Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Relevance, Immediate or Otherwise, of Alistair

I have to confess, when it seems I haven’t blobbed for a couple of days, I usually check, and realize that it’s really been something closer to a week. I’m not sure if that has to do with the way my subconscious fears the act of writing (I know it surely did in college), or if life is just speeding along so quickly we can barely keep track of the time. Maybe it’s a little of both. Like my photography, I try and use the writing, even the most mundane of topics, as a chance to either explore a new technique, or at the very least, come up with something which is new for me, whether or not it might be for the Blob reader.

My original inspiration last year when we started blobbing was Alistair Cooke, the late venerable Brit who, taking a page from Ed Murrow’s World War II playbook, came to New York in 1946, and for the next 50+ years, wrote and recorded his Letter From America every Tuesday for broadcast on BBC Radio on Wednesdays. That would be something like 3000 essays, each of which was a perfect gem of a statement. In the 70s and 80s, before the instant-“on” curse of world-wide cable and satellite communication, we globe trotters always traveled with a short wave radio. It was THE way to stay in touch. It was only “download” of course, but tuning carefully in the 19, 25, or 31 meter bands, you could hear the chimes of Big Ben on the hour, and then hear BBC World Service news. Additionally there were wonderful “magazine” programs like “From Our Own Correspondent”, quaint quiz shows like “Just A Minute” (‘…speaking for one minute without repetition, hesitation or deviation…”), and music programs like “Desert Island Disc” (famous people were asked what 6 records they would have with them if stranded alone on, yes, a Desert Island.) In Ethiopia, Iran, China and Peru of yore, the radio was a welcome, very welcome friend. Now you just tune on your cable system to channel 19 and you have BBC TV (not as good as radio was, of course) in color and stereo. At the risk of being a fuddy duddy, which I suppose I already am, there was something not only charming but perhaps even more fulfilling about the old ways. You had to work to find the station on your little radio. Atmospherics would sometimes render one frequency more touchy, and you had to find the broadcast elsewhere on the Sony scale The dials were all rotary, hand tweaked, no "digital" tuning, yet. (Photographer Jean Pierre Laffont was the senior ‘I.T.’ guy on radios. There wasn’t a newer, smaller (emphasis on Small), better receiving radio made that didn’t make it into his camera bag. His counsel was like doing a quick info hit on CNET now, but much more sympatique. And certainly better spirited.) You quickly became expert at listening through the static and hearing just the words or music.

Once you got tuned, Mr. Cooke would weave a nearly perfect essay of tone and poetic imagery, leaping from one event in a mosaic of phrases to the next, and making the listener feel as though he, too, had lived in the States that week, and felt those events first hand. He could take, for example – and I am making this up, but you know on this blob we do make a lot of things up for illustration purposes – and speak of the unveiling of a new car by the Ford Company in Dearborn, and it’s futuristic forward looking features, segue to a mention of a homeless man winning a million dollars on a lost lottery ticket, jump to the capturing of wild ponies in the Nevada desert near the atomic test site, and wind it up (this was always the “bring it all together slam dunk”) with a beleaguered President Nixon, a man needing no money but feeling like he might risk being trampled by wild horses, as Watergate unraveled in Washington in real time. Cooke was an absolute master at this story telling genre.

I struggle to be relevant, though every time I use that word I’m reminded of my senior year of college, in a thought provoking Political Theory class taught by professor, now Dean (I THINK he’s still Dean) Tim Fuller. In a discussion of the Hobbesian State of Nature, one classmate asked “how do we find it relevant in the world we’re living in…” Fuller’s response I shall never forget: “I’m sorry Mister Fisher, this isn’t a course in Immediate Relevance.” I suppose of all the things I heard in college, those seven words were the ones which marked me the most. I have always tried to look beyond Immediate Relevance in my work, and even in just ordering dinner. Yet, ever increasingly, everything we do, say, watch, listen to, seems to have a built in demand for some kind of immediate relevance. Just listen to the “all News” stations. Whether it’s Anna Nichol, Valerie Plame, the 8 U.S. Attorneys, or anything to do with the war in Iraq, there is virtually nothing but fluff, although I think that is a disrespectful use of the word we use to describe whipped marshmallows. Real Kraft FLUFF has much more to offer than what our media dispense. And it cuts across party lines. Fox News Sucks. CNN sucks. MSNBC sucks Bigtime. It makes one pine for the likes of Alistair Cooke to help put it all into context. Instead, they give us The McCaffrey mad minute on CNN or something hideous on CNNhdline by Glenn Beck.

I would recommend (this is the beginning of the WereJustSayin book Recommend list) a collection of essays by Alistair Cooke, and if you want to read journalistic poetry go right to “Please Die Before Noon.” Today, having spent a couple of days shooting pictures in north Florida, a story on the family of a wonderful young man killed in Afghanistan in an air accident two years ago, I am headed back to D.C. (If you can't wait to try Amazon, the BBC has a few years worth of his last letters here.)

I don’t have Alistair Cooke with me, but I managed to find a private cabin on my Delta flight, and I suppose I’ll just sleep it off. When I get home, we’ll find the listings for Letters from America. They don’t write’em like that anymore. We’re just sayin’… David


Walt said...

It's about time you gave away your secret to photography. Some might say it is exception observational powers honed over years of reflection. Instead, we learn you simply bury your head in your jacket and shoot. But this time you accidently aimed the camera in the opposite direction from all your other work. Where can I get a jacket like that?

Anonymous said...

Thanks David, keep the list coming.

Ya kinda remind me of that character in double bubble comic strips, can't remember the name.

Anonymous said...

I meant Bazooka Joe comics, but you knew that...still dont know the guys name though.

Walter Briggs said...

Wrong, my friend..YOU still write them like that..Memories of being away, with a SW radio and voa, et al..For a few years, my head's been somewhere else..probably shoulda tried the jacket method. Yes,keep 'em coming, and thanks bunches for the link.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking the time to write about Alistair Cooke. It is strange that here in Britain just last week a few members of the new cabinet were doubting the importance of the special relationship between the US and the UK - I for one am not ready to embrace Europe. Nor, after reading this, do I think it is prudent to discount the importance of the real “entente cordiale!” Ed