In bed on Sunday mornings my wife and I play a little game. No, not that sort of game. This one is conducted just after the Radio 4 announcer has said: “And now, Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America.“
The object of the game is to utter, in a quavery drone, the trademark words “good morning” at exactly the time and speed Cooke croaks them out at the start of his weekly epistle. Puerile, maybe, but our little game is the only laugh ever to be had for the next quarter of an hour.
Cooke turns 90 this week. His commentaries, which feel every bit as ancient, have in fact been gracing the BBC airwaves since a mere 1938. It is an astonishing achievement – not only to have lived so long, but also to have pinned down for such an age what should be one of the most important jobs in British broadcasting. For this old boy, with his frail, patrician voice, has the task of depicting the warp and weft of life in the last superpower.
America’s influence is overwhelming. Thanks to a shared language and the cross-flow of films, trends of the urban US are immediately copied here. Increasingly, we talk, eat, dress and divorce like Americans.
It is on this basis that big business, politicians, advertising agencies and social scientists watch what is happening stateside. Why else do the major news organisations spend so much on their US bureaux? London’s intellectual elite is obsessed with all things Manhattan and LA. We ape the US as faithfully and feebly as impressionable schoolchildren copying a playground Mr Cool.
So who, on the nation’s flagship broadcasting outlet, do we have to tell us what is going on? Who do we have to pronounce on the latest developments, the hot, naked controversies of the day? A nonagenarian, credulous, golf-club bore.
In criticising Alistair Cooke one takes a risk, for he is widely held in awe. Alfred (to give him his full name) Alistair Cooke occupies a narrow shelf of public life alongside the likes of the Queen Mother, the Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam and the racehorse Desert Orchid. He is one of the untouchables. “Everyone” loves Alistair.
Feminists discovered this when Cookie made a gaffe over a sexual harassment case involving US soldiers. “The men showed remarkable restraint,” was his surprising verdict. The sisterhood shrieked for Cooke to be sacked, but without success.
One reason he is so popular, on both sides of the Atlantic, is that he is so mild. He conveys an image of America that does not frighten us. His US is a land of Anglophile, generally white, Christian cousins, a place where men still wear hats and where social harmony prevails.
His delivery, honeyed and slow, would be better suited to a Letter from the Algarve after Lunch. You can imagine him sitting in a leather-buttoned club chair, dressed in seersucker under a ceiling fan, as he reads out a script prepared on a battered typewriter. He is the thinking listener’s Cyril Fletcher. But this is meant to be letter from America, for goodness sake. Where is the stress? The hunger? The rawness?
Cooke’s correspondence may be charming, but it fails in the first duty of any letter-writer – to report the latest. Last week, when he might have been describing America’s readiness to thump Saddam Hussein, he meandered through the significance or otherwise of the previous week’s mid-term elections, weaving into his account the reactions of a most intriguing “black man” he had encountered in Chicago. That token black, speaking for millions, had declared his utter indifference to the elections. Yet still Cooke did not get the message. As he bored on about the nuances of the mid-terms, you wanted to seize the radio and shout: “Shut up, you old fool. They don’t mean a thing.”
It was the same when he described Bill Gates’ appearance before a senate committee on monopolies. Cooke’s tone towards Gates was condescending – to think that this funny young fellow should be up before the wise elders of American public life! But he had the balance wrong. The geek from Microsoft that day knew full well who was really running the world, and it was not the grey heads opposite him.
Rap music, youth culture, anti-crime initiatives, fashion, food – such topics are hardly ever examined by Cooke. Instead, he gives us detailed analysis of Washington insiders’ politicking. A quip from H L Mencken seems seldom far from his dry lips, with perhaps some wry allusion to the Roosevelts or the prohibition years. Another speciality is the Alger Hiss trial, and he is good on early Hollywood (having been a film critic in the 1930s, he can remember many of the first talkies from first time round).
That, the America of fat-fendered Chevrolets, of men in suits and respectful attitudes, is the land Alistair Cooke still inhabits. Oh, say his defenders, what a welcome change it makes from the violent America portrayed elsewhere by correspondents who appear biased against America. But there is a reason for that. Cooke’s America, Waspy, Ivy League, mindful of its manners, has all but melted.
Modern America may have its islands of genteel behaviour, but more often it is a country of ethnic point-scoring, widening wealth gaps, corporate greed and powerless politicians. In the major coastal cities, there is a smug swagger reminiscent of any empire before its nemesis. Anti- Englishness is rampant, Europe is regarded as a joke, and so are old-world civilities.
The social prudery, litigiousness, selfishness and paranoias of the citizens of late-1990s America are so striking and frightening that anyone landing for the first time at JFK airport might feel tempted to sue Cooke for false representation of goods. He has had a good run, but with 90 up it is time Alistair Cooke was eased out. Instead of “good morning”, it should be “goodbye”.