Katharine Whitehorn

Bernard Levin remembered

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

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.

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