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on 7 June 2013
Just as Alistair Cooke's deceptively laid back, meandering "Letters from America" used to draw me in by some subtle magic even when I was a teenager, so A.A.Gill's mirror images of these hooked me from the outset, before disillusion set in. Since I have always thought of Gill as unable to resist an acerbic barb at someone else's expense, I was surprised by the lyrical style of the opening pages in which he begins by describing his fading family ties with the States to which some of his ancestors emigrated, including "the Yorkshire cowboys".
Like Cooke, he often commences a topic in an oddly intriguing place, as for "Guns" where he describes how Civil War guns used by the slave-owning South were sold to the French, captured by the Prussians, sent for use by African troops in German colonies, fell into British hands and ended up displayed in the Imperial War museum. The chapter on "Speeches" begins: `The last word Abraham Lincoln ever heard was "sockdologising", this being from a line in the play he was watching when assassinated.
Although most of the topics interested me - skyscrapers, philanthropy, evolution i.e. creationism, to name a few, I was frustrated by Gill's frequent wandering into successive marginally relevant fact-laden digressions. So, I could only cope with this book in small doses, returning to pan for a bit more gold in the perhaps self-indulgent muddle of his thoughts.
Whereas Cooke apparently always saw himself as a journalist, Gill comes across to me as an essayist, which means that perhaps he is generally more concerned with form than substance. So, he can end the chapter on guns with a clever fantasy in which guns acquire a power and personality of their own : "The guns want us aware, they want us fearful, they want us to want them" - which is of course entertaining but nonsense. Yet the development of Americans' attachment to their guns is not explored very fully.
Cooke's aim was "to explain in the most vivid terms the passions, the manners and the flavour of another nation's way of life". By contrast, Gill's ideas often seem half-formed, even when stated emphatically, since an unusual take on topics tends to seep away into subjective rambling. A final question is whether Gill's letters' would come across better if read aloud, like Cooke's.