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In Praise of… Letter From America

I have some family in Norfolk.  For anyone who’s ever been to Norfolk, you’ll understand how this East Anglian county has an inexplicable ability to retreat from you, the closer you get.  Something about the M11 in the dead winter hours of the night seems to protract not only geographically, but also spiritually as you crawl through the darkness hoping against hope that the signs for Newmarket and Swaffham, Faversham and the wonderfully named Saxlingham Nethergate are in fact posthumous descriptions of places you’ve already long passed.

On these seemingly endless drives into the darkest reaches of the fens, my father at the wheel would always want to have the radio on to keep him alert, and one of the firm favourites was Letter from America.  As an eight year old, I found nothing quite as soporific as this programme, mostly, I suspect, because Alister Cooke had to my mind the voice of a rather lethargic vicar, and I’d grumble all the way through, wondering why we weren’t listening to a Terry Pratchett tape or music.

It’s only almost twenty years later, that I’ve actually come to appreciate this, courtesy of the BBC putting hundreds of samples up on its website for the podcasting fiend to access and download.  For over fifty years, until only a few days before he died, aged ninety five, Alister Cooke broadcast ten to fifteen minutes slices of American life, seen through the eyes of one of the most humane and intelligent journalist voices on the air.  The result is an archive of first hand American history that stretches all the way back to the Great Depression.  It documents listening to Malcolm X; witnessing the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, dinner with Roosevelt, watching Reagan’s Presidential Debates, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the end of the Cold War.  And more.  It’s also a social history, seen through the eyes of a liberal man of his time, as he catalogues the rise of the computer, the growing power of the TV, changes in films, in social attitudes, the fight for equal rights, alterations in tastes and fashions, cuisines and the use of language itself.

As if this wasn’t interesting enough to the historian – and it should be – it’s also one of the few examples of how good, clear journalism can still be enlivening, enthralling, inspiring.  As the years roll by, Cooke increasingly came to lament the power of TV to distort or over-condense complicated issues and ideas; to bemoan the tabloid infection of journalism and the death of good fact finding in favour of a popular quick-hit headline.  Though he never seemed to judge, nor take sides in a conflict – unless that was, he declared and explained in clear language why a side had been taken – yet his broadcasts were proof that intelligence, rather than being intimidating, is liberating, and that the complexity of an idea is not a weakness, but a glorious, enticing strength.