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Saturday, 3 November 2012

Bernard Levin - Taking Sides




Recently I have been leafing through an old book for the first time in a number of years, Taking Sides by the late Bernard Levin. I have a fond personal memory of meeting Mr Levin in the mid-1990s, when he was on a speaking tour of New Zealand and I was a young law student. Aware of his reputation as a fearless liberal, I carefully prepared a submission in case there were audience questions.  I don't remember the wording but I recall pulling together some impressive-sounding (so I hoped) quotes on free speech from John Milton and Ronald Dworkin and relating them to some story then in the news.  I didn't get the chance to speak during the Q&A session as it turned out, but I did get to speak to Mr Levin afterwards.  I carefully presented my submission and felt a tinge of adrenaline at the thought that I might be about to lock horns with a famous intellectual.  Instead Mr Levin said "absoutely, I quite agree" and then added "of course, indeed" before moving on to the next person.  I must admit to feeling slightly deflated, though he wasn't dismissive or insincere in the way he spoke. 

In retrospect I might have had a better chance of exchanging views had I offered something with which Levin was likely to disagree, but he was a famous defender of free speech and so it wasn't surprising at all that he concurred. Perhaps therefore I should have taken a leaf from his book and adopted a deliberately contrarian position: Levin apparently accepted a job with the Times rather than the Guardian because he thought it more interesting as a columnist to go against the editorial grain (others have suggested the better pay also might have had something to do with it).

Levin is known as the father of the modern Parliamentary Sketch: prior to him, most were reverential and dull in equal measure. Levin on the other hand did not see himself as dutifully recording the learned discourse of his betters, but more as a theatre critic sitting in the front row of a farce.  I think he was also something of a blogger before his time: at his peak, he wrote short and succinct posts almost daily on all manner of subjects, and prompted more letters from readers than most blogs receive comments.  Like the very best bloggers today, Levin could be interesting whatever the subject. Despite the randomness of what he wrote about there were some recurrent themes, and a strong sense of values underpinned all his articles, even the apparently trivial.

Taking Sides makes fascinating reading. Levin is a writer of such genius that he can be inspiring and off-putting at the same time to anyone who writes for a hobby or for a living: the phenomenal craftsmanship of  his sentences is inspiring and intimidating in equal measure.

The book was first published at the end of the 1970s and is composed of a collection of articles written during that decade, when Levin was chief columnist for the Times. As such it gives quite an insight into an age when some things were very different and others very much the same.  His article on a teacher who seduced a pupil is very poigniant given the Savile affair and related accusations.  (It is also worthy of a separate blog post, which I hope to get around to shortly.) 

There is much dramatic irony in what modern readers know but Levin could not.  One essay, for example, is an impassioned argument against the death penalty, which many were calling for at the time because of the Birmingham IRA attack.  Levin's argument is not on the basis that the Birmingham Six were innocent but on the basis that they were indeed cold-blooded murderers, and his argument becomes crushingly powerful to a modern reader who knows that they were in fact innocent. 

Other essays fearlessly attack the inquities of Apartheid and the Soviet Union.  Both of course vanished less than twenty years after Levin was writing, but few imagined that at the time, especially in the case of the Soviet Union. I may also fashion some future blogs around these articles: with human rights rarely out of the headlines there are more than a few lessons to be learned from our recent past.

In other respects, it must be pointed out, Levin was in the wrong then and remains in the wrong now.  He defended Nixon long after Tricky Dicky had become indefensible.  His liberalism was a liberalism too far when it came to advocating Myra Hindley's release - not because no case could ever have been made, but Levin's own was uncharacteristically weak. And despite his brilliance as a writer some jokes don't work, and some go on too long, and sometimes his serious prose turns into not much more than a rant, in the process losing whatever point or points he set out to make. 

Enough criticism for now.  One of Levin's greatest strengths was taking on the establishment and any sacred cows of the day.  Lawyers were amongst his favourite targets, at least when they were at their self-important and pretentious worst (not on the other hand when they were in the form of Sir Sydney Kentridge fearlessly attacking the Apatheid authorities).  I will close this post with one of the "letters from the profession" which Levin explained had replaced his column on a particular day.  It was prompted by the-then Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Rober Mark, who had had the temerity to suggest that some criminal lawyers were criminal in both senses of the word.  Levin's letters are from the likes of Sir Preposterous Attorney QC; Sir Grand Larceny QC and Mr Only Line-Pockets QC.  This one is from Sir Ratlike Countenance QC, of 961 Pump Court:

"Sir,

Once again it is necessary to explain to the public - this time because of Sir Robert Mark's scandalous and unjustified allegations - just how the legal profession works.  Sir Robert insinuates that we lawyers are willing to tell a pack of lies in court for money: but I can refute this charge - as ridiculous as it is false - quite conclusively.  Every lawyer is perfectly willing to tell the truth for money, or even to shut up entirely for money.  Indeed, some even prefer to, other things (the money, for instance) being equal." 

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