A modern Columbus

Published : May 26, 2001 00:00 IST


Alistair Cooke by Nick Clarke, Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1999, pages 548, 20.

ALISTAIR COOKE is a distinguished journalist, an effective and popular broadcaster, a successful producer of documentaries and television series, and a film and drama critic. He is in his nineties and is enjoying a well-earned retirement. Nick Clarke has given us a biography of Cooke, which makes pleasant reading and does justice to the subject.

When Cooke first came to the United States, he said that he wanted to be a modern Columbus. But he did not mean to explore only the physical aspects of the continent, though he did this also very well. That is why he used to describe the spring in New England - when there was a riot of colours - and also the wild south. Cooke, however, was more interested in people. He remained an observer with sympathetic imagination. He was, therefore, hailed as an ambassador without portfolio.

Alistair Cooke was born in Selford, Lancashire, on November 20, 1908. The family moved to Blackpool where Cooke began viewing silent films, which impressed him a lot. After schooling, he went to Cambridge on a scholarship. He had an instinctive love for literature and the language. But he was more interested in films and drama. He joined a drama group, played various parts and even had a group of his own. Cooke reviewed books, the theatre and films for the local newspapers. He was a contributor to Granta, and for some time he was also its joint editor. He played the piano very well and was a composer too. He could draw sketches and cartoons.

For a long time Cooke remained innocent of politics. When he, along with his drama group, went to Germany, the music critic of Granta, Grunbaum, was with him. In Munich Grunbaum told him about a new party in Germany which wanted to drive the Jews out of the country. Every Thursday, its leader Adolf Hitler, used to address a meeting of the faithful. Cooke and Grunbaum went to see a meeting where Hitler addressed a crowd of about 35 people. Describing the scene, Cooke wrote: "He (Hitler) spoke for about twenty minutes on a theme of corruption and rottenness of the old order in general and the Jews in particular. He kept warning his audience that it was five minutes to midnight. He never explained what would happen at twelve, he simply repeated the same phrase over and over again. He spoke gently at first, quiet and explanatory, then increasingly furious, and finally shouting at the top of his voice. He played with his audience. He had pathos, tenderness, decisiveness, frightfulness, I thought, wow, who is this guy?"

The same evening both he and Grunbaum had dinner at a hotel when they saw some people including children touching the glass separating them and peering expectantly through it at their plates. Cooke then came to know the secret of Hitler's rise. He later said that he realised that the Allies demanded too much from the defeated Germany and that the Jews exploited the people. This trait of looking at the other side of the question and situation remained an essential trait of Cooke's personality.

Upon winning his Tripos, Cooke wanted to be a teacher, but his teacher at the college was not very enthusiastic about Cooke joining the profession. In fact, Cooke was given a certificate that showed the teacher's reservations about him. This certificate, instead of helping him, might have actually done him harm. But Quiller Couch was always ready to help and Cooke got a job as a teacher. After a while Cooke applied for a scholarship to study in the U.S. for two years. He got the scholarship, but failed in his love.

At Yale he studied theatre. As he had a love for language, he also studied philology and American slang. Because of this, he came in contact with H.L. Mencken, who was not only a journalist of repute but also a linguist, whose monumental work on the subject was taken as the standard. Cooke and Mencken became close friends, and later, Cooke edited an anthology of Mencken's writings.

When Cooke first landed in New York, he had the shock of his life. He wrote: "In Times Square there was a curling queue of shabby men, lining up, in glimmer of a big electric ad for a Harold Lloyd picture. They were, however, not going to the movies. They were, like many others in the shambling line all the way from Harlem to the Battery, lining up for free bread and soup." Cooke found himself followed by people asking for a dime.

Cooke always had a wanderlust. So, on a vacation, he, along with a friend, went on a motor ride up to Mexico. He was impressed by what he saw on the way. In a casino in a small Mexican town, he saw a strikingly beautiful girl of twelve or thirteen dancing with her father. It was Rita Hayworth, who went on to become a great actress.

During that vacation, he thought of interviewing some Hollywood film personalities for The Observer, London. He was surprised to learn that Charles Chaplin was ready to meet him. The first meeting was a great success, and both became good friends. Cooke had the observant eye of an artist and the facility of the pen. About Chaplin he wrote: "You expect a small man to have small hand, but it was not until you doubted for a moment whether it was flesh you were holding or some ivory knickknack that you looked up at its chuckling owner and said to yourself, he certainly is a tiny man. His feet were in scale, peeking out like a mice from high held trousers. Above the trousers was a white Angora sweater, and above that, a tanned face, small ears set behind the cheek bones, gray eyes of dancing mobility, and above them, a monumental forehead and hair piled like a melting snowball."

Chaplin told Cooke that he had made a mistake in his film City Light. He said that he had succumbed to the temptation to play up the tragedy and to invest himself with profound feelings of despair, and Charlie characterised it as immoral. Chaplin talked to Cooke on many subjects. He said that President Roosevelt was half socialist and he liked the President. When Cooke told Chaplin about his failure in his first love, Chaplin told him he should not have regrets as he himself had the same experience. But after some years when he met that girl, he found her to be stupid and dull. Chaplin, in later years, asked Cooke to assist him in his project to make a film on Napoleon. This project was given up later.

While in the U.S., Cooke heard that a film critic of the BBC Radio had resigned, and applied for the job, which he got. Cooke then settled down in London reviewing films for the BBC, for which he had to see five films a week. He did a superb job of it. He also introduced American music in special programmes on the BBC. But Cooke's job was not a permanent one. Besides, he was keen to go back to America. So, after a couple of years in London, he went to New York and started freelancing for The Times, London and for the BBC. After a while he started writing a weekly letter in the Manchester Guardian. Both the assignments were made permanent, but they did not pay well. The quotes the biographer uses from Cooke's correspondence show that neither of the organisations was generous nor considerate, at least with regard to Cooke. He did some series on ABC radio. One was Omnibus, which at once became popular. It was music, talk, some interviews, all woven into an episode.

Later on Cooke started a weekly broadcast on BBC Radio under the title, "Letter from America". This continued for more than five decades, which was a unique achievement. He did not want to miss this even once as he took it as a religious duty. Even after the advent of television, Cooke's radio broadcasts had a large audience. His admirers included Prime Ministers, artists, writers and of course the ordinary people. Cooke made history and was called for a special programme on BBC television in which Mortimer interviewed him. He thus acquired a star status.

Before the World War Cooke urged the BBC to give more coverage to American life and politics, but the management did not approve of it. One of them wrote a memo that they, the British, had no need to know more about America, but that the Americans should know more about the British. All this changed with the U.S. joining the war. The BBC started having a large audience in the U.S. Cooke continued to speak not only on politics, but also about Americans and their life. He was in great demand - he delivered lectures and addressed meetings of soldiers.

After the War Cooke went on a world tour, during which he visited India. He met Jawaharlal Nehru. He was given 20 minutes to interview Nehru but both Nehru and Cooke took to each other and the meeting went on for more than three hours. Nehru asked him why he did not enter politics. Cooke said, he could not do so as he saw that there were at least two sides to any question, if not more.

This tendency to see two or more sides to any question put Cooke in some awkward situations. He was on the wrong side of the movements against racial segregation and the anti-Vietnam war. It might be that his love for order prevented him from correctly gauging the implications of these movements.

Cooke met Alger Hiss and was impressed by his brilliance. When Hiss was prosecuted for being a Soviet agent, Cooke was shocked. Cooke himself came under the scrutiny of the MaCarthy Committee, but nothing happened to him. However his phone was tapped for several months. So when Joseph MaCarthy came into disrepute, he heaved a sigh of relief, as did thousands of Americans.

Cooke, like most American journalists, received a jolt when their predictions about the outcome of the presidential election contest between Truman and Dewy were falsified. Truman won with a thumping majority. From then onwards, Cooke avoided any prediction about elections. He was to accompany John F. Kennedy on his visit to Dallas, but he did not. In a way this proved to his advantage as a journalist, as he could send detailed reports to London about the assassination of Kennedy, unlike those who accompanied the President and were far behind the scene of the tragedy.

It was quite different when Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Cooke was not expected to cover the primary at Los Angeles, as his colleagues were to cover the convention. But at the last moment he went to the hall and was ushered into a place very near the stage. Kennedy won the California primary and the audience was delirious. Kennedy was escorted from the platform and in 20 seconds he was to be with the people in the front row, but suddenly a shot was fired from the kitchen behind the platform and Robert Kennedy fell. Cooke was very near the dying Kennedy. This was a real shock to him. Two days after the tragedy Cooke narrated his experience in "Letter from America". He recalled the great movie versions of the correspondent's role, always at the heart of the action. Cooke said, "In life it is not like that: only by the wildest freak is a reporter, after many years on the hop, actually present at a single accidental convolution of history. Mostly we write the coroner's inquest, the account of the funerals, the trial of the spy, not the hatching of the plot. Last Tuesday night, for the first time in thirty years, I found myself by casual chance in a thousand, on hand in a small, narrow serving pantry of the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles, a place that I suppose will never be wiped out of my memory as a sinister alley, a Roman circus run amok and a charnel house."

Adlai Stevenson was a friend of Cooke and it seems Cooke was sorry when his friend lost in the primary. He was disturbed when he learned that Stevenson was in a way cheated by Kennedy at the time of the Bay of Pigs.

Cooke became economically free when he was asked to produce a documentary on America. He knew the people, the country and the history. He loved all these. The ultimate production was superb and was acclaimed all over America and England. The contract had to be revised because of the extraordinary success. The initial print run was sold out in a few days and the publishers had a hard time satisfying the rising demand. Cooke had success in another documentary - The Masterpiece Theatre. This presented a dramatic version of some of the classics in English. It was to go on for two years but went on for 22 years with Cooke as its producer and narrator.

Cooke, who came to America, became a U.S. citizen and wanted to know the U.S. people, ultimately confesses that he remained British. In an interview he enumerated the low and high sides of American life. He took exception to the excessive commercialisation, money mania, collapse of the public education, freakishness, pretensions of originality, enthusiasm masquerading as vitality, widespread persistence of a phony counterculture, greed and envy. Cooke was critical of the excessive depiction of sex in literature, films and so on. He criticised the U.S. foreign policy as imperial overstretch. Against this, Cooke saw that Americans have not lost their curiosity, and that they have a dogged belief that things could be made better. He also admitted that Americans make money, but they also use it for various good causes.

Past ninety, Cooke misses some of his friends who have passed away. The one who he meets often is also more than eighty. They 'touch wood in the morning and scotch in the evening.' Cheers!

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