The moor has done his duty, the moor may go

: Natalie Solent has already posted below about the BBC’s characterisation of one of its old-time greats, the late Alistair Cooke, as having ‘particular dislike of the shallow flag-waving of the Reagan presidency’. Let me add my testimony.

For several years, from the very end of the seventies though the early eighties, my Sunday schedule let me hear Cooke’s ‘Letter from America’ week after week. Unlike the obituarist, so cocksure that Cooke thought and felt what left-thinking BBC people should, I enjoyed learning from what he actually thought.

The Cooke I heard in those years had insights of the kind that come to someone who prefers to take a genial approach to his subject, thinking first and judging after. If he was, as Natalie sensibly speculates, more naturally a Democrat than a Republican, he was never blind to the faults of the left. Often in those years, I recall him offering not the damning indictment of Reagan that the news online obit would have you think, but penetrating critiques of the kind that that both the American Left and the BBC elite desperately need. I have no book of Cooke’s broadcasts to hand but I don’t need it; thoughts of the quality he sometimes reached stay in the mind.

One ‘Letter from America’ described the U.S. reviews of a new edition of Vera Britain’s ‘Testament of Youth’, which all talked of it in feminist categories. Alistair contrasted them with the British reviews written when it was first published (which he quoted); they talked rather of the author’s attitude to the first world war. More gently and persuasively than this bald summary can suggest, he asked whether the modern reviewers’ fashionable attitudes gave them more insight than the contemporary reviewers or, on the contrary, less. He invited listeners to think about the way in which a reviewer’s mindset can get in the way of their hearing what a book is saying.

Another ‘Letter’ examined a supreme court ruling that laws limiting how one could display the U.S. flag were unconstitutional. In the U.S., such laws were common before the ruling; in Britain, we’ve never had them – you can use the Union Jack as an advertising logo if you want to. Cooke made me smile describing how some world war two British merchants, more eager to promote anglo-american relations (and their sales) than to uphold good taste, found american G.I.s were more often shocked than amused to find the stars and stripes displayed in some unusual product locations.

By the time, he reached the meat of this letter, the listener was in no doubt that Cooke saw no actual need for such laws (and as a fellow Briton, neither do I). Yet he was disturbed by the Supreme Court’s ruling. What does it mean that such laws can be voted by legislators and supported by constitution-proud Americans for 200 years, and yet can be declared already unconstitutional; not able to be made so by some future constitutional amendment but always so? Does it mean that the judges simply described their prejudices as the constitution? Perhaps more alarmingly, does it mean they see nothing alarming in the idea that the constitution is beyond the comprehension of U.S. voters and their elected representatives? What becomes of the constitution as ‘the act of a people constituting a government’ if the court thinks the people cannot understand their act? My bald summary does not do justice to Cooke’s gentler and subtler raising of his concern. Even so, it does not seem a concern that a ‘particular dislike’ of Reagan then or of Bush now would prompt. Now, as then, such radical reinterpretations seem rather the hallmark of those who do particularly dislike them.

As the eighties wore on, I was less and less able to listen to weekly letters from America; my loss. No doubt,Cooke said plenty about Reagan and the Bushes. But the recent letter that Natalie links to reminds me vividly of many I heard; a critique gently offered not to the right but to the left – a thought he thinks they need to ponder. It is a kind of left-leaning regard to be sure, a kind Orwell might have recognised, but far from the dismissive BBC obituarist’s description. And that is what makes such remarks so sad. To ignore hostile criticism is human nature, if human nature not at its best. But I can’t imagine a kinder, gentler, more sympathetic analysis of the failings of political correctness than that sometimes offered by Alistair Cooke, a BBC insider and very much of the breed that gave the BBC such reputation as it has. If his thoughts are beyond the current elite’s grasp, what hope is there for reform at the beeb?

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7 Responses to The moor has done his duty, the moor may go

  1. rob says:

    A clearer picture of the views of the BBC’s “expert” commentator during the Iraq war.
    Dan Plesch writes in today’s Guardian. He thinks he has come up with a cunning plan to remove the UK from the nuclear arms club.
    In addition to being a closet(?) CNDer he also seeks to distance the UK from the US, a nation he summarises as follows –

    “The moral majority that believes that gun control is tyranny, abortion the modern holocaust and gay marriage a threat to public order would not want to give America’s precious nuclear secrets to a nation that is comfortable without its own guns, with a woman’s right to choose and with human rights for gays.”,3604,1186508,00.html

    No suprise that he is a BBC approved talking head.


  2. Kerry says:

    Thanks, Niall. I never came away from hearing ‘Letter from America’ without a sense that here is a man who did not simply know history but continued to gain perspective from it. There was never a sense that he treated those with whom he differed unfairly, a liberal in the purest form. I agree with Natalie that Cooke reminded me of what the BBC once was.


  3. The Insider says:

    Talk about bitter and disrespectful.

    Here’s something hilarious for you:

    When I clicked to comment here, the advert at the bottom of this comment page ws a link to Alistair Cookes Letter from America (BBC Radio Collection).

    You people are truly pathetic.

    Click away at those ads, you bunch of nitwits – the BBC are coining it in.


  4. danS says:

    insider, I see that you are fluent in Gibbering Moronese. Unfortunately, I’m not. You generate more waffle than the waffle making machine in a waffle factory. Rumor has it that you are almost incomprehensible in person (as revealed by your desperate urge to babble nonsensically on comment sections.) No doubt, this rumor is true.

    A long period of non-posting would be most welcome on your part. To quote Thomas Brackett Reed: “They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge.”

    I’d get more pleasure from running my nostrils down a cactus, than reading another contribution from you. Maybe you wouldn’t be such a Jerk-In-The-Box if you weren’t so dumb that even blondes tell jokes about you. Who am I kidding? You would.

    Please try to have some small idea of what in the hell you’re talking about before you post again.


  5. The Insider says:

    DanS – was that an attempt at humour?

    It surely can’t have been, because you clearly are totally bereft of anything that resembles a sense of humour. (From what I understand, you’re funny to look at though).

    You’ve completely failed to see the irony of this turgid website using a comments system which has contextualised adverts that lead to BBC products at Amazon.

    Have a look right under the “comment” box any time you click to comment (right under the ‘OK’ button).

    When I clicked on this dull rant about Alistair Cooke, there was a link to his ‘Letter From America’ book.

    Here’s a link to the word irony and a link to the phrase mentally ill for you.

    Read and learn.


  6. Ted says:

    I only discovered AC & LFA during the war when I started listening to BBC late night on the local NPR station. I was quite shocked to find out how anti-american the coverage as a whole was, and LFA was a welcome interlude of sanity. Certainly AC wasn’t always in the pro-Bush camp, and he came to express some doubts in the “where are the WMDs?” phase of the aftermath. However, hearing him comment on the run-up and conduct of the war from the perspective of someone who had seen the run-up to WW2 and all the LofN, British, French and American flailings in that period_as an adult_ was a very valuable perspective.


  7. Anonymous says:

    Cooke would likely not be offered a job by today’s BBC. His journalism was too balanced for today’s BBC’s news panjandrums.