Katharine Whitehorn

Bernard Levin remembered

Katharine Whitehorn on the prodigious gifts of the late columnist who came to prominence on this magazine

Text settings
Comments

I knew Bernard Levin when we both worked on The Spectator at the end of the Fifties, during its uncharacteristically radical period. He wrote a parliamentary sketch under the name of Taper, and was about the first to treat the political scene as theatre — and amateur theatre at that — rather than a court of high seriousness, though the idea of doing it that way came from the editor, Brian Inglis. Bernard called it ‘the principle that you mainly record the slipping false teeth of those with whose views you disagree’.

Inglis, the man who invented the phrase ‘fringe medicine’, had plucked Bernard from the magazine Truth, where he was doing theatre criticism. Our happy band included Cyril Ray, who had resigned from the Sunday Times and wrote mainly about wine, Alan Brien as arts editor and Karl Miller on books. Alan and Bernard often found it convenient to meet in Karl’s office, which was between theirs, Karl’s impotent fury at their antics being half the fun. The atmosphere was that of a rather rowdy school at break time: you would sometimes hear someone say, ‘Why, you rotten little undersized Jewish idiot ...’ and look round in horror, only to find it was either Ray talking to Levin or Levin talking to Ray. In fact they were all incredibly rude to each other, and I thought I couldn’t reckon I was accepted until they were equally rude to me; but with females it just was the opposite — an unbelievably fulsome gallantry. Ray was older than the rest of us and had been a war and foreign correspondent, but we youngsters were headily conscious of having enough money (not from The Spectator alone, I need hardly say), in some cases for the first time. We would take ourselves out to lunches in Charlotte Street or the pub, passing as we did so the Royal Ear Hospital, whereat we would shout, ‘Wot abaht the workin’-class ear?’ But it wasn’t all high jinks: Bernard waged a long, sometimes tedious but ultimately effective campaign to free five Bahrainis wrongly imprisoned on St Helena; it remained one of his proudest achievements.

On press day, Wednesday, the theory was that we were too busy to go out to lunch, so one of us — often me — would go and get stuff from a delicatessen and the office cellar would be opened. In practice it took twice as long, of course, and often included luminaries from politics or other papers, plus contributors such as David Cairns or James Bredin, Peter Forster, Bamber Gascoigne, Clive Barnes. Later they had to move it to Thursday.

At that time The Spectator’s viewpoint was much more pink than blue. Bernard as a student had been pretty left-wing; once someone came to the LSE to harangue them about the joys of capitalism, and was telling the story of the birth of M&S — how a man started humbly with a market stall, and then two, and then a shop ...and the name of that man was Marks! And the name of his partner was ... Voice from the back of the hall: ‘ENGELS!’ It was Bernard, of course.

The proprietor was Ian Gilmour, liberal in such things as his opposition to capital punishment and the Suez escapade, but in 1960 he announced that he was going to stand as a Conservative MP. This pulled the ideological rug from under us, for we were mostly lefties disillusioned with some of the results of leftism; no way were we suddenly going to become conventional Conservatives. Within a year we had all left, Ray and I for the Observer, Inglis for TV and books; Alan Brien had already become theatre critic of the Sunday Telegraph and Bernard was doing the theatre for the Express. He later moved to the Daily Mail, believing that ‘you should put all the bits back in the bag and give it a shake from time to time’.

He was also beginning to make an enormous hit on television, notably on That Was The Week That Was, the satire programme with David Frost, Ned Sherrin and Millicent Martin. He still wrote his theatre columns, though, and once was punched on camera by the husband of an actress whose talents he had failed to appreciate.

Unsurprisingly, he gained an international reputation, especially after he moved to the Times in 1971; his friends got grander and grander on both sides of the Atlantic and some of us began to see less of him. He also became somewhat involved with Insight, a cult espoused by Arianna Stassinopoulos, to whom he was close for many years. (I remember Clive James’s rhyme: ‘That scintillating brain has just one vice: A pretty face transforms it to fried rice.’) But one abiding passion remained, opera, and he was deeply involved in furthering the world’s knowledge of the Wexford Festival, under the wing of Alan Wood of Guinness. On one occasion Wood assured him he could have a meal after a pub crawl however late it was; but when they got back at 3 a.m. the hotel manager said with consternation that he’d just sent the chef home. ‘If you want a meal you’ll have to cook it yourself.’ So Bernard cooked bacon and eggs for — well, the first time I heard this tale it was for eight people, then for a dozen, later for 20. He was an excellent cook, actually, and thought nothing of taking a whole weekend to cook a dinner party.

He was incredibly generous; it was always difficult, and for women impossible, to stop him paying for the lunch; he made amazing amounts of money and spent it with relish, buying Rembrandt prints and tailor-made clothes (most of which would have made Jeeves fall on his smoothing iron), sending flowers after every dinner party. I once helped him buy a chess set of red and clear glass; at a time when I was earning £12 a week, it cost £60. When I was in hospital he sent the sort of hamper that figures in Edwardian memoirs: novels and p