Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Goodbye, thankyou and RIP

An example of the law of unforeseen consequences. On Saturday I called our newsagent to change our order from The Times to The Daily Telegraph. I am starting to find The Times bland, in particular its wishy-washy offend-nobody editorials and the letters below the fold, as if the ones higher up weren’t bad enough. The best bits are ex-editor Simon Jenkins’s column and the Thunderer, appropriately using the paper’s old nickname for some of the more forthright comment. I hope The Telegraph will at least have an opinion. To my mild surprise SWMBO concurred with the change.
The same day Bernard Levin died. Perhaps, for the first time, he missed a deadline (sorry) and was too late (sorry again) for the early editions of the Sundays but I knew nothing of it. On Monday and again on Tuesday our newsagent failed to make the change in our order and so it was in The Times, for which he wrote for over 25 years, that I read both the announcement and his obituary. I bought The Telegraph at the garage and read theirs too.
Levin has long been one of my heroes – for his clarity, his variety, his choice of targets and most of all for his craftsmanship with the English language. I didn’t know he invented the phrase ‘the nanny state’ but it does not surprise me. When he left the Daily Mail in 1971, perhaps because his 600 word ration was too confining, he had to choose between offers from the Guardian and Times. He had once before worked for the then Manchester Guardian but chose the Times because he preferred to write slightly ‘against the grain’ of his paper. I cancelled my Mail and took up the Times. Levin made the right choice and it is hard to imagine now that someone of his originality, independence and libertarian principles could possibly have had his insistence on his copy never being altered without his express permission accepted by the paper the Guardian has become. He was to acknowledge this himself some years later. If only we had him today, perhaps to update his piece on the futility of euphemisms, in which he took British Rail to task for replacing second class with standard class and thus announcing to the world that henceforth it would operate to second class standards. He demolished both the Walrus and the Carpenter in his time. Teflon Tony would surely have succumbed too.
But I think his best work was his history of Britain in the sixties, The Pendulum Years. In four consecutive chapters, O say have you heard?, A moral issue [sic], Standing room only, and Thoroughly filthy fellow, he gives us the best, most lucid, most comprehensive and most entertaining account you will find anywhere of the Profumo scandal, its origins, unfolding, climax and postscripts from the first naked frolicking of Christine Keeler in the Cliveden swimming pool to the trial and suicide of Stephen Ward. Someone too young to have been around at the time could read it and think how lucky we were to have such a delicious folly unfolding day by day for the price of a newspaper. True, but there is renewed and new delight in Levin’s summary, highlights and analysis, like watching the taped replay of a particularly good sporting event, when knowing the result adds to the pleasure of seeing and reliving the way it all worked out. Another chapter, Wives and servants, does much the same for the Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Fanny Hill trials. He covers domestic and foreign politics, the arts, popular music, crime, the strange phenomenon of Malcolm Muggeridge and many other topics, ending with a moving account of Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral. Only sport, no surprise this to his fans, is ignored. If you think you remember the sixties, read it and see what you missed.
Someone once expressed surprise when I remarked that I often re-read a book. Why not? At least you know you will enjoy it. I shall rediscover The Pendulum Years.

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