Obituary: Adrian Cook

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In his books The Armies of the Streets (1974) and The Alabama Claim (1975) Adrian Cook showed himself to be equally at home as a chronicler of riots in the meaner streets of New York and of protracted diplomatic manoeuvres in the corridors of power.

His versatility in handling very different sorts of history was matched by his lively style, mastery of detail, trenchant judgements of men, confident assessments of situations and skill in relating complex trains of events to their larger contexts. "The settlement of the Alabama Claims," he wrote, "provides a 19th-century demonstration of a disagreeable truth that has become all too obvious in the 20th century: how difficult it is to pursue a sane foreign policy in a democracy."

Cook's narrative flair made a good story out of one of the most tangled episodes in Anglo-American relations: the efforts to settle the American claim for compensation for the depredations of the Confederate States steamer Alabama, built in Birkenhead in 1862. In 1975, with solid achievement behind him, and every reason to look forward to a bright future, Adrian Cook dedicated his best work to his father: "To a signalman of the Great Western Railway 1902-1964".

Cook went from Queen Elizabeth's Hospital in Bristol to St Catharine's College, Cambridge, with an exhibition in History (1958). After gaining the J.N. Figgis Memorial Prize and a Double First in 1961, he stayed on at Cambridge to work for his PhD (1965). The award of a Rockefeller Grant Fellowship by the British Association for American Studies enabled him to do a year's research in the United States, based at Baltimore. His first post was at the University of Canterbury at Christchurch (1965-66).

It was while he was on his way back from New Zealand that the acting Head of the Department of History at Reading University, keen to put the department's teaching of American history on a sounder footing, was advised to enlist Cook, described to him as a brilliant young scholar. He promptly wrote a letter which reached its intended recipient as his ship passed through the Panama Canal. Cook remained at Reading for the rest of his career, save for a three-year spell in the US between 1968 and 1971. His well-deserved promotion to Reader came in 1975.

Cook's courses in American History, whether on the Civil War, Reconstruction, or the "Red Summer" riots of 1919, were always popular. His lectures, delivered in a carrying voice, audible at the other end of the corridor, provided one of the most characteristic sounds of the department. How far a broad West Country foundation underlay his superficially transatlantic intonation was a matter of some speculation. Certainly his speech sounded American to an untutored English ear. On first hearing his deep, booming voice seemed somewhat theatrical. This quality was the result of an early speech impediment, conquered with his usual courage and determination.

Cook was a lifelong film buff, and drew on his deep fund of cinematic lore in the humorous notices which he wrote to colleagues when Departmental Bookman, reminding those who had not done so to spend their individual book-purchasing allocations. One of these, "Happy Days on the Old Plantation", was an ebulliently cheeky missive in the manner of Gone with the Wind.

Sadly, although he continued to write readable and sometimes rebarbative reviews, Cook produced no more books after 1975. In later years he led, outside his department, an increasingly reclusive existence. Within it, however, he leaves a gap which will be hard to fill.

Ralph Houlbrooke

Adrian Edwin Cook, historian: born 7 May 1940; Lecturer in History, Reading University 1966-68, 1971-75, Reader 1975-95; died Goring 18 January 1995.