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Alistair Cooke's Letter From America

Wednesday 31 October 2012, 15:30

Justin Webb Justin Webb

This week Radio 4 releases over 900 editions of Alistair Cooke's Letter From America. You can listen, download and read transcripts of all these programmes that span from 1946 to 2004. Here, Justin Webb talks about the impact and lasting influence of Letter From America.

Alistair Cooke typing

Alistair Cooke © Cooke Americas, RLLP

Alistair Cooke did more than any other single human being to open our minds to the world's greatest, and by and large its most successful, social experiment.

Remember: we did not care about the United States until the Second World War. Churchill was the first serving prime minister to go there. As the journalist Alexander Chancellor put it, "it is difficult to overestimate the ignorance of American history and culture that existed among most educated British people when Alistair Cooke started broadcasting"

That ignorance was not confronted head-on; that was not the Cooke style. He did not employ, in his writing, a spotlight aimed at dark corners. Rather he bathed all of America in a kindly light. And as it grew and changed so did he. The Letters become richer, denser, as time passes and as his love affair becomes more settled, surer, safer.

One of my favourites is from 1966: a man called Meyer Sugarman had written to the White House to complain because the president's party had commandeered, at short notice, the motel where he had been intending to have his honeymoon. The complaint secured an apology from Lyndon Johnson and the restoration of Mr and Mrs Sugarman's honeymoon plans.

Alistair did not approve. He did not say so of course, not in so many words. But what he did say about rights and responsibilities and the former tending to be stressed over the latter, summed up elegantly and adroitly the semi-unspoken fears of the many Americans who viewed the 1960s with growing alarm.

It is a Letter that amuses (Mr Sugarman is gently sent up) and informs and ultimately packs a gentle punch: watch where this is leading. All in a few minutes.

And where it leads Alistair followed; he was there decades later when Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992. Again his point is made with gentle wistful good humour, and he uses sartorial style to make a wider point about the new generation and its attitude to formality and the self-discipline that goes with it.

"Along with the passing of George Bush, we shall see, I fear, the passing of the Blue Blazer."

I wish I had written that. And a thousand other sentences that illuminate and amuse and can now be handed down the generations; a testament to the finest journalism about a nation and a people that the BBC has ever produced.

Justin Webb is a presenter of The Today Programme and former BBC Washington Correspondent he has written recently about the 'special relationship' in his book, Notes on Them and Us.


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    Comment number 1.

    Alistair Cooke produced a programme about soprano saxophonist Sydney Bechet . It was broadcast on R4 and called,i think, Silver Bell, a reference to an orchestra of that name. Anyone know anything about this programme in which Cooke likened Bechet's soprano to the voice of Edith Piaff ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Justin, thanks kindly for the Letter from America links - Alastair Cooke's truly phenomenal and certainly has my vote for the best that the BBC has ever produced... and I've been around for a long time! Quite amusing listening to some of the older programmes again, especially given the current fuss about Obama vs Romney in the run-up to the 2012 US elections... now what comments that would have inspired!


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