A Man of Letters

“Good evening, I’m Alistair Cooke, and this is ‘Masterpiece Theater.’ ”
It was a Sunday evening in the mid-1970s. In Britain there were miners’ strikes, blackouts, and weeks without garbage collection. Sterling had collapsed, or was about to. Punk rock was in its early adolescence. The nation was gripped by post-imperial depression, and obsessed with its own decline. But within the little square box that Alistair Cooke inhabited while he introduced the latest BBC costume drama — “Upstairs, Downstairs” or the “Forsyte Saga” or, later, the beloved “Brideshead Revisited” — Britain appeared unchanged since its Edwardian heyday. Cooke always sat on the same sort of high-backed armchair, and always wore the same sort of neat gray suit. He spoke slowly — what was the rush? — and kept his hands neatly folded in his lap. He was, in other words, just what we wanted an Englishman to be, and I have no doubt that he knew it.

It is rare for an individual to become, in one culture, the perfect archetype of another. Yet Cooke, who died yesterday at age 95, served a similar function on the other side of the Atlantic, too. He didn’t perhaps personify America in Britain, but he certainly translated American events into a language the British could understand. Beginning in 1946, Cooke wrote and read aloud on the BBC his weekly “Letter From America,” a form of radio broadcast that he invented. The “letter” was neither journalism nor reminiscence but rather a cross between the two. It is perhaps best described as a spoken version of the sort of essay that appears in a certain kind of British literary magazine: witty and erudite, filled with historical allusions and references to the writers’ grand friends, sometimes surprisingly interesting and informative — and sometimes, well, not.

Cooke’s version of America was not exactly inaccurate, but it was not a gritty, true-crime version of America either. Cooke preferred to speak of the quirky and the charming, and to dwell upon the more admirable enthusiasms of the natives. In February 1962 he described how New York police had reported a sudden drop in telephone calls on the day that the astronaut John Glenn first orbited the Earth: “Even crime stood still,” Cooke said. He himself watched the flight on a giant television screen in Grand Central Station — where people, he said, stood as silent as “an Easter crowd in St. Peter’s Square.” Only Cooke could write of Marilyn Monroe as “this orphan of the rootless City of the Angels,” and make her suicide sound almost picturesque. Only Cooke could speak of the first president Bush as a “heroic warrior king,” as he did in his final broadcast, last February.

In many ways, Cooke was a positive force, striving, as he did, to show the two countries the other’s best possible face. But I can’t help wondering whether Cooke, for all his geniality, ultimately did both countries a peculiar sort of disservice as well. Many of the stereotypes Americans still maintain about Europe in general and Britain in particular — the class warfare, the domination of aristocrats, the economic backwardness — derive from Cooke and his ilk, yet are remote from modern reality. Few London families still live an “Upstairs, Downstairs” life filled with servants, unless they’re imported Russian millionaires. Far from being technologically backward, European consumer goods — cell phones, say, or debit cards — are often more technologically advanced.

But by the same token, the wave of anti-Americanism that has coursed across Britain and Europe over the past decade may also derive, in part, from disillusion. Closer contact with America, thanks to satellite television, the Internet, cheap travel and the franchising of soap operas, has made a dent in the quirky, charming America of Alistair Cooke’s “Letters.” Brits living on a constant diet of “Dallas” reruns, the Drudge Report and Disney World are bound to feel that American culture has declined a good deal since the days when “crime stood still” while all Manhattan watched John Glenn circle the Earth.

Of course, America was never really as quaint and wholesome as it seemed in Alistair Cooke’s “Letters” — just as Britain was never quite as quaint and old-fashioned as it seemed during Alistair Cooke’s introductions to “Upstairs, Downstairs.” Knowing this to be the case, Cooke’s bosses at the BBC tried to get rid of him many times. Invariably, he’d get a whiff of what the new radio boss in London was scheming, put in a quiet call to the BBC chairman, charm the young producer who had been sent to New York to sack him — and preserve his radio slot for another decade. In the end, his external admirers always defeated his internal critics, which is perhaps not surprising either. In the end, all of us prefer a touch of illusion to the pedestrian and prosaic truth.

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