Bernard Levin begins A Walk Up Fifth Avenue with three quotations from descriptions of New York City. These date from 1916, 1929 and 1949 and were written by Jane Kilmer, Theodore Dreiser and E. B. White respectively. Bernard Levin uses these vignettes to establish the reality, or perhaps unreality of a changing city, a superficially permanent edifice which really is in constant flux and is never more than a transient manifestation made concrete of the people, interests and activities it houses. Bernard Levin’s 1989 book now becomes, itself, another such historical exhibit, since the twenty years that have elapsed since the publication of A Walk Up Fifth Avenue has seen major changes to New York’s skyline, economy and population. In 1989 Bernard Levin made scant reference to Arabs or Afghans, and hardly mentions Islam when referring to the city’s religious identity. In 1989, Russians, generally, were still in Russia, not the United States. The twin towers of the World Trade Centre appear in three of the book’s colour plates without remark, and nowhere in the book’s three hundred pages it took to walk the length of Fifth Avenue is there a single mention of the word “terrorism”.
For the targeted British audience of this book, the author, perhaps, symbolised something quintessentially English. An established columnist on The Times, well-known television commentator and latterly presenter of off-beat travel programmes, Bernard Levin was close to being a household name at the time, an instantly recognisable voice amongst the middle classes. But he was, himself, of immigrant stock, a Jew, and, at least originally, very much on the edge of the British establishment, no doubt knocking regularly on the its partially closed doors. Maybe this is why, in A Walk Up Fifth Avenue, he deals so informatively with the concepts of “new” and “old” money in New York. He describes beautifully how shady might be the origins of any kind of money, but the obvious class differences that the distinction engenders is keenly felt and wonderfully depicted in the book.
Bernard Levin however, reveals that he is no fan of luxury for luxury’s sake, and clearly has little sympathy for any kind of conspicuous consumption. He rubs shoulders with the better heeled at a New York party, but gently satirises the ostentation and the bad taste, perhaps being guilty of applying a new-world versus old-world, peculiarly British pomposity to place himself above an old money versus new money snobbery. It makes a fascinating juxtaposition of the author’s opinion and subjects’ assumptions. What makes the passages even more poignant for British readers, of course, is the Bernard Levin’s long association with satire, especially that aimed at the rich and powerful.
Levin is also clearly not a fan of commercialism. The appearance of Ronald McDonald in a Fifth Avenue parade promoted Levin to describe the character, somewhat sardonically, as “a true hero of our time”. It prompts the reader to reflect that Father Christmas, as we know him today, is largely the product of an erstwhile promotional campaign for Coca Cola and his default red and white is not much more than a corporate trademark. And perhaps even the practice of giving presents on a day other than the Three Kings was an American invention, driven more by marketing than generosity. One wonders whether a century from now children will sit on a burger clown’s knee to receive their annual schooling in consumerism.
A Walk Up Fifth Avenue is much more than a travel book. It’s considerably less than a history, and never attempts analysis. It is an informative, slightly random mixture of whatever caught the fancy of an observant, vaguely jaundiced British journalist as he tried to probe the heart of one of the world’s greatest cities. It’s an uneven read, but doubly rewarding, since the book not only takes the reader there, it also now offers evidence of its own justification, because it catalogues change and invites us to reflect on our current, equally tenuous, impermanent status.