I'm very sorry to read of the death of the former columnist and critic Bernard Levin. Levin's columns in The Times were, with Clive James's television criticism in The Observer, models of literate, witty and erudite commentary for which my parents were enthusiastic and that I thus read too when I was growing up. I shall post a proper appreciation of Levin on my return home, when I can refer to his books, but three aspects of his writings stand out in my memory.
First, on the most important political issue of his generation - the struggle between the western democracies and Communist totalitarianism - he got it more right than anyone else. He was dogged in his support for heterogeneous dissident voices in the Soviet Union, and contemptuous of moral evasion in the prosecution of the Cold War. But he also understood that Communism was fragile. He knew that the human spirit would supersede Communism if the western democracies held their nerve, and said so explicitly. He also campaigned - and used his columns for the purpose when it came even to such prosaic matters as internal elections in the National Union of Journalists - against the know-nothing totalitarian Left that disfigured British politics and especially parts of the Labour Party from the mid-1970s.
Secondly, he also understood that the anti-Communist cause was essentially a liberal one, and he advocated liberal values across diverse issues. He was a trenchant opponent of apartheid, and frequently deployed his biting wit to mock the inanities of constitutionally-mandated racial discrimination. On domestic issues, he regularly criticised anti-homosexual prejudice in society and the communications media (Paul Johnson was one target of his scorn).
Thirdly, unlike one or two journalists I could name whose half-baked cultural enthusiasms served merely as a cipher for their own political prejudices, Levin had a great knowledge and appreciation of art, music and literature, and was able to communicate those enthusiasms lucidly and expertly. He did so not as a hobby, but as a duty. One of the columns I most prize of his output - it's in one of his collections, and I'll quote from it when I get home - referred to the philistinism of the Greater London Council under the (unelected) leadership of Ken Livingstone in the early 1980s. The GLC Labour group of that time took it into its collective tiny mind to divert public support for the arts away from the supposedly elitist Royal Festival Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank and towards a 'People's Festival' in Hyde Park. Levin was quick to mock the stupidity of this affectation, which reflected more an obscurantist refusal to acknowledge the concept of aesthetic excellence than any genuine left-wing tradition. The socialist convictions of William Morris, Robert Blatchford or, in our own day, Arnold Wesker, inspired their advocates not to decry high art but to attempt to spread appreciation of it more widely. Levin's denunication of the cultural vandalism of an intellectually disreputable part of the Left - the real snobs, for they implicitly assume that Beethoven or Janacek is not for the likes of their own constituents - was always a joy. But more than that, it was an education. His enthusiasms were diverse, and some were perplexingly idiosyncratic - but it was difficult not to get drawn into them as he advanced them in his impeccable prose. He will be much missed.