Few, if any, devotees of the legendary TV show and films are likely to grant the American novelist, poet and playwright Alfred Levinson even honorary status, despite the fact that, as a friend of Michael Palin, he seems to have been a semi-permanent fixture at various Python events, notably a recording of The Life of Brian, where he played the Voice of God and was jokily appointed ‘religious advisor’ to the film.
Levinson was a huge Python fan when, in February 1975, he first met Palin at a dinner given by Michael Henshaw, the ‘cool accountant’ to Palin and also such literary stars as William Burroughs, David Hare, Alan Sillitoe, Fay Weldon and Simon Gray. They hit it off immediately—the creative writing tutor and the wannabe novelist—and almost immediately begun a long-distance correspondence, with Levinson alternating between his home in Sag Harbor and addresses in London. Palin saw him as ‘a sort of Earth Father figure in his fifties, solid, smiling, sensible, dependable’, and in his diary looked back at the correspondence with great pleasure:
His letters still outnumber mine three to one, but I enjoy writing to him. It’s being required to step back and look at yourself and your life in relation to someone three 3,000 miles away, whom you have hardly met, but with whom you feel an unexplainable empathy. Ours is purely a literary relationship, a written relationship.
It’s different from all my other relationships. That’s what makes it interesting and stimulating too, I suppose
Levinson was not a stranger to the UK. He had first visited as a leftish, highly political animal, bringing his family to Hampstead to escape the anti-communist threats that surrounded the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. In the seventies he chronicled his time in London in a strongly autobiographical novel, Rue Britannia, where he portrays himself as the central character Fish.
In the late seventies Palin set up Signford, a non-commercial publishing company which would publish fiction and poems that had no strong mass appeal but that took his fancy. In July 1977 Levinson showed Rue Britannia—first to Henshaw, then to Palin, but the latter felt it lacked strong dramatic qualities and turned it down. However, early in the eighties, and after having perhaps benefited from his friend’s critique, Levinson submitted other semi-autobiographical fiction and poems to Signford and some of these were published. Not long afterwards Levinson was treated for cancer and he eventually died at the end of the decade. In September 2014, during an interview with Danny Baker on Radio Five Live to publicise the latest volume of his Diaries, Palin expressed his sorrow at the passing of Levinson, who he said had died ‘far too young’.
Today, , a typescript copy of which was discovered in a job lot not long ago, remains unpublished, which is a pity, considering that (in Palin’s words ) Levinson’s writing is ‘solid, dependable, honest, sometimes poetic’, while his autobiographical writings could be read as ‘ quite radical memoirs about growing up in the McCarthy era.’. [Robin Healey]