My last two years of high school were spent in a small boarding school in northern Israel. It was an English school, based on the British education system, and most students (not that there were too many of them; the entire school numbered 30 or so students) were British. They missed home and expressed their longings in various, odd ways, such as eating Marmite. When Saturday evening came around, they all gathered around the radio and listened to the BBC World Service, to find out how their soccer teams fared in the weekly League matches. That’s how I became aware of the BBC World Service, starting to listen to it myself before going to bed every evening.
The programme I remember most vividly from those long-gone days was the weekly reading of a “letter” by a British man with a voice that was deep and authoritative yet at the same time soothing and reassuring. Every week he would talk for 15 minutes, offering a snapshot of some aspect of life in America. The topics would cover all walks of life: domestic politics, foreign affairs, sports, show business, race relations, etc. Not having been in America yet, his weekly transmission opened for me a window into a world that was new and fascinating.
The man was Alistair Cooke and the name of the show was “Letter from America”. Cooke was a British journalist who moved to the United States in 1937, at the age of 29, and made America his home. The first episode of the show was broadcast by Cooke in March 1946, and the last on February 2004, a month before he passed away at the age of 95. For almost 60 years, Cooke was the voice through which listeners of the BBC learnt about the New World.
When I saw this book on sale I knew I would love it. I read it slowly, very slowly. I think it took me more than a year to finish it. I didn’t want to rush through the “letters”, wishing to draw out the pleasure for as long as possible. The move from the radio to the written word has not diminished Cooke’s presence; at times, I felt as if his voice spoke from the book’s pages. Even when the subject at hand is familiar, Cooke’s writing/reading provide details and perspective that weave together an insightful and mostly loving portrait of America.
This is a book to own and to return to from time to time, picking a “letter” that grabs our mood and rediscovering a piece of history, masterfully told by Alistair Cooke.