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33) Letter from America, 1946-2004, by Alistair Cooke

Part of the Sunday morning routine of my childhood was to listen to the weekly ten or fifteen minute "Letter from America", one of the world's longest radio programmes, produced in a stunning 2.689 editions over 58 years before Cooke gave up in 2004, a few weeks before his death at the age of 96. By the time I started understanding the content of the talks, Cooke was already sixty and had been doing it for over half his life.

The BBC has a tribute section on its website, where you can read and hear all about it. The primary way to appreciate Cooke's pieces is of course by listening to them, but there is no harm in having this selection in the form of dead trees.

They don't all work as well on the printed page, but there are some that do - a brilliant lyrical description of the New England fall; a lovely account of a family Christmas; his eyewitness account of the assassination of Robert Kennedy. It is interesting that in his early pieces on race relations, he really didn't seem to get the nature of the problem; but he redeems himself partially with a reflection on the life of Duke Ellington, and then completely with his reminiscence of covering Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. There are three pieces included about the assassination of JFK; only one about Watergate, from years later; and several about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which from the perspective of only a very few years later seems excessive.

One interesting thing about Alistair Cooke not in this book: his first great romance was with the half-sister of Anthony Ainley, who played the Master in Doctor Who; half a century after the relationship collapsed in 1933, Cooke wrote to Ainley after seeing his name in a credits list (quite possibly Doctor Who, which was the only TV Ainley did after 1980 - see correction) and got a reply to the effect that his sister had always remembered him fondly, thus easing decades of heartbreak for Cooke.

Anyway, it's a heavy book, probably better for dipping into than reading straight through as I did, but worth having by anyone who remembers him.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 26th, 2008 04:59 pm (UTC)
Fascinating anecdote. After Anthony Ainley's death I corresponded with Mark Wyman, who wrote the DWM obituary, for a while in an attempt to work out where Ainley fitted into the list of Henry Ainley's children, for professional reasons, but had no luck in taking things any further than already stated in the article.

Edited at 2008-05-26 05:00 pm (UTC)
May. 28th, 2008 05:36 pm (UTC)
Actually, a bit more research indicates that it was probably not Doctor Who, but the first episode of the 1978 mini-series Lillie.
May. 26th, 2008 05:48 pm (UTC)
It's lovely. I can actually hear his words as I read the text of the talks on the web page. Language is so distinctive.
May. 26th, 2008 08:24 pm (UTC)
Surely he was "already sixty" when you and I were born. Certainly a feature of my life, and I regret that he had already passed from the airwaves when I became able to fully indulge my Radio 4 habit.
May. 28th, 2008 04:13 pm (UTC)
May. 28th, 2008 06:31 pm (UTC)
If being capable of subtraction makes me a mathmo, so be it. Nerd.
May. 27th, 2008 04:21 am (UTC)
He was infuriatingly rightwing though, especially in the last year or two of his broadcast, when he usually spent his time attacking opponents of the war on Iraq.
May. 28th, 2008 04:13 pm (UTC)
I don't know that that is entirely fair. He was a huge admirer of JFK and FDR, and though he was impressed by Reagan it seems to me short of the same enthusiasm. And his very last talk, at least, indicates a considerable disenchantment with the Iraq war - enthusiasm for which was not at all confined to the political right!
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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