When Alistair Cooke first heard that Nick Clarke wanted to write his biography, he responded in typical fashion, by suggesting he choose somebody more interesting, or dead, or both. This simple sentence neatly reveals two of Alistair Cooke's many sides: the modest and self-effacing journalist who has hardly ever written anything directly about himself and his family; and the wise old sage who can be trusted to speak the truth so that it doesn't hurt. The fact is, of course, that biographies of living people are never complete. That much is obvious. But just as incomplete are the testimonies of friends and family. For although Nick Clarke speaks freely to them, they say very little of any consequence to him in reply. For instance, Cooke's first wife and his stepson are never directly quoted, and his wife, understandably, says nothing about the years when they almost drifted apart. Only John, his son, is a willing accomplice. Moreover, the very longevity of Alistair Cooke has meant that many of his friends have taken their memories with them. (But happily not Lauren Bacall, who, on account of his almost encyclopaedic knowledge, refers to him as Aristotle Cooke.) Perhaps that's why the first third of the book, which deals with Cooke's upbringing in Blackpool, his years at Cambridge, his academic scholarship to Yale and Harvard, and his work as BBC Film Critic, compares so favourably with the last third, because the first part of the story can be safely and accurately told. On the other hand, the strictly chronological narrative approach used by Nick Clark (and, to be fair, by the vast majority of biographers) rarely leads to significant comment and analysis of Cooke's work. For example, how consistently good is 'Letter from America'? Can it be compared with the TV series 'America'? And, in terms of his journalism for 'The Guardian', how do you explain his absence from the White House Press Corps in Dallas when JFK was assassinated, with his on the spot appearance in the Los Angeles hotel when Bobby was gunned down five years later? Furthermore, by using a thematic approach (like 'Letter from America' itself), then Cooke's professional and personal lives could have been separated, which seemed to follow naturally divergent courses in any case. However, this is not to underestimate Clarke's achievement. His book is thoroughly researched and runs to 528 pages, plus over 100 photographs. But maybe now he'll follow Cooke's initial advice - and write about Einstein or Bobby Jones!
Through his long running 'Letter from America' series, Cooke has shared his love of the complex, sometimes harsh, often tender nation he has made his home. His gifts are the well turned phrase, a knowledge of history, reliable prejudices, and the trust and respect of so many interesting and influential people over the last seventy years. Like many creative people, Cooke is driven much more by inspiration than perspiration. His early years are characterised by coasting by, falling from one happy coincidence to the next, reliant on his undeniable charm, intensity and occasional flashes of brilliance. He seems determined to remain a Jack of All Trades, much to the annoyance of the academics and producers who would have him specialise. But it is this unique breadth that makes the man. Equally comfortable talking abouth the majesty of New England in the fall, highlighting the phonetic curiosities of the Bostonian accent, discussing the merits of the current golf tournament, or the latest film as sharing anecdotes about HL Mencken, Charlie Chaplin, Lyndon Johnson or any of the other great and good people who have known him. Nick Clarke shares my respect for his subject, and really explains some of the defining events which made him; the Cambridge years where Blackpool Alfred became dynamic, urban Alistair. The formative travels in the States, fuelled by the largesse of the Commonwealth Fund, and the early experiments in radio - still a fluid medium itself at the time - where he developed his oervre. Clarke writes in a lively fashion, and his biography, although bulky and fairly comprehensive, never loses momentum. Although there is a clear reverence for his subject, it does not feel like hagiography to me, although like the author and his subject, it seems, I am generally disposed to seek out the best in people.
this is a truly remarkable work that not only gives a detailed insite into radio fours greatest broadcaster but is a great primer/refresher on the last 65 years of anglo-american relations l whould recomend anyone with any intrest in america and/or american politics to buy it if you live in west london don't bother to try and get it from the library it's booked solid