Magazine article The Spectator

Remembering Benny Green

Magazine article The Spectator

Remembering Benny Green

Article excerpt

They tell me George Gershwin is dead, but I don't have to believe it if I don't want to': John O'Hara, the American novelist, on the sudden death of the great songwriter in 1937. It was a line which Benny Green, whose death was announced on Tuesday, loved and often used, and on Sunday night, standing in for him at a cabaret at the Cafe Royal, I suddenly realised it was exactly how I was going to feel about him.

By that time, we knew he had been taken back into intensive care and that there was a chance we were going to lose him after all, just when he seemed to be winning the battle against cancer and only a week or two ahead of one of his beloved children's weddings.

I feel I knew him all my life, though I suppose it was really only about 30 years, and I suddenly realise I don't even know precisely how old he was, somewhere around 70 I think, an age he began to look only in the very last few weeks of his life. Apart from then, he was ageless, and I also suddenly realise that almost everything I have ever done in my own life he had done first and better. True, he was a born Londoner and a jazzman and sort of Jewish, none of which I can claim, but he was also an atheist and a critic and a biographer and a cabaret host and a regular BBC radio weekend presenter for more than 40 years, and when, a decade or so behind him, I went down all those avenues of work and often sheer pleasure too, I always found he was there ahead of me, mapping out the path and laying out the territory and patiently waiting for me to catch up as I fell into the same ditches or sweated up the same hills.

When I went to Punch in the early 1970s as arts editor, as usual he was there too before me, just as he had been at the Times and the BBC and almost everywhere else; at that point, he was writing, among much else, the best film column of its time. A couple of years later he rang to announce that they had stopped making any films he ever wanted to see, and that he'd like to write instead about television, especially as he could do that from home in King's Langley and have another day or two a week there and therefore not have to leave his beloved wife, Toni, the actress who had always been his main reason for existence; in writing about him one instinctively writes also about her, simply because no wife I have ever known, not even my own, ever spent more time and energy on her husband's welfare in private or public. …

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