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Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America

Rosie Lavan

Letter from America
Alistair Cooke
BBC Online Archive
Launched 1 November






For anyone who grew up with BBC Radio 4, Alistair Cooke’s voice is as familiar as the pips, the shipping forecast, and ‘Sailing By’. With Cooke, hyperbole is warranted: he was both a veteran and an institution. He presented ‘Letter from America’, his 15-minute missive, every week for 58 years. There were 2,869 letters recorded between 1946 and 2004, he missed only three weeks, and he recorded the final letter only a month before his death. ‘Letter from America’ is older than Radio 4 itself: it started on the Home Service and was carried over when the new station was created in 1967.

At the beginning of November, the BBC took the remarkable step of making 920 programmes available in an online archive. As well as the recordings, the Letter from America site provides transcripts of the programmes and contextual information, and groups the letters both chronologically and thematically. A number of recordings are missing, but following an appeal via the Radio 4 Sunday morning programme Broadcasting House it seems copies may have been traced and before long the BBC may be able to fill some of the gaps.

In his original pitch Cooke promised “a weekly personal letter to a Briton by a fireside about American life and people and places in the American news”. What he produced over the next six decades is a national biography. His letters adapt for the airwaves the New York Times motto, “All the news that’s fit to print”. Of course, the definitive events which shaped the American century are recorded: the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 and his brother Robert in 1968, Vietnam, Watergate, and 9/11 are all there, and Cooke took in history, culture, and sport alongside politics and current affairs. But he also took in the individuals he encountered. In the 1995 letter which marked 50 years since the death of Franklin Roosevelt, the details that stand out are his descriptions of the wealthy Republicans who threatened to emigrate to New Zealand in the event of another Roosevelt term, and the New Yorkers he tried to interview outside the Rockefeller Center who refused to believe that FDR was dead.

Like any biography, though, it is inevitably selective and biased. Born in Salford in 1908, Cooke studied at Cambridge, Yale, and Harvard, and took American citizenship in 1941. With the passport came the hint of a Boston Brahmin accent and a certain set of attitudes which Alvin Hall has perceptively identified and challenged. Hall presented Radio 4’s ‘In Alistair Cooke’s Footsteps’ to coincide with the launch of the archive, and in an accompanying blog post he expressed a critical admiration for the broadcaster. Hall picks out 12 letters for special notice, including the one in which Cooke reflected on the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965. The riots were part of much larger protests about the segregation and discrimination suffered by African-Americans. Cooke reads the violence as little more than an avaricious outburst from “young, idle, and corrupt negroes” who wanted a television set more than they wanted a vote. It is an appallingly reductive racist analysis which, in Hall’s words, is “an example of how Cooke’s privileged, white ‘Fifth Avenue’ American lifestyle blinded him to the reality of the daily lives of black people across the US at the time.” The BBC is offering not just an archive of Cooke’s observations, then, but of the contexts which informed and shaped them.

The letters mark time in other ways, too. The launch of the archive came in the midst of what has been an unremittingly tough autumn of devastating revelations for the BBC. Like Damon Albarn’s specially commissioned piece 2LO, which was aired on 14 November to mark the 90th anniversary of BBC radio broadcasting but inevitably overshadowed by events, the archive is testament to the BBC’s achievement and significance, but these efforts to celebrate its past are faltering in its unhappy present.

Rosie Lavan is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.