Many, many happy returns

`Letter From America' celebrates its 50th birthday today. Here, Alistair Cooke, its author since 1946, looks back
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The Independent Culture
SINCE THE turn of the New Year, and the mention that 1996 had a special meaning for me, people have been asking what it feels like to have done 50 years of the talk series Letter From America. Well, as a matter of truth, it doesn't feel like anything special, no more than doing the fifth or 10th or 1,000th talk - except then the BBC gave me a grand feast at the Charterhouse. At various bell-ringings down the years - the 1,500th talk, the 2,000th, my 80th birthday, my 85th - they and other friendly institutions have given me other dinners, other salutes, other opportunities to break bread and make speeches.

Since then, though, I have declined, shouting (politely), "Hold, enough! No more state dinners!" I am hoping that if the call comes again, I shall have the strength, of character or cowardice, to resist and confess a sad truth about out-living your contemporaries: you begin to feel more and more like Dr Johnson, who said that six people in a room were as many as he could bear. Am I grown irascible, then? I have always been irascible: Scrooge just before and just after the visit of the last of the Spirits. But before I slink away, I should like to smother a reputation (I've heard I've acquired) for "loving people". As the great Bobby Jones said: "I don't love people, I love a few people very much, in small doses."

And if they think there's any celebrating to do, then let one or two gather together at the end of the day, as soon as they hear what E B White called "the most beautiful sound in America: the tinkle of ice at twilight". My own balm, with which I shall salute them, is (I'm delighted to discover) the same as that of my favourite fiddler, Stephane Grappelli. He says he takes, at the same hour, 6pm, "a drop, maybe two drops" of the greatest analgesic in the history of medicine, dating back to one Friar John Cor, of Scotland, in 1495. Its generic name is, believe me, barliensis vulgaris, but it no longer requires a prescription, except in Arab countries. It can be bought over the counter under various trade names.

I was asked for this piece with no strings or special demands, but enough people have written to me - most recently from India, New Zealand, and Bulgaria (a first) - to say how pleased they are to see that I'm "now doing a regular talk over the BBC". This affects me much as the recent remark of a London cabbie: "I used to love listenin' to ya when you done those talks on Sunday mornin', remember?" I had to rein my impulse to say, "Well, where were you last Sunday morning?"

These reactions to the Letter may sound comical to you, but they are alarming to me, indicating that perhaps a simple account of how and when the series came about might be in order, just as it is becoming increasingly necessary, to my grandchildren's - and perhaps my children's - generation to describe how an Austrian housepainter once took over Europe and threatened the British Isles. (I can see the question in a forthcoming Cambridge History Tripos exam: "Name this man and explain his importance, in the context of his close relationship with the British Prime Minister at the time, one W Spencer Churchill.")

Well, then, during the last two or three years of the Second World War, I was doing a regular 15-minute talk on Sunday evenings for the BBC, called American Commentary. It was, of course, most often about the life and work of Americans, considered as a wartime ally. But when it was all over I had a letter, in the autumn of 1945, from the head of the BBC Talks Department. He bore the rather god-like title of "The Director of the Spoken Word". He said everybody was fed up with the war and its dismal consequences, and how about killing the Commentary and starting a wholly new series, which would talk about "all the things you have talked to me about - American children, Edison and the electric bulb, the history of ice cream, the Gold Rush, the language - anything and everything that comes to mind". I said it opened up a large field - enough for one series, of 13 weeks, anyway. (It is decreed in Genesis that all broadcasting contracts shall be for 13 weeks at a time. It was so in the beginning and it is so today.) He, later dubbed Sir Lindsay Wellington, bless him, asked me to go to London and talk things over. I did and we did. The first broadcast talk was set for the last week in March, 1946. Wellington warned me, before I sailed back to New York on the troopship Queen Elizabeth (not yet refurbished as a civilian luxury liner) that in the gloom and desperation of the post- war years - President Truman had suspended the aid that had softened the austerity of the war years - the Treasury was pulling a tight rein in Sterling leaving the country. So all he could promise was that if the series went over well, it would be extended for a second 13 weeks. But (not to feel bad about it) that would be it.

A glimpse of the obvious will tell you that the Treasury stretched a point (well, a tenth of a decimal of a point), or the BBC forgot, or something. Anyway, and frankly to my great delight, it went on and on, and goes on and on. I never feel it to be a chore. The aim today is what it has always been: to discover a conversational idiom that can run up and down the human scale and appeal equally to a Yorkshireman and a German, a listener in Bombay or in Canada. It is of all the things I've done - television, newspaper writing, books - the thing I most love to do. I have heard often enough (not to be too coy about it) that some of this personal pleasure has passed over to many listeners, and very many of them have written to say so. I thank them here and have been wishing for 49 years that I could reply to more than a fraction of them, among the miraculously far- flung audience we call "the listening public".

Just lately, a British journalist, whose main interest in journalism, I suspect, is in making mischief, asked me if the BBC had asked me to retire, and was I going to do so anyway. I said the answer was No and No. If you retire, you keel over. The day of retirement is up to the Lord of us all, the Man up there in the sky: the Director of the Spoken Word.

! The 50th anniversary edition of `Letter From America' is broadcast at 9.15am today, Radio 4.