Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Letter from America


That was a radio programme I grew up with, a weekly fifteen minute broadcast by British born, naturalised American Alastair Cooke, on BBC Radio 4. It began in 1946 (it's roots were even earlier, in the 1930s) and the last one was broadcast in 2004, just a month before Cooke's death at the age of 95, and was the longest running speech radio programme in history. I remember sitting up as a kid on Friday nights, often not really understanding the subject matter, or even really listening for information anyway, but just wondering at and wallowing in Cooke's rich, mellifluous voice, and the crafting of his language, his beautiful, embedded sentences, a perfect balance of discursive and precise.

In the wake of the US election, this week in the Book of the Week slot in the mornings, Radio 4 has commissioned a series of new Letters from America from individual US based writers, today's was by Thomas Chatterton Williams.  He began with this quote from H.L.Mencken, which I imagine is getting quite a bit of airing at the moment:

As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

and which caught my attention, but the whole was far more than a petulant or despairing rant against the American electorate and their elected, it was impressive, eloquent, brave and honest, and as beautifully crafted and delivered as anything Cooke did. At fifteen minutes, well worth following the link. The others will doubtless but of high quality too ( can be found from the same R4 page); I've not listened to the Zoe Heller one which they kicked off with, but will do.

There is talk they may revive the regular Letter from America in this format, which would be good. All Cooke's original letters are archived and still available to listen to here.

4 comments:

Catalyst said...

Where is Mencken when we need him most? Actually, that's a rhetorical question.

Roderick Robinson said...

Mencken, Baltimore's favourite son, was a fattened beer-drinking journalist who wore galluses outside his shirt because no belt would ever have secured his trousers. He favoured Germany as WW2 approached. I have his monster book The American Language, a collection of his journalism and his Treatise on the Gods, which faint-hearted religious people should avoid. While I was in the USA I read more or less everything he wrote and I suspect there was a period when I was unconsciously trying to become his clone before I opted for a mort of longevity instead.

His quotes are legion. Here's his mock epitaph:

If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.

Cooke admired him (as I admired Cooke) and interviewed him

I fear Mencken made me laugh at all sorts of things I shouldn't have thought funny. I will no doubt pay for this. He, on the other hand, was granted the strangest of laurels. He covered the Scopes "monkey trial" which formed the basis of the movie Inherit The Wind. The actor playing Mencken was Gene Kelly who danced so persuasively through An American in Paris. And Hollywood is thought not to understand irony!

Lucy said...

Thanks both, Mencken was unfamiliar to me, though when I read some of the quotes I realised I'd heard them without knowing who said them. I think I'll enjoy finding out more. Also, that I must delve into those Cooke recordings. One thing I remember was when we were in America in my teens, my brother and I discovered the British channel on the telly, with things like Lord Peter Whimsy episodes, which were punctuated by Alastair giving commentary, explanations etc about British ways to the anglophile American audience, which amused us rather.

polish chick said...

a good quote, and a sad one, too. as is the notion of living in a post-truth world.