Bernard Levin: Book Two

Clive James

  • Taking Sides by Bernard Levin
    Cape, 281 pp, £6.50, September 1979, ISBN 0 330 26203 3

For all his faults, the absence of Bernard Levin has been one of the best reasons for missing the Times during the months it has been off the streets. His first book since The Pendulum Years, and indeed only the second book he has ever published, Taking Sides is part compensation for not being able to read his latest opinions in less durable form.[*] The book contains a selection of his strongest pieces from the last decade or so, most of them Times columns. The introduction informs us that another selection, to be published next year, will focus mainly on British politics, with particular attention to the achievements of Sir Harold Wilson. The present compilation deals with every subject but that.

There is plenty to be going on with, although perhaps not quite as much as Levin thinks. ‘I am afraid,’ says Levin, ‘that I have a very great deal to say.’ Courageous, self-willed and frantically energetic, Levin holds strong views which he enunciates with unambiguous force. He has some reason to be proud of his individuality. The things he says are mainly his, not somebody else’s. But he says them over and over. Even when his reams of tireless production are sifted down to this one volume, the effect is still long-winded. The long-windedness is in the style. Bernard Levin is simply a verbose writer. This fact is scarcely enough to disqualify him from consideration in a world where the average journalist is not a writer of any kind, but it suffices to make you wonder if some of the attitudes he strikes are not struck partly so that he might rant without interruption.

Credit, though, where credit is due. Levin’s habit of staying with a story too long comes in handy when the story is about what the Gas Board is doing to some poor old darling’s kitchen. As the Gas Board goes on and on replacing the wrong part with another wrong part, you can depend upon it that the poor old darling is keeping Levin bang up to date with all the details. The details usually turn out to be funnier than Levin’s comments on them, but at least they are there.

Similarly he is good on unions. Levin has been personally active in the freelance branch of the journalists’ union, the NUJ, where by his energies he has done a lot to frustrate the plans of those giftless radicals who wait around at meetings until there is no one left to interfere with a unanimous vote. Levin published lists which helped write-in voters to support sane candidates. He did the same with regard to the actors’ union, Equity, thereby materially helping to stop that organisation passing into the control of the zanier members of the Redgrave family. For a writer it is not a very exalted level on which to be politically effective, but it counts, especially when you consider how few writers are politically effective on any level.

Besides, it is good copy. Levin’s Trot-busting activities invariably yield rich plunder in the form of the enemy’s own verbal communications. Levin is adept at collating such material and letting it speak for itself to a wider world. For a find like the marvellous senior librarian Keith Harrison; we can only be grateful. Keith, it transpires, is a leading light in an outfit called Librarians for Social Change. ‘It’s books that I’m into,’ says Keith.

Keith is so deeply into books that he would like to see all racist, sexist and élitist literature cleared from the library shelves, so as to leave more room for the kind of books he is into. Eliot once said that the translators of the New English Bible were atheists without knowing it. Keith is a censor without knowing it, and Levin is good on censors of any kind. His review of The Longford Report is an exemplary job of demolition, made all the more convincing by his generous willingness to regard Lord Longford as something better than a buffoon.

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