After longer than anyone can really remember, two ancient institutions of the press - Peregrine Worsthorne and Bernard Levin - are hanging up their quills. Peter Popham looks at the passing of a way of life
The gutters of Fleet Street ran with tears this week when the news that first Sir Peregrine Worsthorne of the Sunday Telegraph, then Bernard Levin of The Times, were departing their ancient, hoary, legendary, prickly, abusive, provocative, preposterous, exhibitionistic, barnacle- encrusted, and not necessarily always extremely widely read columns.

Well they didn't actually - the gutters, that is. Fleet Street (you may have noticed, or not) is no more. It is only a figure of speech, and a misleading one at that. So this week no community of hacks gathered at El Vino's with the perfect excuse for a few extra rounds. No gloating wakes were held. Gossip trundled around the town, but its bearers were probably sober, and the medium mostly telephonic.

The Times's editor, Peter Stothard, has finally heeded the chorus of voices which has been telling him for some time that Levin's column had gone off (though he "will continue to write elsewhere in The Times," we are assured). Worsthorne was brutally fired by Sunday Telegraph editor Dominic Lawson earlier this week. He got news of his sacking by letter - with a week's notice after 44 years on the Telegraph papers. It was the culmination of a long series of disagreements: Worsthorne allegedly vetoed Lawson's attempt to join the Beefsteak club, and was himself ejected from the board of The Spectator in 1995 ,when it was edited by Lawson, after publicly condemning an article in the magazine.

Fleet Street, then, is dead, and two of its most enduring monuments are no more. As journalists are wont to do, we conduct a rough head count of the poor old buffers still on side, tot up how much longer we ourselves can seriously expect to be smiled on, and mourn the passing of an era.

For anyone under 40 or even 50, the amazing thing about Worsthorne (73 now) and Levin (68) is how incredibly long ago they got started. I am 45, and Levin was already famous before I was out of short trousers. As "Taper" in The Spectator, he shot to stardom in the 1950s by practically inventing single-handedly the idea of a parliamentary report that was chock full of gags. He then moved to The Daily Mail and became its fierce, fiery, fearless theatre critic, in the days when Kenneth Tynan on The Observer and Harold Hobson on the Sunday Times had made the theatre review the sexiest spot in the paper.

It was around this time, staying up daringly late one Saturday night, that I first became aware of Bernard Levin's existence when he lambasted some particularly disgusting political wrong in a stand-up spot on the satirical show That Was the Week that Was. Perhaps this was the occasion when he called prime minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home a cretin - I forget. Anyway, that ephemeral moment was scorched onto the nation's brain pan when a man from the audience got up out of his seat, walked on to the set and punched Levin in the face. It later emerged that he was the husband of an actress Levin had cruelly rubbished in one of his terrifying reviews. The assault, the man said, was his protest against corrupt theatre criticism.

That was Levin back then: the gadfly's gadfly. Into the relatively gentle, benign, backscratching world of London journalism of the 1950s, a clubbable place where satire was something by Juvenal you'd translated at school, and humour was of the whimsical Beachcomber variety, angry young Levin exploded, scattering vituperation in all directions: initially at practically anyone in power, subsequently at anyone else who got up his nose - lawyers, judges, academics, animal rights campaigners, whoever. He introduced a new pleasure into the newspaper reader's life: vicarious cruelty.

Peregrine Worsthorne was also firing on all cylinders by the dawn of the Sixties, having moved to the Telegraph in 1953 after working on the Glasgow Herald and The Times. He joined the Sunday Telegraph when it started up in 1961, as deputy editor - a position he held for 25 years, before briefly becoming editor.

It is a little odd and counter-intuitive to yoke Worsthorne and Levin together in an article, despite their emergence at roughly the same time, because they are very different types. Levin was one of the first Jews in post-war British journalism to fashion a persona - brilliant, prickly, shrill, gratuitously aggressive - which could be taken as a red rag by anti-semites. Worsthorne, child of Belgian bankers on one side and English aristocrats on the other, by contrast presented himself as the last, defiant voice of the ruling class. Yet in this very difference there are points in common, a combination of courage, exhibitionism and perversity. Both were almost equally provocative, for totally different reasons.

Worsthorne's politics had a consistency to which Levin seems never to have aspired. In the days when one-nation Conservatism was the only type there was, and liberalism, modernisation and progress were the common cant of all the parties, Worsthorne was shockingly out of tune, lamenting the passing of the old days and railing at the new barbarism.

He was an entirely preposterous figure, like something out of an early Waugh novel or a Coward play. The only reason it worked was that behind the unacceptable rhetoric was a figure of intriguing weirdness, who for all his insistence on Olde England and its values hardly seemed English at all in many important respects: a fop, noted for his pink bow ties and red socks, his swept back hair and finely chiselled nostrils, a man who would often burst into tears in public, whose Englishness often seemed a hilarious camp performance.

By the early Sixties, both these personae were firmly in place, firmly entrenched in the public mind. In the 35-odd years since then a great deal has changed. Newspapers, proprietors, technologies, trade unions, ideologies and the Berlin Wall have come and gone. Fleet Street itself, the vortex of British journalism for 200 years, has been turned over to bankers and the like. The whole context in which those voices, those images, that vituperative rhetoric came into existence has been blown away. Nothing of it remains. But Levin (established for many years now on The Times) and Worsthorne have remained, lonely, gesturing figures ranting away on the blasted plain.

The later Worsthorne is more readily admired than the later Levin. With the successive victories of Mrs Thatcher, Worsthorne's perennial views gradually became almost part of the consensus, and he wound up as a knight. But he has always been uncomfortable having too many people agreeing with him: an old friend recalls that he used to go into El Vino's in Fleet Street, stay long enough to gather the general consensus on the hot topic of the moment, then go away and write the diametrical opposite.

So basking in the Thatcherite sunshine was not something that this soul of perversity could stand doing indefinitely. Latterly he began rumbling about the "bourgeois triumphalism" of the Eighties; more recently still (on 15 December 1996) he has gone much further, championing Kenneth Clarke to be the Tories' next leader - and this in the lions' den of Europhobia. But Worsthorne has always had a streak of reckless courage: when Conrad Black took over as the Telegraph's proprietor, he wasted no time describing him in print as "domineering, verbose and discouragingly pious."

Levin's progress, despite the huge fame he enjoys around the world, has been less sure. The ferocity that marked him out died long ago, and recent attempts to revive it have an air of desperation: in September, for example, he began a column with 109 consecutive adjectives - "worm-eaten, exhausted, dishonest" etc, etc - to describe the Government. More often though he is seen in his pipe-and-slippers mode, uttering unexceptionable remarks such as "I have always admired Frank Field. His work is sensible and honest..." or "Australians are open and immediately friendly." Too often in Levin's recent articles there is the sensation of someone talking rather pointlessly to himself - less Speakers Corner than one of the more depressing creations of Samuel Beckett.

In that respect Levin's fate is exemplary. Today all these people - Worsthorne in his perfect country village, Levin in London, the rest of us bent over our screens in office blocks dotted across the metropolis - we're all alone. More than any other department of journalism, column-writing is public speaking. It thrived in the era when journalists met and talked and drank. When that era ended, as the careers of Levin and Worsthorne demonstrate, it went into a long stagnation. Today it is ever more forced, artificial, narcissistic.