Magazine article The Spectator

Radio Living Document

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio Living Document

Article excerpt

It takes Alistair Cooke three minutes, or about 450 words, before he finally gets round to declaring 'I was there' - on the night that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June 1968. Cooke was talking just a few days later on his weekly Letter from America slot on Radio 4. You might think Cooke would not have been able to contain his excitement that after 30 years on the job as a foreign correspondent he had at last actually been there as an eye-witness to this dramatic 'accidental convulsion of history'. But, no, Cooke, as the ultimate professional, understood that for us, his listeners, the impact of his account would be enhanced 300 per cent if he gave us a preamble, a slow build. So he begins that extraordinary letter by explaining how it's too often assumed that foreign correspondents are always there on the spot when bad things happen. Life's not like that, says Cooke, and it was only by 'one casual chance in a thousand' that he found himself not just inside the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, which was jam-packed full of Democrat supporters, but also standing in the small serving pantry that Kennedy was just about to walk through when he was shot.

Cooke began delivering his talks from America on 24 March 1946, and never stopped until ill-health forced him to give up, aged 95 (he died three weeks later).

Now, as part of BBC Radio's 90th birthday celebrations, we can Listen Again to many of these letters. Not just that. In an unusual collaboration with Boston University, which owns Cooke's papers, we can also look at his original typescripts online, with all their crossings-out and crucial editorial changes.

It's like a living document of American history: Dallas, Alabama, Vietnam, Watergate, O.J. Simpson, Clinton, Columbine and 9/11. Each week, Cooke took just 13 minutes to explain 'the springs of American life' to the rest of the world, moving from the particular - 'the bullet eyes of Ethel Kennedy turned to cinders' - to the broader significance of Kennedy's death: it was squalid, it was appalling, but 'I don't subscribe to the sophistry of collective guilt'.

I can't say I ever really appreciated Cooke when he was on air, having grown up with his programme as a weekly ritual that sounded to me rather pompous and overblown. It was only when he died, and the Letter was no more, that I began to miss his insights into what was going on in the USofA. Cooke, as a Brit who took American citizenship, understood that it is a foreign country, and he looked upon his job as if he was explaining the antics of a strange tribe to the world outside. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.