Ward's Book of Days.

Pages of interesting anniversaries.

What happened on this day in history.


On this day in history in 1908, was born Alistair Cooke.

Alfred, from 1930 Alistair, Cooke was a journalist and commentator, best known for his insightful interpretation of American life in the series, Letter From America.  

Cooke was born in Salford. The family moved to Blackpool, Cooke later said for the sake of his health as he suffered from asthma. He attended Blackpool Grammar School and progressed to Jesus College, Cambridge where he took a First in English and then successively to Yale and Harvard Universities.  

Cooke began his professional career as a journalist working for one newspaper after another until he obtained a job at the BBC as a film critic. One of his sidelines at the BBC was a brief series of fifteen-minute broadcasts entitled London Letters, in which American listeners were informed of the vagaries and eccentricities of British Life. The series was cut short when Cooke was assigned to the New York office but Cooke facetiously suggested that he could fill in any vacant time by presenting the original series in reverse. The managers took up his suggestion and thus Letter From America was created.  

Letter From America was a weekly fifteen-minute account of The United States, its culture, its politics, its eccentricities, virtues and follies. The series lasted for half a century, continued without a break and only ceased when Cooke was so grievously ill that he could no longer continue. Cooke interpreted America for the British audience. He talked about politics and the battles between the parties and explained what each party stood for and the difference that existed within the parties. He explained the American Constitution and the Federal system and how it effects what he called ‘the ordinary guy’. He gave accounts of trials of notorious criminals: every trial he reported was ‘the trial of the century’. He was present at the assassination of Robert Kennedy and gave a first hand account of the event. Cooke talked about the American obsession with money, the disparity between rich and poor and the meaning of ‘The American Dream’.  He spoke about racial maters and how the law became involved and the pettiness of discrimination and the violence that could erupt. Cooke did not forget to talk about the very British obsession, the weather, but he told of hurricanes, tornados and whirlwinds.  

Cooke took the time to cogitate of the differences between British and American traditions. He wondered why the British burnt coal in grates and went to the trouble of bringing coal into the house and lighting fires. All he had to do was to go to a dial and turn up the central heating.  One particular anecdote is typical of the Cooke style. He recounted that once when he was on his way to the theatre, he made a small detour to his office to fetch a particular document. In the office, painters were busy decorating, scurrying around working through the night.  When he arrived at the office the next morning, he found the office freshly painted. Why, he said, could that not be done in Britain?  

Cooke retired, aged ninety-five, reluctant to leave the programme that he had recorded for fifty-eight years, although he did not let on to his audience that he was gravely ill. He died three months later. A rumour abounds that some of Cooke’s bones were stolen from the funeral parlour where his body was resting, and sold on for implants.

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