In August 1983, New York experienced a heat wave of unusual ferocity. One evening, in his 15th floor apartment overlooking Central Park, the BBC’s correspondent, Alistair Cooke, sought to divert himself with a video. He was disappointed to find the screen displaying only bands of illegible colour, though the sound appeared unaffected. Thinking the tape must be faulty, he took down another from a library of about 100 videos he’d collected either as home recordings or gifts from the television companies. The fault was repeated a second, third, even a fourth time.
Next day, a BBC technician advised him that the tapes had shrunk in the intense heat. There was nothing to be done. Lamenting his loss of so many cherished recordings, Cooke reflected that a 100-year-old book, unaffected by the weather, would have been as accessible as the day it was printed.
Alistair Cooke died in 2004 at the age of 95. He had been broadcasting his weekly 15-minute talks for 58 years; his final broadcast was made only three weeks before his death. Many of the early recordings have been lost, but the BBC has painstakingly assembled an archive, plugging some of its own gaps with recordings made off-air by loyal listeners, much as Cooke himself had recorded his favourite television programmes in the early days of video. Many of his 2,869 ‘Letters from America’ are now available online, where it is to be hoped that they will safe from the obsolescence imposed by the progress of technology, as well as the vagaries of the weather.
It is a great gift to be able to listen to Cooke’s broadcasts again. They form an unparalleled historical record of the second half of the 20th century, not because they tell us things we would not otherwise know (although they do) but because of how they tell them. The story of Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1983 can be read in a growing number of books about a period that is indeed passing into history. But to listen to Cooke’s broadcast on from June 1983, purposely recorded 24 hours before the event, gives a unique sense of how it was felt at the time.
‘The American commentators dispatched to London confess themselves bewildered. They don’t understand how a country with the heaviest unemployment since the great depression, a people paying more taxes than they did four years ago, with industrial productivity down 10%, can somehow seem not to let these things count when it comes to picking the next Prime Minister.’
Alistair Cooke, ‘Letter from America’, 10 June 1983
But it is not even the immediacy of hearing the first rough draft of history that makes these broadcasts so compelling. It is their exceptional quality as literature that is important. As even this brief passage taken almost at random illustrates, Alistair Cooke was a great writer. He is a prose stylist as fine, in his own register, as P. G Wodehouse. His command of the English language is so skilful that it can pass unnoticed, as it should, since style and substance are one in great art.
He does not need or wish to show us what he can do. His writing, even when it is about him—which it is quite often—actually never is about himself. He becomes a sort of Everyman, a witness to events great and small on behalf of all those he addresses. He is always more interested in what is happening around him—and his interests were remarkably wide—than in himself. I have no doubt that he will come to be seen as one of history’s great eyewitnesses: a 20th century Samuel Pepys.
But unlike Pepys, we can hear him read his words. As a broadcast journalist, his art belongs to the 20th century whose technology created it. The warm, educated mid-Atlantic accent, the faultless delivery, the actor’s pauses and emphases, the underlying humility, the humour—all are central to his art. Again, the style and the substance are one. They have the integrity of art.
Commentaries that are wise after the event are ten a penny and do nothing but contribute to the self-esteem of the commentator. Some time ago I went through some yellowing files of two famous British weeklies, which, as prophets and recorders of events, were at the top of the heap in the anxious years of the 1930s. One was not what would be then called right wing; it was decently, prudently, thoughtfully conservative. The other was frankly left wing: bold, fearless, much like the American magazine The New Republic, every week sounding frightening and very impressive warnings about where Europe was headed. Look at their editorials and their predictions today and they were both, well, not dead wrong, only about 90% wrong. Life, hearing itself so noisily described and advised, simply tiptoed out of hearing and went its different way.
Alistair Cooke, ‘Letter from America’, 10 June 1983
In his wisdom and humanity, Cooke puts me in mind of the Roman Stoics, sometimes engaged in the history of their times but always reflecting on their experience and trying to find a path of truth and honour in an imperfect world. Perhaps, in some afterlife, Seneca, Cicero and Alistair Cooke observe the continuing follies of mankind, with Montaigne and Shakespeare, clear-eyed but never less than hopeful.
Numerous collections of Cooke’s ‘Letters from America’ have been published over the years and at least some of those volumes stand a fair chance of surviving whatever humanity and climate change can throw at them. But they will only ever be a shadow of Alistair Cooke’s art. Fortunately, the BBC and other institutions are starting to take seriously the need to preserve the archives of 20th century electronic media and to make them accessible to everyone.