Lord Black Starts Climb; Plus: Gifts for Our Time

“Ho, ho, ho! Why, thank’ee, guv’nor!” cried the red-clad figure

as I slipped him a five-spot. Tugging a wintry forelock, he pressed a bit of

paper into my hand. This surprised me. In 50 years of adding my mite to the

Salvation Army’s Christmas haul, I had never before been given a receipt. As I

continued on my way, I looked at it and saw that what I was holding was in fact

a coupon entitling me to a discount lifetime subscription to The New York Sun , the projected new

daily scheduled to commence publication next year.

This caused me to turn around and take a second, hard look at the

jolly imposing figure on the corner, fitted out in scarlet plush trimmed with

white fur, whom I had casually assumed to be a Santa in service to the holiday

ideals of General William Booth. And who do you think greeted my eyes? None

other than Conrad Black, the great media baron and investor in the fledgling Sun, garbed in the red velvet and ermine

regalia he is entitled to sport as a newly minted peer of Her Britannic

Majesty’s realm under his chosen style of Lord Black of Crossharbour (although,

to be honest, recent photographs indicate that Lord Black of Krispy Kreme might

be equally fitting). Never one to shirk trench duty, Lord Black was out

soliciting subscriptions for his new paper. A most elegant and imposing solicitant

he made. Right out of Iolanthe. Tantantara! Tzing! Boom!

How could I have mistaken such an eminence for a street-corner

Santa? I mean, as a former member of White’s Club, who knows from peers better

than I! Moreover, from the moment I saw it just a few weeks ago in the weekly

edition of the new noble Lord’s very own

London Telegraph -to which I am a subscriber both paid up and of long

standing-Lord Black’s investiture photograph has been a fixture on my office

bulletin board, right alongside a series of photos clipped from the

indispensable French society journal Point

de Vue et lmages du Monde showing a lady of fashion I once knew through

Madame Claude, but who has since gone on to great things in the gratin. In it,

the new milord beams at the camera with a self-confidence that bespeaks a deep

sense of what’s what. This is, after all, a man who was willing to forswear his

Canadian birthright and citizenship in order to be legally free to take his

seat among the commission-men and fixers “elevated” to the House of Lords by

successive British governments. It is the view-and the law-of Canada that the

only official scarlet get-up permitted of its citizens should be the tunic of

the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, but what was good enough for Sergeant

Preston of the Yukon clearly wasn’t what Lord Black had in mind.

This is not intended to disparage His (new) Lordship, any more

than one would disparage Stephen Hawking or any other person afflicted with a

crippling disability. Mr. Black is one of the brightest, most attractive people

I’ve ever met, but he suffers from that all but terminal social-climbing

compulsion that seems to be a specifically Canadian thing. The editor of Vanity Fair and the proprietor of the Daily

News are also plagued by the affliction, which suggests that it may

be limited to media personages born in our neighbor to the north, rather like

those genetic quirks that dictate that all the males in a given family will

have one blue eye and one brown. Perhaps we can call it “Beaverbrook Syndrome,”

or “Mad Proprietor Disease.”

In the event, it is obvious from his pleased expression that the

right to dress up like a Gilbert & Sullivan extra is what His Lordship most

wanted to find under his Christmas tree-and so, in the spirit of the season and

of my idol, Jack Aubrey of the Blue, I give Lord Black the joy of his joy.

As I give the same to all of you, my blessed readers.

But joy is one thing, and the holiday haul quite another. A

couple of weeks ago, two of my fellow Observer

writers, whom I think of as “Precious” and “Semiprecious,” posted lists of

desirable gifts, many of which sounded like theme and variations on Judy

Garland. In the course of the year, I too have reflected on Christmas gifts

that might lie within the compass of what’s left after the bulk of one’s

seasonal generosity has been parceled out to those whom difficult times have

thrust into need, disillusionment and grief. Nothing too fancy, in other words;

nothing that would qualify for the Styles section of the Sunday Times, where Harvard-educated young

women agonize over $3,000 handbags from Hermès (“A handbag!”-encore Lady

Bracknell).

To start with, great music is a gift that keeps on giving … and

exalting … and consoling … and uplifting. On the new Web site http://www.andante.com,

you can order up a four-CD compilation of the chamber works of Schubert in

remastered performances that are “historic” because they are, truly, Olympian.

When Artur Schnabel and Fritz Kreisler and the Pro Arte String Quartet and

others recorded these performances, it would seem that Orpheus himself tuned

the instruments and the muse Calliope turned the pages. This is blessed stuff!

Balm for even the most heartsore spirit. And between tracks, you can read about

Schubert’s music (and that of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, et al.) in David Dubal’s

brand-new rich and instructive The

Essential Canon of Classical Music . (Mr. Dubal will be signing at the

Juilliard Bookstore on Dec. 12 and 13-go forth and buy!)

Things to read and things to listen to that furnish a room, or a

tree, most handsomely: For overseas friends and family, or those located in

distant domestic parts, a gift certificate to Amazon.com does the trick. My

Milan-based daughter and her husband can easily acquire subscriptions to Hello! or the collected works of

Wittgenstein or Leonard Cohen’s new raspy CD.

As to specific titles to be sent, here are some ideas: First, how

about a subscription (I assume all little girls and boys are signed up and paid

up for The Observer ) to the International Herald-Tribune , whose

arrival every day is a lesson in what short shrift The Times is giving us (call 800-882-2884). And I can’t understand

how anyone who lives in this city seriously can go without City Journal , published by the Manhattan Institute (800-562-1973).

Books next: I don’t suppose there’s a one of us who hasn’t gone

through a ping-pong stage of life-mine was in the “butt-rooms” of Exeter-and

the novelist Jerome Charyn has produced a smash of a little book, Sizzling Chops and Devilish Spins: Ping-Pong

and the Art of Staying Alive , which I recommend to both those who prefer

foam and those who prefer sandpaper on their paddles. I also went through a

surf-casting period, and I’ve got to say that for whatever reason, fishing

seems to be consistently better written about than any other sport-hence my

strong endorsement of Peter Kaminsky’s The

Moon Pulled Up an Acre of Bass: A Flyrodder’s Odyssey at Montauk Point (Hyperion),

a volume that will bestir even those readers to whom the only finny creature

worth caring about is the kind they serve at Esca. Mr. Kaminsky’s book has a

lot in common with the late Charlton Ogburn’s The Winter Beach , for those of you who remember that wonderful

work.

The great New York novel is probably William Dean Howells’ Hazard of New Fortunes , which is just

out in paperback with a fabulous, enlightening introduction by Philip Lopate.

If you think a whole lot has changed, this book (first published in 1890) will

convince you otherwise. Then there’s A

Ned Rorem Reader , just out from Yale, a well-assorted selection from

Rorem’s diaries and criticism which is quite simply about as perfect a volume

for the civilized reader’s night table as I can think of. The chapter on Truman

Capote is worth the price of the book.

I guess we’re all interested in life at the top. Otherwise, there

would be no point in the publicists’ bulletin boards posing as “gossip columns”

maintained by the likes of Richard Johnson and Liz Smith. As indicated, I’m

addicted to Point de Vue , which

chronicles the goings-on in (mostly royal) Euro-society. Every story, branded

with a coat of arms, gives rise to the question famously asked by Ronald

Reagan-“Where do they get such people?”-but the party pictures constitute an

Olympus of the second-rate and pretentious: the real thing, in other words, as

opposed to the cheesy collection of mediocre would-bes that impress the David

Patrick Columbias of this world. A subscription can be had by calling

800-363-1310.

Finally, two books, entirely different in character, that show

what a properly organized big life looks like from inside. The first is a

limited-edition vanity production, Yesterday

Is Gone: The Story of Rosemarie Kanzler ,

as told to Kathryn Livingston. The late Mme. Kanzler (later Marcie-Rivière)

moved with panache, calculation, a sure tread and much horizontal ingenuity in

the highest circles, and her book is a hoot. She asked me to help her with it,

which I was only willing to do if she would tell the whole truth (it was

rumored that she had been a girlfriend of Hitler’s propagandist Goebbels),

which she would not. But even this more selective telling, voiced in the third

person, has its moments of insight. “What is it about postwar glamour … that

evokes such contemporary nostalgia?” she asks-and then answers: “Probably, its

authenticity.” I may have come in at the end of that epoch, but I grew up

knowing many of the players, and I think she’s right.

The Kanzler autobiography is to the best of my knowledge only

available at the Madison Avenue Bookshop, and while you’re there to get yours,

pick up several copies-once you look into it, you’ll be giving more than one-of

Duane Hampton’s marvelous valentine to her late husband Mark and the life he

made: Mark Hampton: The Art of Friendship

(HarperCollins). It’s about people and places, many with fancy or well-known

names, but mostly it’s about how if you’re blessed with both talent and

character, as Mark was, you make a life at the top worthwhile. It so happened

that as I opened the parcel containing the book, the adagietto from Mahler’s

Fifth Symphony was just starting on the stereo; there is nothing I know of more

evocative musically of time going, gone or lost (other than-just possibly-“Bob

Dylan’s Dream”), and as I turned the pages and the music played, I became

distinctly aware of ocular moisture.

But I will shed no tears for this awful, incredible year that now

dies and goes, I pray, straight to the Hell it has made for so many undeserving

lives, whether they worked at ground zero or for Enron; people who suffered the

fate of those who get in the way of zealots who care about nothing but their

own twisted notions of glory.

On that cheerful note, God bless us-every one! Well, most every

one. Even Tiny Tim would have drawn the line at Henry Kissinger.