How long should an introduction be? The nature of the newspaper or magazine (or website) intro or “standfirst” is these days very much determined by the graphic designers and communications conceptualists who, indirectly, dictate so much about how we read and indeed what we are likely to be offered to read. (And their science is predicated on the notion, apparently backed by research, that you, dear reader, do not actually read very much, even if you think you do.) There is thus a demand for brevity, which can sometimes be imposed even at the cost of sense: no need to give them everything, just the flavour, ten words, twelve maybe, but seven is better.
It is good to see that the people at The Telegraph will occasionally ignore the conventional wisdom. For there are some subjects whose gist cannot be conveyed in ten words, just as there are some people whose achievements have been so manifold and lives so various that one cannot sum them up briefly and it is wasteful to try. Such a person, it would seem, was Oliver Bernard (brother of the frequently unwell Jeremy), who died at the beginning of this month aged eighty-seven. The introduction to the Telegraph’s (website) obituary reads:
Oliver Bernard, who has died aged 87, was, variously, a Communist book-packer, an RAF pilot, a gasworks fireman, a tramlines repairer, a kitchen porter, a male prostitute, a rider of freight cars in Canada, a prize-winning advertising copywriter, a drama teacher, a CND campaigner, a prisoner, a patient on the analyst’s couch and a convert to Roman Catholicism.
Bernard was, however, better known as a poet and translator. His first book of poems, Country Matters, was published in 1961 and he went on to publish several more as well as translations of Rimbaud (the Penguin Collected), Apollinaire and other French writers. His collected poetry was published as Verse &c in 2001.
Bernard confessed in his memoirs that he had fantasised “fairly continuously” about women since the age of thirteen and in early adulthood had “a more or less uninterrupted series of sexual and emotional adventures”, featuring adultery, betrayals, multiple infidelities, and, reassuringly, unhappy love affairs. His marriage broke up after just two years “because [his wife] was ‑ quite reasonably ‑ anxious about what I at first might be, and eventually was, up to with other women”. Not even a spell of psychoanalysis could turn him into “a normal person”.
In the 1980s he became enthusiastically involved with CND and spent three weeks in Norwich prison for criminal damage to the fence of a US airbase. In 1985 he converted to Catholicism, attracted, it seems, by its claims to be a “church for sinners”. He lived in a tiny cottage in rural East Anglia. He remained remarkably fit, the obituary concludes, “despite injuring his legs a few years ago in a motor accident, and enjoyed his daily walk to the Carmelite convent at Quidenham for morning Mass.”