LORD DRONE’S MIGHTY FLEET STREET ORGAN,
THE WORLD’S GREATEST ONLINE NEWSPAPER
THE ALTERNATIVE MEDIA DAILY
THURSDAY 30 NOVEMBER 2023
All hail the magnificent Levin, a fascinating man of many words
LEVIN: One sentence comprised 1,500 words
Bernard Levin was a walking, talking (oh, my, the walking, the talking) bundle of contradictions.
He grew up in poverty in Camden, North London – his father, a tailor, walked out when he was three – and as a shy, scrawny, Jewish boy, he should have been cruising for a bruising.
But his extraordinary facility for words and fearsome intelligence took him to the very summit of journalism, into London’s most exclusive salons and on to every chat show on television.
By his own estimate, he wrote 17 million words – and 1,500 of them comprised a single sentence as a piece for The Times. One full stop. Point. Ends. It was decorated with subordinate clauses and garnished with semi-colons and while reading it, his editor must surely have uttered the immortal words of the copytaker: “Is there much more of this?”
Levin’s extraordinary life was examined in a BBC4 documentary aired on Sunday evening, called The Remarkable Journey of Bernard Levin. It was told through those who knew him: Arianna Huffington, Matthew Parris, Simon Jenkins, Bel Mooney and Michael Billington, and narrated in the mellifluous tones of Trevor McDonald.
I looked for a reason why it was made – perhaps an anniversary of some sort? – but in vain. They made it because he was a fascinating man and we enjoyed his insights on the personalities and issues of the second half of the 20th century and archive film of his imaginative jaunts for travelogues.
The young Levin bagged a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital boarding school in Horsham, West Sussex, where he declared himself a Communist; then another to the London School of Economics, where he was active in the student union and politics.
He graduated in 1952 and got a job with the BBC’s North America Service, clipping the papers. Levin joined a weekly magazine called Truth, where he learnt the journalist’s trade. He did everything: wrote criticism, leaders, even sport, and learned to sub-edit copy and read proofs.
Ian Gilmour, who at the time owned the Spectator, appointed Brian Inglis as his editor and Inglis invited Levin to be his deputy. Levin wrote a column called Taper and it made his name. He used it to lacerate politicians.
One of these was Attorney-General Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller (whose daughter Eliza would become head of MI5). He was referred to in the column as Bullying Manner. That was typical Levin, who rose to fame just as the mood in Britain was changing.
As Parris told us: “Bernard’s age was the age of the death of deference.” And Levin took full advantage of it, forging a new style of column that would be copied but never bettered.
As every decent journalist of the time did, he joined the Daily Express and was its theatre critic from 1962 to 1965. Then he took on the same role on the Daily Mail, later switching to feature writing and wangling a contract that said he had complete freedom. There could be no changes, either for opinion or style, without his approval.
It came in handy during the General Election campaign of 1970 when Levin wrote three columns on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday which were neutral and pinpointed the battlegrounds where the parties’ campaigns would be fought.
But he promised to come off the fence on polling day, Thursday. When that day arrived, horror, he urged readers to vote Labour.
The editor implored him to change his copy. Levin said no and referred him to his contract. Then Vere Harmsworth called him in and threatened him with the sack. Still Levin refused to change a word. Instead, he resigned, though with some trepidation as he thought he might be unemployable.
But offers abounded. He turned down the Guardian on the curious ground that he agreed with everything they said and joined instead The Times, where he largely spent the rest of his career.
Sunday’s programme started with a famous episode while Levin was working for That Was the Week That Was (known as TW3).
As Levin, pictured, sat on a bar stool in the manner of Dave Allen, wittering pompously about “disarray in the ranks of unilateralism”, a tall, well-spoken man strolled on to the set and asked him to stand up, which the bemused Levin did. The interloper was the husband of an actress whose performance Levin had torn to shreds in a review. He remonstrated with Levin, then lamped him before he was hauled away.
To his credit, Levin smoothed his hair, which was curled upwards like a Brylcreemed bedspring, and beseeched the audience: “Can we concentrate on non-violence, you and I?”
Arianna Huffington (formerly Stassinopolous) was his lover for 10 years. “I was very deeply in love with him,” she said. She would have married him but she wanted children and Levin wanted only cats.
Among the programme’s many insights, we learnt that Levin thought he could never become an alcoholic or a heroin addict but “I know that I have the gambling virus in my blood,” he said and he seldom ventured into casinos as “the ice beneath me is very thin.”
While completing a walk across the Alps for a book and a TV programme called Walking In Hannibal’s Footsteps, he would read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina each night before sleeping. And as he finished each page, he tore it out and threw it away.
This, he explained to camera, was to reduce the weight he had to carry next day. “Every little helps when you’re carrying your house with you.”
But he also revealed a snobbish streak when he told us that it was only a paperback and therefore not fit to grace his bookshelves.
Levin was an odd man. He never learnt to drive and was once driven to Glyndebourne by a woman. He imagined that people were sneering at him and so he asked the driver to stop outside a chemist shop.
He went inside and bought a sling and put it on his arm. Now they would understand why he was not driving himself!
Levin, who died in 2004, aged 75, suffered at the end from Alzheimer’s and a sad story of his declining days on The Times was told last Thursday by Richard Morrison, who used to be the paper’s Arts Editor.
The editor told Morrison one morning in 1997: “Bernard can’t manage the big op ed pieces any more. But he says he can still review things. Can you send him to cover an opera or something?”
Morrison did so, that very evening, and the next morning Levin bounded towards the art desk, saying: “Wonderful show. How many words do you want. Five hundred, eight hundred?”
“Then the life seemed to drain from his face,” wrote Morrison. “I just need to know…” Levin faltered. “Could you, um, just remind me what I saw last night? I remember it was wonderful.”
The light had gone out in one of Fleet Street’s brightest minds.
A certain Night Editor of my acquaintance used to have a little party piece that he occasionally brought out when the evening’s chaos had subsided and we were looking forward to that first pint.
We would laugh as he strode comically along behind the Backbench, mimicking the marching of a rhythmically challenged recruit from his days in the school Army Cadet Force.
“There’s one on every parade,” he would say.
So I struggled not to ruin the solemn mood of Remembrance Sunday as the Sea Cadets set off from the ex-Servicemen’s club to march to our war memorial. There he was, the little erk at the back, too-long hair protruding from beneath his beret, shirt tail only just tucked into his trousers – and the right arm swinging in perfect synchronicity with the, er, right leg. Same on the other side.
The Chief Petty Officer marshalling his ragtag force shook his head in despair. And I wiped away tears of laughter.
I see that former Ukip leader Nigel Farage is in talks with bosses at I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here to take part in the show this year. It could net him £1 million, The Sun says.
Now, Farage is a pretty good performer on the telly, experienced and quite savvy. But I’m a Celebrity is not looking for his trenchant political opinions. It’s a reality show, which is a misnomer for most of them and especially this one.
He should remember the words of Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef, writer and maker of TV travelogues, who said: “When you’re on television, the first order of business of the director and crew is not to make you look good.”
Still, for a million quid…
14 November 2023