pen sketches of Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Warren Buffet, among others.
In this section Black is at his caustic best and most readers will be both informed and entertained by his vivid commentary.
American writer Gore Vidal, he reminds us, “was one of the most obnoxious public figures in the English-speaking world.” And he was, Black adds, “profoundly insufferable and deeply maladjusted.”
Black’ s recycled book reviews warrant a second reading and include crisp comment on biographies of such historical figures as Napoleon, Joseph Sta lin, Tony Blair and Henry Kissinger, and include a tribute to his late friend, esteemed writer George Jonas.
Back in 2005 he saw prolific writer Peter C. Newman as a fraud and a gossip, and as endlessly tiresome. “Now seventy-eight, shambling about in his ridiculous sailor’s cap, bilious, oily, and at least verbally incontinent, Newman is pitiful, but not at all sympathetic.”
From his accounts of time spent in the U.S. prison system to his treatise on the differences between dogs and cats to his musings on religion, Black is witty and thought-provoking.
Readers who have long favoured him — and even those who have not — will find Backward Glances a collection to savour.