The truth about journalism is that almost none of it keeps
Unless I am much mistaken, obituarists and tribute-writers have this week been poring over the Fleet Street archives, beset by a difficulty as unexpected as it has been puzzling. We have been looking for brilliant, extended passages of the late Bernard Levin's writing to offer modern readers a sample (and older readers a reminder) of the work of a man who we all agree was one of the 20th century's greatest British columnists.
We remember his greatness. We recall the thrill as Bernard laid into the idiots and idiocies of the age. How we wished we'd said that! How we wished we had his courage, his effrontery, his learning, his mental treasury of quotation, his gift of language. Time and again Levin found the words to say what, once we had read him, we knew we thought already but had somehow failed to express.
What was it — jog my memory — he wrote about the Gas Board? It slips the mind but it was spot on. Then there was that piece about — who was it? Lord Denning? Christine Keeler? — which simply said it all. And didn't he attack the Post Office in language which must have left the Postmaster General jibbering into his morning coffee — what was it, again, he wrote?
Can't recall now, but it was delicious. All I do remember is that as an undergraduate at Cambridge in an era of suffocating leftliberal complacency and trade-union greed, a time when one's every waking thought seemed to begin with an unspoken 'am I alone in thinking. .. ?' or 'why oh why?', two men kept me sane: Keith Joseph and Bernard Levin. Remind me, then, of the famous columnist's genius. Reprise the best of Levin, for old times' sake.
I doubt you will succeed. Most of it has turned to dust. It's all there in the archive, or you can read examples in anthologies of modern English columnists, in Christopher Silvester's monumental collection The Penguin Book of Columnists (1998), for example. But you will fast find yourself sharing what I suspect was Mr Silvester's frustration (and that of so many of his reviewers) when remembered columnar glories turned out, on review, to read so flat.
Some reviewers blamed Silvester's choice. I did not, and I ought to know. I felt for him as with sinking heart he ploughed through dead work by dead jOurnalists, British and American, and found it — dead. I have been that disappointed ploughman too. As a younger man just starting in journalism I received from a kindly uncle a treasury of the best columns by `Cassandra' in the Daily Mirror. I opened it excitedly. After all, William Connor was a legend. The legend shrivelled as I began to read. What was quite so brilliant about this stuff? Most of it was dreadfully obvious; much of it rather limp.
As a columnist I have tried so many times to remind myself of my own magnificence by flipping randomly through the archive of my own 5,000-odd published pieces over these last 20 years, and returned emptyhanded. Why so repetitive? Why so dull? Why so flip? Why all that banging on and barking? Why the huff and puff? Heavens — surely I was better than that?
The operative word is `was'. Levin of course was better — nonpareil — but that infuriating little 'was' grins skull-like from the corner of his archive too. The truth about newspaper essays is that they are written for newspapers, and newspapers record news, and news is broken-backed when it isn't new. The truth about newspaper essays is that almost none of them keep.
As columnists we kid ourselves, I think, (and Bernard was capable of this) that our page is the part of the paper which does not need to be 'current', does not depend on what we call a 'news peg', for its raison d'être. And it is true that just because the story this week is (say) new Tory proposals for law and order, I have not (thank God) been required to write about them. Why, only the other day I chose to write for the Times about the plight of albatrosses. I assured myself that the arrival at St Katharine's Dock that morning of a roundthe-world yachting couple who had made their great journey in order to draw attention to the plight of this seabird — and a greeting from the Prince of Wales — added a little spice, a little now-ness (what tutors in journalism call the 'Hey, Mum!' factor) to my column. But the truth is that that phrase 'news peg' was apt, for the whole outfit hung upon it. Without it, it would have fallen shapeless to the floor.
Certainly you can write an essay on the albatross which is timeless as Bacon or Montaigne are timeless, hut if you are not writing it for Saturday's Times — if beneath your every line does not lurk the unconscious thought 'Why should my readers turn to this now? What is it asking them to conclude about the world this Saturday?' — then you write it differently.
Great columns such as Levin's were galleons with sails trimmed to the wind of their times. As any physicist will tell you, you cannot move by filling your sails with your own puff. Levin in full flow, his sails swelling before a stiff breeze, was an awesome sight, but try to retrieve the scene from the press clippings, and the sails flap as the vessel yaws. That wind no longer blows.
To recapture after it has gone the feeling — the spirit, the zeitgeist — of an era is the hardest thing. Except in the hands of the best historical writers, the people who inhabited that time seem to have said and done the strangest or most inconsequential things, like trees tossing in a gale we can no longer see. Why did they get so cross about this, or so sentimental about that? Why did they keep returning to this minor controversy, or overlooking that huge and imminent danger? Why was this politician thought so shrewd or that one so gauche? Why was this a scandal or that a gaffe? The key is how it felt, how things looked at the time. Shared unconsciously by all, common knowledge and the popular mood are rarely committed to paper and sometimes cannot be. But they explain so much.
Bernard Levin was a man of his time. He mattered tremendously then, and so he matters now. But how he did it we recapture best by remembering how he affected us then, not by pulling his work from the ring-binders and expecting him to do the same today.
I hope this column has read freshly; it is keenly felt. But it will stale tomorrow: fallen like old clothes in a heap from the news-peg on which this weekend it hangs: the death of a newspaper giant in whose shadow Times columnists like me have been proud to stand.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.