Black’s witty mus­ings hit the tar­get

Back­ward Glances: Peo­ple and Events From In­side and Out

The Delhi News-Record - - BOOKS - By Con­rad Black Ran­dom House Canada $39.95 Re­viewed by Nancy Schiefer Spe­cial to Post­media News Nancy Schiefer is a Lon­don free­lance writer.

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.

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