Alistair Cooke, who died in March aged 95, was a special figure on both sides of the Atlantic. He was uniquely familiar as a broadcaster and journalist to readers and listeners in the US and the UK. It was only a month before his death, at his home in New York City, that Cooke completed the last edition of his long-running BBC radio show Letter from America. In the States, he became known as the face that introduced the PBS series, Masterpiece Theatre.
Born in 1908 in Salford, a city of Greater Manchester in the North West of England, Cooke achieved, in a long and rich career, the extraordinary feat of addressing both Houses of Congress. He began his reporting career as a BBC film critic in 1933, but four years later left for the US. An American citizen since 1941, he attained an honorary knighthood in later life, a title reserved for non-British subjects.
I took a lifelong interest in Cooke’s activities and there were a number of good reasons for this. As he came from the same part of the world as me I was born in Manchester, too and was also a journalist, the same working route I pursued for around 15 years, there was clearly some common ground, even though we were several generations apart. He was, in addition, a fellow pupil of my maternal grandfather, John Brough, at the infants school they both attended. My ancestor, a Mancunian newsagent, died long ago in 1960 when I was only four, so Cooke’s longevity has always been a source of fascination to me. And what longevity: an internationally revered media figure, continuing to feature on the airwaves while a nonagenarian.
But the fact that he was an Englishman who had forged a place at the court of Uncle Sam made him all the more intriguing to me. Few Brits have managed to seize the imagination of that vast land called America. Churchill, Lennon, McCartney and Thatcher come to mind, but none became quite so immersed, and for so long, in the country that embraced him and his somewhat patrician, yet still amenable, manner. The gloss of America for the British has dimmed in recent times, not because that country has changed so dramatically but circumstances have changed significantly. Until the 1970s, Britons were fed images of the States through Broadway and Hollywood, and the nation they reflected seemed full of thrilling, dangerous, and delicious distractions.
From cowboys to gangsters, ranches to skyscrapers, deserts to snow-capped sierras, drive-in movies to soda fountains, our impressions of America were fed by the dream-makers. Bigger, brighter, bolder; this larger-than-life edition of the States made existence on this side of the Atlantic seem monochrome and mediocre. If we saw our own land through sepia-tinted glasses, America piped its visions to us in dazzling Technicolor. For a start, the staid, state-run radio stations of the UK barely acknowledged the great eruption of new American music, and British television was hardly out of the starting gate. Instead, Elvis Presley and Bill Haley and Little Richard came to these shores via the cinema. Rock Around the Clock, The Girl Can’t Help It, Jailhouse Rock . . . this is how those exotic sounds penetrated the consciousness of the initial wave of baby-boomers.
Why did things change? Why did the glamour of America dim? I suppose the Beatles were the first to burst the bubble of US pre-eminence, then Carnaby Street flogged the feasible myth that actually Swinging London, not New York or LA, was the epicentre of the teenage revolution. But it was the onset of affordable flights in the mid-70s, the brainchild of Freddie Laker, that permitted Brits to make the transatlantic trek themselves, which really altered our take on the US. We could, at last, make a first-hand judgement.
In 1978 I joined that skyway to the American fantasy, flying in to JFK late one May afternoon. I’d left university the previous summer, then spent a back-breaking year as a building site labourer, surviving the sub-zero mornings of an English winter up to my ankles in the slurry of the new school’s foundations. But I saved enough to make that trip of a lifetime, and that was all that truly counted. Manhattan reared huge through the spring sunshine that day, but it wasn’t long before the bus trip onto the island had turned into my wildest adventure so far. Befriended by a charming Colombian stranger, I was led on an all-night odyssey from the Village to the Lower East Side, eating chilli and drinking beer, playing darts and being passed some rare and powerful weed, and finally ending my debut evening in bed with my Latin lothario.
It took all my guts and what remained of my senses to explain that I’d assumed I was sleeping the night at his apartment not sharing my body with him. Herman he was called Herman looked sheepish as I hid my blushing nakedness and threw on my clothes. He grimaced at me just briefly but didn’t draw a gun. I disappeared briskly down the stairs, the naif whisked away in a dawn taxi.
I woke the following morning on the cream tile floor of Port Authority, no doubt skirted by early and censorious commuters wondering who the long-haired bum in the scuffed-up denims lying face down in the cigarette ends and footprints of the midtown bus station was. If my opening gambit in the Big Apple hadn’t been quite Neal Cassidy, it at least had a hint of Hunter S. Thompson, and the American roller coaster had begun on a most curious, not to say slightly unnerving, note.
More was to follow over the next three months but I hadn’t just gone to the States for a vacation. I’d managed to win a commission from my weekly newspaper, the Wilmslow Advertiser, to pen a column on my US trek. On Greyhound buses and in saloons, in cheap motels and bus shelters, on park benches and in Chinese restaurants, I sat and crouched to scribe my picaresque word pictures on airmail paper. The notes were posted and I moved on to the next destination.
When I returned to the UK, three months later, I could not believe my luck. My own Letter from America had winged its way to the pages of my hometown weekly, some 10 selections sketched on the run in Chicago and in Boulder, in San Diego and in New Orleans, there on rough newsprint in wonderful black and white: my first by-lines, enough to make you whoop and weep at the very same time. They’d even paid me £5 ($8) a piece for my trouble! In a very small and understated way, my hero Alistair Cooke had inspired this little achievement.
My last encounter with my inspiration was in late 2002. I’d been commissioned to write a chapter for a book on Woodstock. My contribution would examine how the festival was reported back in 1969. I could hardly believe my eyes when I visited the London library of The Guardian, the newspaper for which Cooke served as an American correspondent, and one that I would work for as a reviewer in the early 1990s. I discovered that he had written the comment piece on the rock festival. I dropped him a line, asking him if he had any further thoughts to add to his remarks of the time. His secretary wrote back to me, apologising. Cooke was not in marvellous health and was having to decline such invitations to contribute. It was a touching piece of correspondence, like the closing moments of a very distant friendship.
He lived another 18 months and was media-active until almost the very end. It was moving, indeed, to know that his time had finally come. His long shadow had touched me in various and surprising ways, and I thought that even if I only attained five percent of Alistair Cooke’s remarkable legacy over my own life-time, I might, in a small fashion emulate some of his successes. Maybe without him, I’d not have felt the lure of America so strongly and, for that, I owe him, from afar, a warm and valedictory “thank you”.
Note: Remembering Woodstock, edited by Andy Bennett, and featuring contributions from Country Joe McDonald, Allan F. Moore, Dave Laing, John Street, Simon Warner and others is published by Ashgate during May 2004