Diary

From jailbird to social butterfly – the return of Conrad Black

5 July 2014

9:00 AM

5 July 2014

9:00 AM

The former proprietor of this magazine, Conrad Black, is in London at the moment with his gorgeous wife Barbara, and I’ve got very bad news for those of his enemies who predicted that he’d be a social pariah when he got out of jail. At lunches, parties and dinners I’ve attended this week in his honour, he and Barbara have been feted by the leader of one of Britain’s largest political parties, a household-name supermodel, a former foreign policy adviser to a revered prime minister, members of the royal family, a senior industrialist, a former Commonwealth prime minister, a former British foreign secretary, several House of Lords colleagues of his and Britain’s most respected publisher, and that’s even before he arrives at the Speccie party this week. Britons are far less snooty about incarceration than Americans, and believe in the concept of repaying one’s debt to society. When I visited Conrad in his Florida penitentiary a few years ago, I didn’t really know what to expect. I know imprisonment would have broken me, but as he came out of the locked doors into the prison yard he looked as if he’d stepped off a yacht.

To the magnificent Skinners’ Hall in the City to watch my wife, Susan Gilchrist, CEO of the financial communications group Brunswick, be feted as a newly elected honorary fellow of King’s College London. A tremendously proud moment, only slightly spoilt by the fact that I seemed to be about the only person there not to be wearing an order, medal or decoration. I felt naked. Along the enormous rack of medals sported by Field Marshal Lord Guthrie was a yellow-ribboned one I didn’t recognise, so I asked him what it was for. ‘I had to put down a native revolt in Espiritu Santo about 30 years ago,’ he said, before adding, ‘They only carried bows and arrows and all they wore were penis-sheaths.’ I suddenly felt awfully less naked. Intrigued, I looked into what’s called the coconut war of 1980 and, needless to say, Charles was being modest. It was a nasty, sharp little engagement in which people died and the French seem to have been on both sides.


Last Saturday I went to the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, for a Solemn Drumhead Service of Remembrance for those who volunteered for the Great War, a magnificent occasion. The Queen wore purple, but otherwise the variety of uniforms worn was astonishing, with spurs, frogging on coats, epaulettes, goose-feather plumes on cocked hats, the works. Although the invitation told us ‘Full Ceremonial Day, less Sword’, there seemed to be plenty of swords about. More gong-envy, of course, but I was also struck by a sudden jolt of nostalgia, like a rabbit-punch in the solar plexus, when I remembered buying a pint for a Chelsea Pensioner in the Prince Albert pub in Victoria Street 30 years ago and listening spellbound to his tales of the trenches. It’s amazing to think that the London Regiment alone had 88 battalions by 1918. (Today the entire British army has only 36 regular and 14 territorial battalions, and there are now considerably more hairdressers in the UK than there are members of all three armed services combined.

Aside from the splendid ceremony in Chelsea last weekend, perhaps the best long-term commemoration of the Great War is being undertaken by my own profession. Several hugely impressive history books have been published on the conflict, and thankfully there’s no sign of the public getting the literary equivalent of trench-foot yet. Margaret Macmillan’s The War that Ended Peace, Max Hastings’s Catastrophe, Allan Mallinson’s 1914, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, Saul David’s 100 Days to Victory, William Philpott’s Attrition, David Reynolds’s The Long Shadow: British (and in Margaret’s case, Canadian) historical scholarship has more than risen to the challenge presented by this doleful centenary, and I’m sure there’ll be plenty more by the time the Last Post sounds in November 2018. As chairman of the annual Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize for Military History — $50,000 to the winner — I expect to be inundated with worthy contestants for years to come. (Publishers please take note.) In the military, historical and biographical spheres at least, I suspect that English-language publishing is experiencing a golden age.

I live in the USA and love Americans, but I can see when they go too far. In particular their obsession with pampering their dogs never fails to astound me, with some owners putting little red leather bootees on their dog’s feet before taking them for a walk in Central Park. At preprandial drinks at a dinner party on Fifth Avenue just before I left to come over here, our hostess excused herself saying: ‘I’m so sorry but I need to go away for five minutes — I need to discuss menus with my dog-chef.’

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Show comments
  • That’s very rarified air you breathe, Mr Roberts. I’m sure you know very well that the non-glittering people don’t have dog-chefs, and the only time I ever put booties on my dog (she immediately took them off), I was attempting to protect her paws from allergy-driven gnawing.

  • Sanctimony

    Why are we expected to support the re-invention of these megalomanic, prolix bores… both him and her ?

  • davidshort10

    It took me till the end of the column to realise this was not a spoof written by someone like Craig Brown to make fun of a fawining, a##e-licking, name-dropping arriviste who would attend the opening of an envelope. And his profession is not historian as, as far as I know, he has never held a university appointment. Instead, he can afford to sit in the London Library writing history books due to inheriting money made by his family from the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise…..

    • Sanctimony

      Finger-lickin’ good … Thanks for that succinct and entirely apposite comment, David…

    • Hegelguy

      I despise Roberts but after all even Gibbon did not hold a university appointment!

    • Sanctimony

      Yes, Gravitas and Colonel Saunders don’t really go hand-in-hand !

  • Sanctimony

    I cannot believe that the Spectator expects us to endorse the rehabilitation of this fraudulent old windbag and his multi-married escort who belies all the symptoms of her working-class Watford origins…

    They both, like Icarus, tried to bypass their extremely modest origins and achievements and foist themselves onto society… or whatever that passes for these days…. Conrad ate his porridge in the US slammer… and well done him… but just to see his ugly, common, pug-faced visage being thrust at us again is a regurgitated menu that we no longer wish to have to digest.

    • Hegelguy

      You have a gift for savage telling invective! Well done, old mole. I too find this revelling in the moral gutter a sick spectacle. But what can one expect of the likes of Roberts ! He will crawl after Black as long as the felon has managed to keep some of his swag.

    • darjobee

      Rather nasty don’t you think? Besides, he took the tumble for his former Hollnger partner.

      • Sanctimony

        So cloud-cuckoo-land really exists…

      • davidshort10

        He was and probably still is incredibly pompous and entitled. I think it was no accident he dressed up as Cardinal Richelieu at a fancy dress party. According to friends of mine, his wife was a fairly normal and friendly hack before meeting him, after which she became some absurd social grande dame and it was Black who corrupted her.

        • Doggie Roussel

          It’s well known in some rarified social circles that the Watford one has certain talents that some men find irresistible and Big C, who sure ain’t no looker or charmer, was completely bewitched by her dexterity… Ca, c’est tout !

        • Doggie Roussel

          You’re ‘avin’ a laff !

  • Hegelguy

    His ravaged face tells a bad story.

    • edlancey

      Just imagine the state of his…On second thoughts.

  • Hegelguy

    Crooks of a feather flock together. As long as he has some money….

  • Sanctimony

    Andrew Roberts; Conrad Black’s lapdog…

    • davidshort10

      What a pity Spittting Image is still not in existence to do a spoof of the two Davids sketch, with Roberts taking the part of little David Steel.

  • edlancey

    “but as he came out of the locked doors into the prison yard he looked as if he’d stepped off a yacht.”

    Yes, a yacht paid for by his shareholders.

    • Doggie Roussel

      Is he related to that Helmsley woman…. tax is for little people….

      • davidshort10

        Helmsley was cruel and rude to her servants. Unfortunately I don’t think she was still alive when it was revealed that her servants peed in every drink they served her.

  • Weasel

    “Conrad Black. The first rich person to go to prison in 300 years” Douglas Reynolm. When you’re made a joke on the IT Crowd you’ve finally arrived.

    Meanwhile Roberts makes strong surge for OBN of the year.

    • Sanctimony

      There has to be a higher ennoblement than OBN for sycophants of Andrew Robert’s calibre…

      Any suggestions ?

  • Hegelguy

    Unless he has plans to go back into business Black is wasting his time trying vainly to get back into his old social whirl. That way can only lie disillusion. He would do better to concentrate on his writing. He does have a real talent for history and current affairs and there are good books to be written about the state of the modern world.

    • Doggie Roussel

      Have you every tried reading anything by the prolix old fart ?

  • Bill Thomas

    As you clearly want a medal, Mr Roberts, you can self-nominate. Or get one of your many name dropped chums to do so for you………….

  • Doggie Roussel

    So wonderful that Conrad and Marie-Antoinette are back… Watford can celebrate !

  • Doggie Roussel
  • Prolix

    Is it really possible that Andrew Roberts is as unctuous and servile as he comes across or is it rather a skit of some kind and I am just too slow on the uptake to realize what is going on?

    I remember him fawning over George W. Bush in a column in which he was revealing the books that W. was reading. Apparently Roberts had stayed at the White House and was tickled pink to drop such bon mots our way.

    Not that I could do any better, but I remember a few years ago buying his book on Wellington and Napoleon. I gave up after a few chapters as I was in awe at just how boring it was. Not directly related to his servility in the face of money and power, but it does make for an interesting admixture somewhere in his personality…

    Nevertheless, it is remarkable just how much of a lick-spittle he comes across as being..

    • davidshort10

      I am not particularly tall but Andrew Roberts is very short. This could be something to do with the fawning. Without his inherited money, he would probably be a suburban chartered accountant.

      • Doggie Roussel

        That’s a thoroughly nasty slur on suburban chartered accountants !

  • Sanctimony

    Didn’t Babs once walk out with Woy Jenkins ?

  • Doggie Roussel

    In 2002 Vogue was invited into her London mansion where the reporter
    noted “a fur closet, a sweater closet, a closet for shirts and T-shirts
    and a closet so crammed with evening gowns that the overflow has to be
    kept in yet more closets downstairs”.

    And there was more – a dozen Hermès Birkin bags, 30 or 40 handbags made by Renaud Pellegrino, and more than 100 pairs of Manolo Blahnik shoes….

    The Guardian September 2004

    So who is the bigger spiv, con-artist and spendthrift of this delightful couple ?

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