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.

Commendably ready to hold an opinion no matter who agrees with him, Levin finds himself siding with Lord Longford over the matter of Myra Hindley. ‘In this matter,’ he says, ‘I am of Lord Longford’s opinion.’ But on those few occasions when one finds one’s views congruent with those of the daffy peer it is always advisable to pause for thought. Alas, pausing for thought is not Levin’s habit. Once having struck an attitude, he prefers to plug away at it. In the case of Myra Hindley he insists on thinking that the reason the majority of people want her kept in gaol is revenge: even if the Home Secretary thought it safe to release her he would be reluctant to do so because of the public’s ‘inevitable fury’. ‘And the inevitable fury is, of course, based on the theory of punishment that is supposed to have no place in our system, to wit the retributive. Myra Hindley did terrible things to children; therefore, runs the instant but unreasoning answer, she must rot in gaol for the rest of her life.’ The whole article takes the same high tone of judicial detachment. He sounds like Solomon, Cato the Elder and Oliver Wendell Holmes all rolled into one. Levin likes nothing better than to hand down a ruling. But although it is probably true that the majority of the public would be furious if Myra Hindley were released, it is unlikely that their desire to keep her locked up has anything to do with revenge. They just don’t want her to do it again.

Lord Longford is too fascinated with himself to realise that a woman twisted enough to derive sexual pleasure from torturing a child to death might be capable of duping him into the belief that she has repented. But Levin has set himself up as somebody who is hard to gull. He has no excuse for ignoring the considerable range of reasonable opinion that would prefer it if Myra Hindley were not turned loose, even with Lord Longford’s personal guarantee of her future good conduct.

On a larger and more serious scale. Levin spent years loudly ignoring reasonable opinion about the foreign policy of the United States. Much of this reasonable opinion was itself American. But Levin is so fond of Taking Sides that he will back the lesser evil against the greater, as if he himself were a man of action on the international stage. He has always been quite right about the horrors of totalitarianism. Where he has always been wrong is in supposing that reasonable people have no case when they argue that the United States does itself a profound injury by opposing totalitarianism with totalitarian methods. Year after year, Levin wrote as if anybody who doubted the wisdom of Kissinger’s policies in South America and South-East Asia was in cahoots with Jane Fonda and possibly the Kremlin.

On the issue of Watergate, Levin went on proclaiming Nixon’s innocence when even Rabbi Korff must have been thinking about giving up. Compared to what the Russians got up to, Levin argued, Watergate was nothing. From his position on the bench of the Supreme Court of the Universe. Levin should have been able to see that Nixon had been subverting the Constitution of the United States by attempting to form a Presidential party, and that this was why many patriotic Americans took such exception – because they didn’t want the United States to become a country in which such things meant nothing. Levin missed the point.

On all these issues Levin went on and on missing the point, and always at the top of his voice. Having read in the Reader’s Digest an account of what the Khmer Rouge regime had been doing in Cambodia, he boldly focused his attention on ‘that crucified nation of which the world prefers to know nothing.’ Always confident in his predictions, Levin warned us that the pseudo-liberal press would from now on have nothing to say about Cambodia. But Levin need not have waited for his subscription copy of the Reader’s Digest to bring him the story. The New York Review of Books, for example, had already carried detailed reports.

Levin still goes on insisting that there has been a conspiracy of silence on the subject of what happened in Cambodia after the Khmers took over. But in actual fact that very subject has been widely discussed by the very people Levin is castigating – many of whom, indeed, predicted just such an outcome. The true conspiracy of silence was the one maintained by Nixon and Kissinger on the subject of what happened before the Khmers took over. This might seem an elementary point to make, but when you are dealing with Levin’s high-and-mighty treatment of world politics you are forced to make elementary points all the time. In matters of the NUJ and the Gas Board Levin’s rhetorical posturing may have some result. In matters of global conflict it can have no result at all, apart from the negative one of further distorting the truth.

Levin sees great issues in the form of psychodrama. There are heroes and villains, with nobody in between. For all his passionate advocacy, the net effect is to diminish the truth. Solzhenitsyn is certainly the hero of our time that Levin says he is, but it does no good for Levin to gush over him as if he were Kiri Te Kanawa. Just as Levin’s admiration for Kiri Te Kanawa would count for more if he interrupted his praise of her undoubtedly gorgeous voice to point out that in Lieder concerts she has occasionally been known to sing a stanza with its lines in reverse order, so his admiration for Solzhenitsyn would count for more if he could entertain the possibility that Solzhenitsyn’s challenging call for a unifying sense of purpose on the part of the free world is a contradiction in terms. If the free world had a unifying sense of purpose it would not be free.

But merely to raise such a point is to be enrolled by Levin among the ranks of those who are intent on belittling his hero. It never occurs to him that he is the one who is belittling his hero, by heaping him with indiscriminate acclaim. An encomium from Levin is a spray of treacle which leaves its object a shapeless mass.

Levin talking about Solzhenitsyn doesn’t sound very different from Mrs Thatcher talking about Solzhenitskyn, the mysterious Russian writer whose name was so memorably invoked in a Conservative Party Political Broadcast. In other words, he sounds as if he is speaking in the debating chamber. The difference between making debating points and arguing in a true debate is the difference between fantasy and reality. Levin’s Times column has been a useful clearing house for atrocity stories about the Marxist totalitarian states. He performs a valuable service in keeping his readers up to date about how awful those places are. But you would never learn from Levin that there is a genuine debate going on about how to deal with the Soviet Union, and that the debate is mainly being conducted among the Russian dissidents themselves.

Soizhenitsyn, understandably, wants the Soviet government discredited entirely. Sakharov, even though his own scientific career has by now been ruined by the Soviet authorities, persists in thinking that the Soviet Union might be forced to rejoin the civilised world if it could be persuaded that only a measure of liberalisation will enable it to keep up as a first-rate productive country. Most people who have gone into the matter think that Sakharov is more concrete in his proposals than Solzhenitsyn, but the important point to make is that Levin, abjectly copying Solzhenitsyn’s apocalyptic tone, is even less concrete.

Levin’s proposal for our salvation is a change of heart. This new Weltanschauung has noticeable affinities with the political theories of Arianna Stassinopoulos, of which the best that can be said is that they catch votes in the debating chamber. In the Spectator, Christopher Booker has been emitting, by instalments, a speculative pontification which echoes the same uplifting sentiments. Perhaps these philosophers should be thought of as forming a school, like the Vienna Circle. Perhaps sitting in London is, after all, the best way of probing the soul of Western Man. But it seems more likely that they are all simply fanning the air in the usual manner of those who can’t live without an Answer, and that Levin, in particular, has a thirst for mystical transcendence which not even regular exposure to the Ring cycle can assuage.

Confidently predicting, in 1977, that Brian Inglis’s book Natural and Supernatural would be greeted by a chorus of rejection from terrified scientists, Levin never noticed that it was greeted by a chorus of indifference. Fantasising flat out, Levin insists that Science is blindly determined to deny the inexplicable: ‘That surely, is why the very distinguished scientist I met soon after I wrote about Brian Inglis’s book attacked me and it (he had not read it, or course) in a voice that was shrill and unsteady and with the sweat breaking out on his forehead; not because he knew he was right, but because the most important part of him knew he was wrong.’ Possibly so, but there is always the chance that the boffin popped his cork because Levin had turned out to be just another zombie wanting to bore him about Uri Geller. On this subject, the real story has never been about rational people resisting the inexplicable. It has always been about irrational people resisting the explicable. For some reason they find Occam’s razor too frightening an instrument. For them, the world is not enough. Solipsism wants more.

Schopenhauer called style the physiognomy of the soul. Levin’s style is essentially self-dramatising. The whole thing is a pose. Often it is an entertaining pose, but it is always bombastic, and the slightest lapse leads to a bad sermon. He can echo the Gibbonian period, although in his case the dignity is hollow; and the Shavian paragraph, although in his case the sprightliness is elephantine; but the main reason he is given to long sentences is that he is not unself-conscious enough to write short ones. He can no more say it short than A.J.P. Taylor can say it long. In the long sentences of Proust you can still hear the aphoristic tradition that started with Pascal. In the long sentences of Levin you can hear a tradition being forgotten.

The English essay grew and flowered in newspapers and magazines. In keeping with its setting, it should be terse. Unfortunately the Times seems to have offered Levin a contract by which they must pay him by the word and leave every word untouched. His stint as the Sunday Times theatre critic produced better results. With a plenitude of stimuli to choose from, he was able to dismiss what was not worth discussing. Whether what he praised was worth seeing is another question. After hearing him praise Alan Howard’s portrayal of Coriolanus, I ran to the Aldwych with my knees high. There I found Alan Howard portraying Coriolanus as a Roman version of Carol Channing. He swivelled his hips and blew kisses at the stalls, which were full of Japanese businessmen and Norwegians in anoraks. As a theatre critic Levin is less dim-witted than most of his colleagues but probably no more reliable.

Levin’s jokes leave you straight-faced. He takes an admirable stand on apartheid but weakens his own case by putting it in the form of a laborious revue sketch peppered with funny names which are just like Beach-comber’s except that they are not funny. Also he lacks tact. James Agate filled his column with excerpts from Racine but some of his readers could read French. Levin employs Latin tags copiously and almost always leaves them untranslated. I feel pleased at being able to puzzle some of these out, but not as pleased, I fear, as Levin must have felt when he found ways of dragging them in. There is a lot of Greek in Cicero’s Latin but there is even more Latin in Levin’s English. Who does he think he is?

Victor Hugo was under the impression that he was Victor Hugo. Bernard Levin feels the same way about Bernard Levin. He is never off his plinth. On Face the Music he takes a sip of water after getting the right answer. It is meant to look humble but screams conceit. In his prose he is even more given to overstating his own importance. When Beecham said that he would give all the Brandenburg concertos for Massenet’s Manon he was drawing your attention to Massenet. When Levin said that he would give all of Puccini for Gounod’s Faust he was drawing your attention to Levin. He also once said that he could not see what was so sublime about Bach, evidently supposing that this would lead us to think twice about Bach.

Self-assertion on that scale is fun to watch but it is not quite the same thing as self-assurance. You have only to compare the way Levin comments on the press with the way A.J. Liebling once commented on it to see what Levin lacks. Liebling had the compressed but relaxed colloquial raciness of someone who had a lot to say and genuinely believed that it was more important than he was. Another telling American example is I.F. Stone. With few literary graces except clarity and conversational rhythm, Stone’s prose is the embodiment of honesty. Treating a comparable range of interests, Stone has all of Levin’s energy with none of his flim-flam.

Stone does his best to see an issue straight. He talks sense even when he is wrong. Truly patriotic and truly democratic, he is a truly independent commentator who has never taken sides with his own government against liberal principles and has consequently always been doubly influential in his condemnations of totalitarian repression. Looking through his book – most of them compiled, like this one, from articles – you can get a good idea of what has actually been going on in the world over the last thirty years. There is a human voice talking. It is the difference between personality and histrionics.

Nevertheless Levin has personality of a kind. Reviewers often punish writers for publishing collections of pieces. Usually the reviewer is peeved because nobody has asked him to do the same. Some writers work best in short forms. Of Chesterton’s hundred or so books, his books of pieces rank high among those worth seeking out. Something of a latter-day Chesterton, Levin gets ten pieces out of the same number of ideas that would have served Chesterton for one, but he has a modicum of the same gusto. He pumps hot air into the English language, but at least he is using it, not abusing it. Half the feature writers in Fleet Street can’t tell the difference between a paragon and a paradigm. The other half believe you can mitigate against militating circumstances. Levin at least knows how to say what he means.

What is hard to believe, sometimes, is that be means what he says. Perhaps he just gets carried away. Most of us would find it hard to deny that there are occasions when we enjoy being carried away with him. There should be a warm welcome for his book on British politics when it appears a year from now, especially if, by that date, the Times has returned to what now seems normal – i.e. has once more ceased publication.