Letter from a Chinese restaurant

If Alistair Cooke were tellingthis story, he would start with the Chinese restaurant. He might then offer a false lead as to his intended direction by adding a worthy phrase or two about the diligence of those who have come to this country from someplace else and found acceptance only on the basis of their cuisine. But Cooke would soon zero in on the chairs in the restaurant, just as he was able, at his best, to create a world from a first hand description of the rocking chair that accompanied JFK everywhere, or his personal observance of the arrangements for getting FDR into and out of his seat without the public being reminded that their leader was paralysed.

Suddenly Cooke’s pace would quicken. There are only four chairs for people waiting to take food home, nowhere near sufficient on a Saturday night. Then, for a moment Cooke would interrupt himself to parade the bi-lingualism of which he was proud, mentioning that what is known among the British as take-away food is take-out to the Americans.

But soon he’d be back to the chairs. There were not enough to seat the McGirr family. That was why, every week, on the way home from Mass, one member of the family, usually mum, went into the restaurant to get the evening meal on her own. The rest sat out in the car and listened to Cooke’s Letter from America. Cooke delivered the sermons they never heard at Mass. They were harder to forget.

Alistair Cooke was born in Manchester, studied at Cambridge. He won a fellowship which took him to the United States in the 30s where he bought a cheap car and travelled the country until he fell in love with it. In 1934, he became the film critic for the BBC but returned to live permanently in America in 1937. It took him ten years to convince the BBC that a weekly ‘letter’ from across the Atlantic would be of interest to their listeners. In 1946, the organisation said they would try the idea for 13 weeks. Letter from America continued for 58 years, the longest running serial of any kind in any electronic medium. Cooke recorded 2869 broadcasts of uniform length, the last one going to air on March 6 this year. He died three weeks later.

Cooke projected an urbane combination of erudition and modesty. Radio is the most intimate of all media, the one that people attend to when they are alone in their cars or alone in their beds at night. Radio can enter your life when your eyes are closed. I’m sure this intimacy is one factor which contributes to the longevity of broadcasters: they are companions as much as informants or entertainers. In Australia, there is a list of personalities, from John Laws to John Cargher, who have been on air for a lifetime.

The intimacy of radio suited Cooke. He said that ‘a broadcaster must be someone talking to two friends in a room.’ The two friends, however, needed to be treated as if they would leave at any minute: ‘broadcasting is the control of suspense.’

Yet Cooke was essentially a preacher. This was because he believed passionately in the Grand Narrative, in capitals, specifically the Grand Narrative of America. He relished stories such as those of Valentino and Gershwin. Both came from poor immigrant stock, both had meteoric rises to celebrity, both died young but both had lives with a lasting message. There were few ordinary people in Cooke’s America. Every janitor was about to discover a taped door, indicating a break-in at the Watergate Hotel where they worked. Either that or they didn’t rate a mention.

The essential element in Cooke’s Grand Narrative was what he called character. Cooke subscribed to the Great Man theory of history. Indeed, they were mostly men. His views on feminism, as well as his appeals to the public to find ribbons to keep his ancient typewriter clacking away outside cyberspace, made his later broadcasts embarrassing. He remained a companion but became an increasingly unreal and frustrating one.

At times, his sense of character was illuminating. It helped Cooke explain why such a regal cold fish as George Washington was God’s gift: ‘it was the presence of nothing but character.’ Other times, however, the drama of character was a bit silly. He once intoned 5.30pm on January 21, 1990 as if it was fulcrum of history. It was actually the moment at which John McEnroe was disqualified from the Australian Open for unruly conduct. McEnroe was not a gentleman. He had no place in Cooke’s court.

If this were his story, Alistair Cooke would conclude with the Chinese restaurant and observe that most places home deliver these days. It is no longer necessary for a family to sit in the car listening to the radio. Nothing lasts forever. The Grand Narrative is episodic. 

Michael McGirr’s biography of the Hume highway, Bypass, will be published this year by Picador.



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