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Sunday 16 December 2007

Optimistic Black pinning his hopes on an appeal

Conrad Black read an article defending him by Ruth Dudley Edwards, and he engaged in a fascinating exchange of emails with her

Struck by his devotion to the great theologian, educational thinker and writer, Cardinal Newman (founder and rector in the 1850s of the Catholic University from which emerged University College Dublin), I emailed Conrad Black on Thursday to ask him for a line or two explaining to Sunday Independent readers why Newman mattered so much to him. He responded within a few hours.

It had not been an easy week for Black. On Monday, he was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in jail, fined $125,000 and told by Judge Amy St Eve, "No matter how powerful you are, how successful, intelligent or educated you are, or what your title is, no one is above the law in America. I frankly cannot understand how somebody of your stature -- on top of the media empire that you were on top of -- could engage in the conduct that you engaged in, and put everything at risk, including your reputation and your integrity."

Black kept his dignity in court. While he told the judge he had never uttered "any disrespectful word about this court, Your Honour personally or about the jurors", he made it clear that he regrets none of the harsh comments he made about prosecutors and, believing himself innocent, he is not remorseful. He has been allowed three months to "get his affairs in order" and he hasn't given up hope for his appeal.

His dogged optimism and chutzpah was in display in his reply to me. A mutual friend had sent him my 22nd Sunday Independent article on him, which had talked of how, as I followed the case, I had moved from hostility to sympathy and to anger about the vindictive prosecutors.

"I did read the column John sent me," wrote Black, "and greatly appreciated it, apart from a couple of adjectives about Barbara, which you would reconsider if you knew her." (I think he's referring to "glamorous" and "avaricious".) "Given that the prosecutors started out calling for life imprisonment in a rough place and my total impoverishment, and are now down to four years in a no-security place, and I have beaten them off financially, and a good deal of public opinion has followed a trajectory fairly close to what you described for yourself, I feel I am doing fairly well. Of course there was never any truth to any of this nonsense, and now the English commentators are almost the only people who still swaddle themselves in this desperate, head-prefect, self-righteousness. We go on to a much better court with much better lawyers and a very strong appeal."

However, Black's spiritual reading has been vital in getting him through a hellish time and preparing for the possibility that his appeal will fail. And this was where Newman came in.

"I admired Cardinal Newman," he told me, "apart from obvious reasons, because he was so conscientious, said that our conscience was God speaking to us, and that the conscience was: 'Powerful, peremptory, unargumentative, irrational, minatory, and definitive.' He was able to assimilate anything, no matter how upsetting and unpleasant, and was, along with Abraham Lincoln, I think the greatest English non-fiction prose writer in the 19th century.

"The example that comes first to mind was the end of the prelude to the Second Spring: 'We mourn for the blossoms of May, because they are to wither, but we know withal that May shall have its revenge upon November, in the revolution of that solemn circle that never stops, and that teaches us in our height of hope ever to be sober, and in our depth of desolation never to despair."

That quote is so good it's sending me back to Newman, whom I haven't read for years. Indeed I was embarrassed when Black added that he imagined I knew Newman's works better than he did, since I don't think I ever went much beyond some of Newman's wonderful writings on the ideal of a university. (I suspect modern academia would make Newman choke.)

But the more I think about the extraordinary and courageous search for intellectual and spiritual truth that characterised Newman's life, I can well see why he is a hero to Black. "Growth is the only evidence of life," wrote Newman in Apologia Pro Vita Sua, his autobiographical justification of his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Black knows that one can grow in any circumstances. "I can adjust to almost anything," he said recently. Prison would be "quite endurable".

I still hope he doesn't have to go through that particular form of character building, since I think the last four years have been tough enough to test anyone's spirit, but I have no doubt that if he must, he will survive it well.

For the present, as he fights to stay free, I expect he sometimes thinks of Newman's great hymn, the first line of which is: Lead, kindly Light, amid th'encircling gloom, lead Thou me on!'

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards