Beethoven first, for the boy who wants to put the world to rights; Wagner next for the man unable to put himself to rights; and Mozart at last, as the shadows lengthen, to confirm the growing belief that there is a realm where everything is known and yet forgiven.
Bernard Levin, born 19 August 1928, died 7 August 2004, was the best British newspaper columnist
of his age. He loved opera
, hated tyranny
, and was amazed at folly
. These are the three passions that blaze out most strongly from his decades of column-writing, mainly in The Times
. And while he can be very passionate
indeed, he is also often very funny
, and has a breathtaking and erudite
style. The length and complexity of his sentences were world records.
His journalism (an insultingly inadequate word for such a brilliant display) began to be collected in anthologies starting from 1979, the first book being entitled Taking Sides. I have owned a few of these in my time, snapping them up as they appear in charity shops, and settling in for a more or less continuous read until I've finished them. Then I set them aside and do it again a few months later, when I want something both light and invigorating. He can rabbit on at excessive length about how bad communists are, but he's refreshing on everything else.
He was also a regular broadcaster, including on the 1960s satirical TV show That Was the Week That Was. After Levin gave a bad review of an actress Agnes Bernelle in a play, her husband Desmond Leslie came onto the set the next week and punched him in the face (and it hardly fazed him at all). A television series of his retraced Hannibal's expedition over the Alps.
If it could be shown beyond doubt that the favourite diet of all liberated mink consisted of ecologists, protestors against acid rain, nuclear disarmers, whales, and other mink, if the first action of every liberated mink were to buy a horse and go hunting with the Quorn, if indeed liberated mink carrying bulging suitcases crammed with mink-pelts could be seen daily trotting through London in the direction of Calman Links, it would make no difference at all. The truth about organizations like the Animal Liberation Front is that their members have no interest in animals of any kind.1
From a Lithuanian/Russian Jewish family, Henry Bernard Levin was born in Camden Town
, London, and gained a scholarship to Christ's Hospital
school in Sussex. He ended up culturally aware of a Jewish heritage but of no religion, and strongly left-wing at least in his early years, gradually shifting across the centre. When he went to the centre-right Times
he had another offer from the left-wing Guardian
, and decided to write for The Times
because he thought it would be more effective to work "against the grain
". He was in quite a lot of ways "conservative
", but detested their hypocrisy and narrowness as much as anyone else's. He strongly defended the art of the supposedly obscene Lady Chatterley's Lover
, then later Tony Harrison
's poem v.
with its swear-words.
Levin was a curious mix of things, right in the heart of high culture, and an outsider, in so many ways. He passionately adored the great names of music: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner; and often struggled to explain how he could love so boundlessly the works of such an appalling person as Wagner. Many people praise the great names, "Beethoven, Rembrandt, Shakespeare", and sometimes you feel they're saying this because that's all they've heard of, they've never delved down. Others you feel they're just trying to sound cultured. But there are some who actually make you understand why these magic names, "Beethoven, Rembrandt, Shakespeare", are so magic, so powerful, knock your socks off so much. Bernard Levin was one such. After reading him you wanted to listen to all nine Beethoven symphonies in a row, or rush off to the National Gallery and pore over all their Rembrandts, or get tickets to Bayreuth to luxuriate in Wagner. Reading Bernard Levin's overwhelming intellectual and emotional intensity takes you to the heart of why the great classical artists and thinkers have always been revered as classics. And he loved fine living: he loved cheese, and the best cheese shop of all, Paxton & Whitfield.
On the whole I am against mass murder: I rarely commit it myself, and often find myself quite out of sympathy with those who make a habit of it. One must not, however, be too dogmatic, and if the victims of the next general battue should be the American Bar I doubt I would make more than a token protest.2
He was a strong defender of gay rights
, and that coupled with the fact that he never (that I read) in his columns elaborated on the ladies who had taken pity on him or fancied him a little, and his famously fierce, passionate devotion to his friends, all made me think that he was gay and unable to say so: but underneath it turns out there really was quite a ladies' man
: between 1971 and 1980 his partner was the young Arianna Stassinopoulos
; in the last ten years of his life he was cared for by Liz Anderson
. But he could never commit to marriage or children.
His earliest public writing was as parliamentary correspondent for The Spectator (where he transformed parliamentary reporting from respectful facts to a free-spirited sketch); then he was television critic for The Manchester Guardian. His columns in The Times from 1971 were a sacrosanct institution, and only ill-health compelled him to give them up in 1997. He was struggling with Alzheimer's disease at his death: how tragic that one of the great literate, witty, and gifted figures of our age should have it taken away from him.
Understand my English? I am quite capable of speaking, unprepared, a sentence containing anything up to forty subordinate clauses all embedded in their neighbours like those wooden Russian dolls, and many a native of these islands, speaking English as to the manner born, has followed me trustingly into the labyrinth only to perish miserably trying to find the way out; I had visions of some new de Ruyter, egged on by his infuriated countrymen, sailing up the Medway and sacking Chatham.3
To explain what he's like I can use either my words or his words. His words are so much better, that inevitably all I have to do is a bit of padding between quotation
s. But I don't know how to give short quotations without filling in more and more background, because it's all so interesting
, and goes all over the place, and you don't want to miss any of it.
At the end there's a footnote pointing to Arianna Huffington's blog. Read her words. She loved him. In the comments on that posting read from Simon Jenkins, editor of The Times. Read far more than I can ever say: the unparalleled adoration and awe that people had for this extraordinary man.
1. 'Liberation theology', The Times, 27th July 1984
2. 'Responsibility: I', The Times, 30th April 1985
3. 'Or I'm a Dutchman', The Times, 19th January 1985
All reproduced in In These Times, Jonathan Cape, 1986.
BBC obituary: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/889974.stm
Arianna Huffington's recollections: http://www.ariannaonline.com/blog/?postid=175
Telegraph obituary: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2004/08/10/db1001.xml&sSheet=/portal/2004/08/10/ixportal.html