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Letter from 2023 – what on earth would Alistair Cooke make of all this nonsense?


‘GOOD evening, or if you are listening to the Sunday morning repeat, good morning.’

This introductory courtesy, spoken in the most mellifluous voice ever to grace the airwaves, commenced the BBC’s 15-minute broadcast Letter from America by Alistair Cooke. It has been best described as a wonderfully casual ‘hands in pocket’ style of informal yet incisive radio talk about practically anything and everything. Politics, society observations and life in general, it lasted week in, week out, for 58 years, from 1946 to 2004.

Salford-born Cooke broadcast almost to the end, dying at the age of 95 just weeks after the launch of Facebook, and a year or two before You Tube and Twitter were unleashed upon us. What would he, a man so interested in news, have made of today’s social media? Would he have had held a Facebook or Twitter account?

He always wanted the ‘Letter’ to be an accessible snapshot of life in the US as he saw it. He intended it to be a way of explaining to the British audience some of the complexities and perplexities of American life, in the hope of bringing about a better mutual understanding. All this played out against the post-war period which witnessed the transfer of real power to the US, while in a declining Britain we continued to delude ourselves we were still a world player.

Perhaps Cooke’s broadcasts took shape better in British minds than the weightier and drier official BBC Washington correspondents’ views, such as that of Charles Wheeler, whose attitude towards Cooke was rumoured to be a little condescending and fractious. (Wheeler being of course the father of the second of the three wives, so far, of Boris Johnson.)

So it seems to me ironic that nowadays one cannot turn on the BBC without hearing an American accent, nearly always female and under 35, pronouncing on the latest issue, topic or crucially important trend in the seemingly other world these people inhabit. This is especially so on the execrable Woman’s Hour, which in the stewardship of Dame Jenni Murray had men comprising up to third of its audience.

Not all that long ago, American voices on our airwaves were a rarity. We had the occasional well-known entertainer, but on the whole we had homegrown people to turn to for insights and commentary. Yet today the media, in particular the BBC, seems to me to be in thrall to these seemingly resident American ‘experts’.

Why are they all here, I wonder? Can’t be the weather. Are they all escapees from oppressive Trumpian right-wing America, needing to find a safe haven in an English-speaking world where their talents become apparent?

 And is it true that they all live in Islington?

I imagine a cursory glance would reveal that many, if not all, are indeed based in a London postcode where they never have to meet anyone they disagree with, progressive and liberal in outlook, and are more than reasonably comfortable.

It could be simply coincidence that they are selected by our national broadcaster to proclaim – often unchallenged by a sympathetic interviewer – the ‘benefits’ of progressive movements: third wave feminism, climate change, critical race theory, toxic masculinity, gender fluidity and the rest, in a brash manner that says ‘Hey! I’m an American – we are the experts, so listen up!’

It is certainly true they invented nearly all of this hokum, so maybe they are the experts, and maybe I am doing the BBC a disservice in questioning their selection. However, it would be interesting to learn if any British voices (or in fairness French, Swedish, Italian or Greek) are similarly used as the ‘go-to’ fount of all knowledge on the big US broadcasters (other than discussing the Duke and Duchess of Sussex). I doubt it.

So what would Cooke make of it all? 

Perhaps he would shrug, thinking it not worth getting excited about. Or, like the infant in his most famous Letter, ‘A Baby Is Missing’, from 1950 he would simply look at the state of this once-respected institution, and laugh his head off.

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Mike Dowd
Mike Dowd
Mike Dowd is a 57-year-old chartered landscape architect living on the outskirts of Manchester. He has a keen interest in military history and music, and is politically homeless.

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