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.