From ham and gammon to mutton

A small boy was marching along the promenade at Blackpool on a mild, watery-sunny day, long ago. One hand held his mother's, the other bore a large white scroll on which the child had carefully copied out all the terms of the Armistice. It was November 1918 and the 10-year-old who was to grow up into Alistair Cooke was already - he says now - displaying a visible slice of ham.

He told the story during the latest Letter from America (WS & R4). Typically, he had begun with an excerpt from a favourite book, the diary of James Agate: the chosen episode illustrated the power of a colourful, comparatively local scandal to obscure a much larger event. Though an appalling earthquake in India had just cost 50,000 lives, Agate ruefully admitted that he could not concentrate on the disaster: his attention had been drawn to a murder trial during which the accused woman had spoken of stepping on her husband's false teeth. Similarly, said Cooke, America has recently been distracted - by the flight of the cosmic veteran John Glenn, by the crisis in Iraq and by mid-term elections - from the devastating effects of the hurricane in Nicaragua and Honduras. Only now, thanks to the impact of television pictures, is there a major relief initiative underway, a mission which includes a team of emotional counsellors.

From here, picking up the thread of another of Agate's remarks, it was but a short step to Veterans' Day in America and thus all the way back - to that first Remembrance Day and to his own small and solemn self.

This Letter was informative, touching, funny, self-deprecating. It illustrated its author's catholic interests, his phenomenal memory, his attention to detail and his grip on current affairs: it is hard to believe that he was 90 on Friday. And BBC Radio - which first employed him, as a film critic, when he was 25 - has been making the most of its famous correspondent. The only bad mistake was in the use of Ian Richardson to read from Nick Clarke's impending biography, in Alistair Cooke - a Celebration (R4). Goodness knows what got into the man. If Cooke detects a slice of ham in himself, Richardson displayed a whole, oak-smoked gammon. He sounded as if he thought he was reading ghost stories to an audience of the hard-of-hearing in the mid-1930s. Worse, he would sometimes slip out of this voice to imitate the "Blackpool twang" of one of Cooke's school-friends or, indeed, the manner and delivery of Cooke himself. Rory Bremner he is not: it was a shudderingly patronising performance, made worse by such howlers as the mispronunciation of "Missouri" and other American words.

Far better to allow the man to speak for himself. The Archive Hour (R4) rebroadcast a particularly remarkable Letter describing Bobby Kennedy's assassination. "Only by the wildest freak is a reporter actually present at a single accidental convulsion of history," he began. By such a freak Cooke had been present, that night, and so well did he describe it that listeners must feel as if they had been there too. "Down on the greasy floor was a huddle of clothes and, staring out of it, the face of Bobby Kennedy, like the stone face of a child lying on a cathedral tomb."

On Monday night, Edi Stark began a series about convicted murderers, faced with the prospect of Managing Life (R4). She had been given access, over several months, to Glenochil Jail near Stirling and the men she spoke to clearly came to trust her. It made magnificent radio. Any preconceptions about murderers in general were rapidly dispelled as each individual spoke. Some had grown up in violent institutions, others had never been in any trouble before and many had become murderers because a drunken brawl had gone too far. But none of them made light of the crime: though it sometimes took years for them to believe what they had done, their own enforced loss of liberty only served to underline its enormity. One, who had killed his girlfriend, thought he should have been hanged: "They could never punish me enough." He was still angry that, during his trial, his lawyers had wanted him to cast doubt on her character so as to get himself a reduced sentence. He'd really hated that.

Life inside depends on two rules: pay your debts and don't grass. Though all the men who talked to her expressed terrible regrets, none of them dares show any such emotion to each other; all feel they have to project a swaggering, macho image. One remarked sadly that the jail was not a mature place: "The slightest upset gets blown out of proportion. It's full of kids."

Nicole Kidman had the sometimes stern Sue Lawley purring when she chose her Desert Island Discs (R4); partly because she showed a proper respect for the rules (and asked for sun-block as her luxury) and partly because she was just so nice. In her first role, she said, playing a sheep wearing a car-seat cover, she got a laugh at the first bleat and proceeded to bleat throughout. Not so much ham as mutton. She did say one curious thing: her third record was chosen because her mother had told her it had been used as the anthem for suffragettes. Poor Blake: his furious poem put to yet another unlikely purpose. Here's her choice:

Amanda Roocroft: "O Silver Moon" (Dvorak)

Elvis Presley: "American Trilogy"

RPO: "Jerusalem" (Blake/Parry)

Van Morrison: "Someone Like You"

Jean-Yves Thibaudet: "Love Remains" (Kilar)

Janis Joplin: "Summertime" (Gershwin)

Cast of A Chorus Line: "One" (Hamlisch)

Louis Armstrong: "What a Wonderful World" (Weiss)

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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