Bernard Levin begins A Walk Up Fifth Avenue with three quotes from descriptions of New York City. These date from 1916, 1929 and 1949 and were written by Jane Kilmer, Theodore Dreiser and EB White respectively. Bernard Levin uses these vignettes to establish the reality, or perhaps the unreality, of a changing city, a superficially permanent building that is actually in constant flux and is never more than a concretized transitory manifestation of the people, interests, and activities that houses. Bernard Levin’s 1989 book now becomes, in itself, another historical exhibit, as the twenty years since the publication of A Walk Up Fifth Avenue have seen major changes in New York’s skyline, economy, and population. York. In 1989 Bernard Levin made few references to Arabs or Afghans, and barely mentioned Islam when referring to the religious identity of the city. In 1989, the Russians, by and large, were still in Russia, not the United States. The twin towers of the World Trade Center appear on three of the book’s color plates without commentary, and nowhere in the book’s three hundred pages that it took to walk the length of Fifth Avenue is there a single mention of the word “terrorism.” .
To the intended British audience of this book, the author, perhaps, symbolized something quintessentially English. An established columnist at The Times, well-known television commentator and, later, host of offbeat travel shows, Bernard Levin was close to being a household name at the time, an instantly recognizable voice among the middle classes. But he himself was of immigrant descent, Jewish and, at least originally, very much on the fringes of the British establishment, no doubt regularly knocking on its partially closed doors. Perhaps that is why, in A Walk Up Fifth Avenue, he treats the concepts of “new” and “old” money in New York so informatively. He beautifully describes how murky the origins of any kind of money can be, but the obvious class differences that distinction engenders are deeply felt and beautifully described in the book.
Bernard Levin, however, reveals that he is not a fan of luxury for luxury’s sake and clearly has little sympathy for any kind of ostentatious consumption. He rubs shoulders with the best heels at a New York party, but gently lampoons glitz and bad taste, perhaps guilty of applying a peculiarly British pomposity against the new world against the old world to place himself above old money versus new money. snobbery. He makes a fascinating juxtaposition of the author’s opinion and the assumptions of the subjects. What makes the passages all the more poignant for British readers, of course, is Bernard Levin’s long association with satire, especially that directed at the rich and powerful.
Clearly, Levin is also not a fan of commercialism. Ronald McDonald’s appearance in a parade on Fifth Avenue led Levin to describe the character, somewhat wryly, as “a true hero of our time”. He prompts the reader to reflect that Santa as we know him today is very much the product of an old Coca Cola promotional campaign and his default red and white is not much more than a corporate trademark. And perhaps even the practice of giving gifts on a day other than Three Kings was an American invention, driven more by marketing than generosity. One wonders if a century from now children will sit on the lap of a hamburger clown for their annual schooling in consumerism.
A Walk Up Fifth Avenue is much more than a travel book. It is considerably less than a story, and never attempts analysis. It’s an informative, slightly random mix of what caught the fancy of one observer, a vaguely jaundiced British journalist trying to plumb the heart of one of the world’s greatest cities. It makes for an uneven read, but doubly rewarding, as the book not only takes the reader there, but now also offers evidence of its own justification, cataloging change and inviting us to reflect on our current state, equally tenuous and impermanent.