A Colossal Wreck: A Road Trip Through Political Scandal, Corruption and American Culture

Like many “leftish” Brits who crossed the Atlantic to criticise imperial America from the belly of the beast, Cockburn soon discovered that America barely exists.

A Colossal Wreck: a Road Trip Through Political Scandal, Corruption and American Culture
Alexander Cockburn
Verso, 498pp, £20

The introduction to Alexander Cockburn’s posthumously published ramble across the American landscape contains a shot across the bows from his brother Andrew for anyone from this magazine who dares to review it. “Some fool back in the 1990s excoriated Alexander in the leftish English weekly the New Statesman for being ‘anti-American’ . . . It may have been the very stupidest of all the insults hurled over the years at Alexander.” If “anti-American” is the most stupid slur Cockburn attracted in more than 40 years of condemning the failures of US politicians, his life as a campaigning journalist must be deemed a failure.

It is true that “anti-American”, like “un- American”, is an abusive term often misapplied by sloppy thinkers, but Cockburn’s elegant ambiguity about his adopted home was designed to throw people off the scent. Like many “leftish” Brits who crossed the Atlantic to criticise imperial America from the belly of the beast, Cockburn soon discovered that America barely exists. It is not so much a nation as a mishmash of disparate cultures, spread thinly across a vast continent, and any attempt to reach (let alone hammer a stake through) its hard heart is a fool’s errand.

As with most of his family – a distinguished clan of sub-aristocratic radical writers – Cockburn’s shtick was to pose as an outsider. The son of Claud Cockburn, the communist editor and reporter who first identified the Cliveden set as a nest of appeasers in the run-up to the Second World War, Alexander was brought up in County Cork. He was despatched to the rugger-bugger public school Glenalmond in Perthshire and then he went to Keble College, Oxford, where he rubbed shoulders with fellow members of the complacent class he claimed to despise.

A not-so-distant relation who saw the Cockburn universe in reverse was Evelyn Waugh, a bourgeois curmudgeon with his envious nose pressed firmly against the pane of privilege. The author who played this ohso-English game of inverted snobbery most successfully was George Orwell. Old rivalries continued into the next generation, leaving Alexander to defend his father from Orwell’s ghost: “Unlike Orwell, he didn’t rush to squeal, secretly squeal, on his comrades to the British secret service . . . Orwell certainly was suspicious of Jews, blacks and homosexuals. My father was a communist agitator.”

By the time Alexander was ready to right the world’s wrongs, the world had moved on. The British empire was defunct and the battle between Labour and the Tories had become a consensual sham. He headed instead to the new capital of world imperialism: Washington, DC, which a distant relative had burned to the ground in the war of 1812. For the best part of 50 years, Cockburn kept that flame alive, writing elegant, idiosyncratic prose for everyone from Murdoch’s Village Voice to the house organ of capitalism, the Wall Street Journal. His writing was always eloquent, erudite and original.

Inevitably he found himself cast in a grudge match against the compulsive attentionseeker Christopher Hitchens, a fellow New Statesman alumnus whose lust for fame and ability to perform casuistic somersaults put him at a distinct advantage in the age of hate radio and cable TV scream-fests. His pent-up frustration at watching Hitch chain-smoke his way to drunken stardom reached its peak at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, when Cockburn’s louche nemesis abandoned the triangulating Bill Clinton and turned on a dear friend, the president’s sidekick Sidney Blumenthal.

“I’ve long thought that Christopher Hitchens has been asking himself for years how it would feel to plant the Judas kiss,” Cockburn wrote. “And now, as a Judas and a snitch, Hitchens has made the big time.”

Cockburn calls as evidence of Hitch’s ideological depravity his dislike for the German Red Army Faction, whose members, to show their disdain for capitalism, mounted grisly killing sprees against public officials and their blue-collar helpers. At a typical late-1970s dinner party in Washington, Americans lined up to watch the pair of literary Brits claw each other over long-forgotten slights. Hitch accused the murderous Germans, then on the run, of giving the left a bad name.

“If one of them came to my front door seeking shelter,” Hitch said, “I would call the police in an instant and turn him in.” Cockburn backed the killers: “Wouldn’t you just, I remember thinking at the time. I’ve often thought about that outburst since, and whether in fact Christopher was at some level already in the snitch business.”

For Cockburn as for Hitch, the internecine battles of the early Soviet revolutionaries were an inspiration against which everything was measured. Through what appears to be a ragbag of journalism, diary entries and blogs, behind all the critiques of America – particularly its interventionist foreign policy – Cockburn’s belief system remains intact. His first point of reference is often the Roman history that he learned at school: so the demands of the military-industrial complex on Bush and Gore in 2000 are compared to the Roman praetorian guard auctioning off the imperial throne in 193AD after the assassination of Emperor Pertinax.

It was this effortless cultivation of references that made Cockburn so loved in the US, where journalism is not the knockabout trade it is in Britain but more of a smug priesthood. American journalists can rarely write like an angel nor can they deliver a left hook; Cockburn could do both. If from an Englishman’s point of view there was too often a Pooterism in his writing, it did not, in this volume, prevent him being endlessly refreshing in his observations.

Timorous Americans, who even in brutal, mannerless New York recoil from no-holdsbarred argument, deemed Cockburn unduly “mordant” and “acerbic” – both adjectives that appeared in his New York Times obituary. In reality – and alas – he was a pussycat who barely laid a finger on the American empire that took him to its bosom.

Nicholas Wapshott’s “Keynes Hayek: the Clash that Defined Modern Economics” is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

Decline and fall: relics of an American empire. Image: Tema Stauffer.

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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