Bernard Levin: A great writer, but a strangely silent lunch companion

The founder of the disrespectful school of political journalism is recalled by Alan Watkins

In 1960 I was 27 years old and working on the Sunday Express as a feature writer and as deputy author of the political "Crossventure'' column. It was my first job in journalism and I was lucky to have it. I had decided to ask Bernard Levin, who was five years older than I was, to lunch at the Caprice Restaurant.

In 1960 I was 27 years old and working on the Sunday Express as a feature writer and as deputy author of the political "Crossventure'' column. It was my first job in journalism and I was lucky to have it. I had decided to ask Bernard Levin, who was five years older than I was, to lunch at the Caprice Restaurant.

The set lunch there cost seven-and-six, or 37.5p in today's money, which was not a specially large sum even in those days. But, though it was not a particularly expensive place, it was quite grand - perhaps grander than it is now - with pink-shaded lampshades, much patronised by theatrical folk.

Rather to my surprise, Levin accepted. He had then come to the end of writing his political column in The Spectator under the name "Taper''. This derived from Disraeli's novel Coningsby, Taper being one corrupt government whip in the book, and Tadpole the other.

Levin had been offered the job by the proprietor and then editor, Ian Gilmour, principally because of the television column he was writing in The Guardian. When he said to Gilmour that he knew very little about politics, Gilmour advised him to treat the House of Commons as a television set (in those days, of course, sittings were not broadcast).

This is what Levin proceeded to do, spending long hours in the press gallery in the hope of catching something outrageous or even vaguely interesting. One of the happiest columns to come from this stern application to duty was about an impassioned debate on whether the wearing of "trews'' by Scottish regiments was the cause of impotence or sterility or, conceivably, both.

Then there was the pre-school rudeness, whereby Christopher Soames (father of Nicholas) became "the greatest fathead in Western Europe''. There were the wittier made-up names, the most famous of them Bullying-Manner for Manningham-Buller. Levin was not, however, the inventor of Sir Shortly Floorcross for Sir Hartley Shawcross. That was the work of the Labour MP Emrys Hughes.

But his greatest contempt was reserved for Harold Macmillan and his Sancho Panza, Selwyn Lloyd, who was the subject of a running joke about his chairmanship of the Hoylake UDC. In contrast, Levin almost worshipped the Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, and was devastated when he comprehensively lost the 1959 election. He had no time at all for Harold Wilson, whom he referred to as "the little greaser'' and who would, he wrote, cause him to emigrate if he ever became prime minister - a promise which Levin happily felt it unnecessary to keep when Wilson duly arrived at No 10 in 1964.

When we had lunch, Levin was writing longer pieces for The Spectator, some of them anticipating The Sunday Times's investigative journalism later in the decade. He had, I remember, just completed a successful series of articles attacking the property developer Jack Cotton's plans for Piccadilly Circus. He was also embarking on his career as theatre critic of the Daily Express.

He was already the founder - though naturally we could not know it at the time - of what might be called the disrespectful school of political journalism. This had developed more through the parliamentary sketch than through the political column. The true founders of the modern political column remain Henry Fairlie, who was Levin's predecessor at The Spectator, and Hugh Massingham, who wrote in The Observer during the same period, the 1950s, as "Our Political Correspondent''.

Certainly I was conscious that they had both influenced me; whereas Levin, I think, did not have any influence on me at all, though he may well have had on other people. His greatest gift could, I believe, have been neither taught nor imitated. It was to overcome the inhibitions which the written word presents; get over a barrier; acquire freedom and even fly. Some writers never manage this, while others take a long time about it. Levin achieved it from his very first days with The Guardian and the now defunct Truth. In his later years his facility ran away with him and very nearly became fatal.

I invited him to lunch because I admired him rather than because I wanted to be like him. After a few preliminary pleasantries, we had hardly a word to say to each other. I blamed myself; one usually does. Later I was told he was often like that. Columnists, after all, are much like comedians, and easily retreat into their hutches.

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