On most Sunday mornings in the 1970s and 1980s when I was growing up, my family had a ritual. My mother would cook a fried breakfast (fried bacon and eggs, fried bread, sometimes black pudding for my father, sometimes tomatoes and mushrooms). This glorious feast, that we only ever had on Sunday mornings, would be eaten in a reverent munching silence listening to Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America on BBC radio. This was my parents’ choice of programme, obviously, because if it had been mine we would have been listening to Radio 1 all day every day. But on Sundays, I graciously allowed them their old people’s ways, and sat quietly making my bacon and eggs last for as long as Alistair Cooke’s voice was speaking.
What he said wasn’t so important. His voice was smiling, very civilised, warm and easy-going. It had a delightful reassurance of frequent jokes, though perhaps not very many on the radio. Through the crunching of my mother’s incomparable fried bread he represented that strange and huge country far, far away: America. I expect my parents liked his programme because we had lived in the USA for short stints in the 1960s and 1970s while my father was working in laboratories there. Cooke’s voice was burringly, purringly Anglo-American, because he was (he died in 2004) a British journalist working for the BBC who had lived for most of his working life in the USA. He became a mediator of popular culture to the masses, specifically the radio-listening and television-watching masses, from the 1930s to the very end of his life.
The Brits know him mainly for his BBC radio half-hour Letter from America: the Americans know him for his pre-war NBC Radio London Letter, and as the host of PBS Masterpiece Theatre for twenty-one years. He was a people’s broadcaster, and a genius at saying exactly what he felt in the most urbane and inoffensive way, thus getting quite radical ideas past corporate censorship. His programmes were like listening to a highly-valued old codger talk about something he really knew something about, so you listened, and were impressed, and enjoyed the experience so much you’d come back next week for more. He taught me most of what I knew about the USA before I returned as an adult. Cooke’s authority and his moral gravitas were as important as his warmly instructive voice: I can still recall the cold disappointment in his voice when he described Nixon’s activities before Watergate. You could trust Alistair Cooke: it was an instinctive reaction.
The first volume of his Letters from America, the one for 1946-1951 (originally published in 1951) comes out in March 2015 as an ebook, and I read it in two sittings. It’s a dangerous book, because the short essays lead you on, and on, until an hour or more have gone by and you’re still just about to go and do something else, convinced that you’ll only read one more. Like all the Letters, the 1946-51 volume gives you hidden history; what it was like to try to find a new apartment in New York in the 1940s; of what living on Long Island was like when it was just a nice empty place to rent a house for the summer; of what the Native Americans in Arizona thought about D H Lawrence when he lived there; of why J B Priestley was wrong when he dissed New York’s obsession with buying and spending; of what it was like in the New York subway in the summer before air con was the norm.
And like good history in the raw, these Letters have dated tremendously. I’ve used the modern term above for what Cooke calls the Indians, and I will now tread nervously by discussing the words he uses for African-Americans, because so much has changed in social politics, and he signed off on these Letters over sixty years ago. He uses ‘Negro’ and ‘coloured’, but not offensively, and does it respectfully, because he wasn’t an offensive or disrespectful person. He wrote about the stirrings of modern political correctness and the speed of its evolution, by questioning Jewish jokes, and the forced changes to Jerome Kern’s lyrics to ‘Old Man River’. His description of the unreconstructed poverty of Florida’s turpentine workers makes plain the unconscious assumptions from his culture that he relays in his words, while he exposes ghastly near-slavery conditions in the 1940s.
There are rich pickings here for the social history of American times and skills so recently lost and gone. Nowadays, you hardly ever see someone lying underneath their car on a Sunday morning doing amateur engine tinkering, yet this was once an American (and British) norm: ‘Most Americans, even rich ones, were brought up in a culture that never expected somebody else to do the rough work. Most boys in college who can afford good cars can also take them apart’. Cooke talks about people I have hardly heard of and knew nothing about, but they were bywords in his day: the vaudeville star Willie Howard, the great boxer Joe Louis, and Will Rogers who was ‘part Cherokee Indian’, who ‘broke in horses for the British Army during the Boer War’ and ‘broke in a charger for Winston Churchill’. And here’s me thinking he was just a cowboy film star.
He has a good deal to say about Washington political architecture, and its ambitious neo-classical street design plonked down in a swamp. Of the low-level hum of permanent gossip that makes DC choke with intrigue: ‘its intrigue is less like that of the court of Louis XIV and more like that of a vast church bazaar, in which hot-eyed matrons wink and whisper in the hope that Mrs X’s pickles will be rejected’. Nice put-down to a nuclear nation.
He is magnificent on the seasons and nature’s changes in the USA’s multitudinous parts: New England’s oaks in autumn ‘entirely revise your ideas about the infinite fine range of colour between gold and lemon’. He does a splendid analysis of the fashion photography and modelling industries on the East and West coasts. For science historians and fans of early computers, his essay ‘The Big Brain’ is a fascinating encounter with the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator, which Cooke endearingly calls Poppa, since it is the parent monster to the Inland Revenue’s adding-machine powered by vacuum tubes, and the great-great-grandparent, I surmise, of the thing that I am typing these words on right now. For this essay alone, this book is a classic of modern journalism and computing history, and an excellent choice for americanophiles, and Americans who can’t remember much past 1960.
Alistair Cooke, Letters From America: 1946-1951 (1951) (Open Road Integrated Media 2015) ISBN 9781497697683, $14.99, published 3 March 2015