Unless I am much mistaken, obituarists and tribute-writers have this week been poring over the Fleet Street archives, beset by a difficulty as unexpected as it has been puzzling. We have been looking for brilliant, extended passages of the late Bernard Levin’s writing to offer modern readers a sample (and older readers a reminder) of the work of a man who we all agree was one of the 20th century’s greatest British columnists.
We remember his greatness. We recall the thrill as Bernard laid into the idiots and idiocies of the age. How we wished we’d said that! How we wished we had his courage, his effrontery, his learning, his mental treasury of quotation, his gift of language. Time and again Levin found the words to say what, once we had read him, we knew we thought already but had somehow failed to express.
What was it — jog my memory — he wrote about the Gas Board? It slips the mind but it was spot on. Then there was that piece about — who was it? Lord Denning? Christine Keeler? — which simply said it all. And didn’t he attack the Post Office in language which must have left the Postmaster General jibbering into his morning coffee — what was it, again, he wrote?
Can’t recall now, but it was delicious. All I do remember is that as an undergraduate at Cambridge in an era of suffocating left-liberal complacency and trade-union greed, a time when one’s every waking thought seemed to begin with an unspoken ‘am I alone in thinking…?’ or ‘why oh why?’, two men kept me sane: Keith Joseph and Bernard Levin. Remind me, then, of the famous columnist’s genius. Reprise the best of Levin, for old times’ sake.
I doubt you will succeed. Most of it has turned to dust. It’s all there in the archive, or you can read examples in anthologies of modern English columnists, in Christopher Silvester’s monumental collection The Penguin Book of Columnists (1998), for example. But you will fast find yourself sharing what I suspect was Mr Silvester’s frustration (and that of so many of his reviewers) when remembered columnar glories turned out, on review, to read so flat.
Some reviewers blamed Silvester’s choice. I did not, and I ought to know. I felt for him as with sinking heart he ploughed through dead work by dead journalists, British and American, and found it — dead.
I have been that disappointed ploughman too. As a younger man just starting in journalism I received from a kindly uncle a treasury of the best columns by ‘Cassandra’ in the Daily Mirror. I opened it excitedly. After all, William Connor was a legend. The legend shrivelled as I began to read. What was quite so brilliant about this stuff? Most of it was dreadfully obvious; much of it rather limp.
As a columnist I have tried so many times to remind myself of my own magnificence by flipping randomly through the archive of my own 5,000-odd published pieces over these last 20 years, and returned empty-handed. Why so repetitive? Why so dull? Why so flip? Why all that banging on and barking? Why the huff and puff? Heavens — surely I was better than that?
The operative word is ‘was’. Levin of course was better — nonpareil — but that infuriating little ‘was’ grins skull-like from the corner of his archive too. The truth about newspaper essays is that they are written for newspapers, and newspapers record news, and news is broken-backed when it isn’t new. The truth about newspaper essays is that almost none of them keep.
As columnists we kid ourselves, I think, (and Bernard was capable of this) that our page is the part of the paper which does not need to be ‘current’, does not depend on what we call a ‘news peg’, for its raison d’