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Monday, 18 February 2013

ALISTAIR COOKE.

Good evening.
   For years, I’d tune to BBC Radio 4 on a Friday night and listen to Alistair Cooke utter those two words. If I missed a broadcast, there was always the slightly jarring good morning of the Sunday repeat.
   Cooke more or less invented the job of telling worldwide listeners what was going on in America. He may have stolen the idea from H.L. Mencken. Only David Niven seemed more English than Cooke. I hesitate to add other names to that shortlist – readers would just end up Googling the hell out of every paragraph.
   Blogging? Didn’t exist in Cooke’s day. Podcasting? Narrowcasting? Internet? Ah. Broadcasting. Now you’re talking. Cooke gave steam-radio talks and called them letters. With each broadcast running just shy of fifteen minutes, he’d explain aspects of American life on a weekly basis.
   When he wasn’t talking about golf.
   Those familiar with Cooke’s radio broadcasts would see that I paid nodding tribute to him with my obituary of Missy Biozarre. In Cooke’s case, he was talking about the death of Edward Kennedy Ellington – that rare commodity, an American Duke.
   Cooke paraphrased the novelist John O’Hara, and I capered along the same well-worn path.
   When it came time to start blogging, I thought of Alistair Cooke. In particular, I thought of his repetitive manner down the years. He was bound to repeat himself – and did in a way his listeners forgave him for.
   After all, every decade or so he would find himself having to explain the finer points of American politics to new generations and half-generations of listeners. He decoded the Electoral College. Someone had to.
   I decided to repeat myself deliberately. Maybe Cooke did, too. My advice to writers won’t change much with time. Read. Write. Have a think. Write some more. Experience things beyond writing and apply them to writing.
   Never give up.
   Tedious, I know. And saying tedious, I know is tedious…
   I know.
   Good pause night. The clock swung around to 9.00 o’clock and Alistair faded from the airwaves for another week. He was a fixture whose illusory permanency ended only with that fatal move – retirement.
   I used Cooke’s weekly broadcast as a writing exercise, summarising his latest theme as best I could. Over fifteen minutes I’d dash down around 600 words retelling his tale. From this ritual’s archival footprint I know that I stopped the exercise by Friday the 8th of September, 2000.

Decided it’s time to let Alistair Cooke go. I’ll keep listening in until he really is gone, but, as the weeks go by and the probability increases, it seems morbid to copy out the gist of what he says in his letters from America. Good night.

   Who the hell was I writing for when I wrote that down? Well, who the hell am I writing for now? I always write for myself. If I don’t like writing, who will care for reading? Everything you do as a writer leads to everything you do as a writer.
   Why terminate the outlining of Cooke’s broadcasts? His voice was going. Slowing. Gaining in breathy tones. Showing that tremulous weakness of great age. Cooke was born in 1908, and had what was known as a good run. I wanted to listen to what he had to say, rather than type my impression of it. So I gave the man more of my attention.
   By 2004, he missed a few transmissions. A fall forced him to skip a recording. He was grateful to his loyal listeners for the barrage of letters he received. People the world over wished him well. The show went on without him – repeats were easy to come by. There was no question of asking anyone to fill in for him during a break. David Niven was long-gone.
   I’d suspected (for three-and-a-half years) that Cooke wouldn’t continue the show much longer. Speaking sounded burdensome to him – except when he laughed.
   Flashback.
   Now 8.45 is coming around again, in the week when Cooke announces his retirement. He’s spoken on this before. Never retire – you drop dead as soon as you do. I figured he’d drop dead in the job, going out mid-week, but no. He doesn’t end with good night. Cooke says thank you for your loyalty, and goodbye. Loyalty, for some listeners, that lasted 58 years.
   We had him on air for a few weeks after he said goodbye. Vintage selection of broadcasts. Quite sad. But not that sad. He had more than a good run – the longest talk-based show on radio. Goodbye, Alistair Cooke.
   By Tuesday the 30th of March, 2004, Cooke’s belief that you should never retire – it leads almost immediately to demise – was proved with the announcement of his death. He was 95.
   “If you retire, you keel over.”
   The BBC repeats generated artificial acceleration of frailty in his voice toward the end. Those repeats were from various decades, aiming to display certain themes, and revealed a strong voice quite a long way in. His regular show still had that intellectual strength to it, but he was obviously struggling uphill at times near the finish. Cooke recorded 2,869 shows, and had very little time off.

   Argue all you like over whether he was prim. Was Alistair Cooke a proper journalist? Very. He certainly disliked the notion of a journalist’s becoming the story, and downplayed his part in observing the events surrounding Senator Robert Kennedy’s shooting in the Ambassador Hotel. Journalists tend to cover the trial, rather than the commission of the crime. For once, Cooke was in the right wrong place at the historic moment.
   I really liked Letter from America – even if the narrator did spend too much time discussing golf. To my mind, any amount of time spent discussing golf is too much time. Better that, though, than no Cooke at all.
   The pale watered-down excuses for journalists who parade around now…just don’t compare. Comparison is difficult. Cooke’s origins were not of the Digital Age, though he lived long enough to puzzle his way through it.
   There must have been something extraordinary about a man who was supposed to stay on air for a mere thirteen weeks, and who ended up doing the job for over half a century.
   Cooke became the story again with the tale of the theft of his bones in a scandal that he’d have labelled scandal from the off. In fairness, he didn’t have much say over the journalist’s becoming the story by that point.
   Journalism would be a step down for me – I’d have to start dealing in fact.
   For a writer of fiction, that sort of factual nonsense will never do. My authorly advice is not to approach the factual. You may catch a disease. Journalitis. Possibly Journalismus. If you must turn to journalism, never become the story.
   My thoughts on publishing are not always thoughts on publishing fiction. For those writers considering journalism, research the name Stephen Glass. Watch the movie Shattered Glass. Stephen thought it good form to invent stories.
   There’s nothing wrong in that. Unless you attempt to pass fictional adventures as news. In the pages of a newspaper. While you draw pay as a journalist. Stephen Glass became the story. Ouch.
   The theft of Cooke’s bones for sale as transplant grafts knocked a few years off his age and transformed his cause of death. I marvel at that. A man so famous in his field suddenly has two widely-differing ages upon death.
   That’s a phenomenon Cooke would cheerfully have ascribed to most actresses. I can hear his chuckle as he says the words I’ve placed in his mouth. There was a hint of Scheherazade to Cooke, as he broke off each weekly tale of Americana. He’d always return to explain Federalism to us, or the First Amendment.
   Presidents were favoured items considered worthy of explanation, or, upon death, of reappraisal. I found his political talks interesting. His golf chatter left me cold.
   Cooke’s radio show was a blog before blogs existed. Somewhere in his mind he may have thought of his show as a Letter from an American – for he took on American citizenship with the zeal of the convert. A convert who did his best to retain that accent. I am afraid I must use a cliché.
   That urbane accent.
   I did my best to make it through a post about Alistair Cooke without describing the man as urbane. Cosmic Law insists upon the label. Ah, I was so close to the tape.
   Cooke was an English-sounding speaker of English throughout his life, though accepted the rubber-stamp of Yankeedom after what would prove to be just about the first third of his time on the planet. I say Yankeedom, for he could never be labelled a Southerner.
   With that accent, it’s still hard to label him American. Can you imagine David Niven as an American? (I find it difficult to imagine David Niven as a Scotsman. Is the Encyclopaedia Britannica still peddling that lie?)
   Why talk about Alistair Cooke? Karen Woodward told me to blog. Alistair Cooke showed me how.
   Good night.

NEXT BLOG: THOUGHTS ON PUBLISHING.

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