Radio review

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The woods decay, the woods decay and fall, the vapours weep their burthen to the ground, man comes and tills the field and lies beneath, and after many a summer dies the swan. But Alistair Cooke's Letter from America, Radio 4, just goes on and on and on. Nothing that has happened to America in the past 50 years (McCarthyism, Civil Rights, Vietnam, Watergate, Irangate) has gone unnoticed, unilluminated by Alistair Cooke. Yesterday he marked the 50th anniversary of Letter from America - 2,348 flowing, sagacious commentaries on life in the world's most powerful, most bountiful nation - by rereading the first ever letter, on crossing the Atlantic with a boatload of GI brides.

There is no parallel in British culture, perhaps not anywhere; the closest you can get is Cooke's Sunday morning near-neighbour The Archers, which offers something of the same sense of reassurance through sheer continuity. But while The Archers has changed with the times, to create the all-swearing, all-drug-taking monster we now know, Cooke has, in political terms, merely stiffened a little at the joints - he's more conservative and backward- leaning, more saddened by the way things are going; but maybe that's one of the privileges of age. Technically, he has become more fluent and graceful, both as writer and speaker - you notice now how stilted that first talk seems.

For all the professionalism, consistency and authority, though, you have to wonder what the point of Alistair Cooke is. As an explainer of America to the rest of the world, he's been outflanked - we get so much news and culture feeding into us from over there that the context Cooke offers can seem narrow. A friend with whom I was discussing Cooke summed him up as, "always going on about dead presidents"; and while that's a caricature, you can see what he means: the nostalgia in Letter from America these days can blur into a sense that what is happening today is just a footnote to more important things that happened a long time ago.

For most of his listeners, I would guess, what he has to say about current affairs matters less than the sense of reassurance. And since he pledged at the end of this programme to carry on until the end, we can only hope it's a reassurance we'll be getting for some time to come.

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