Sunday, April 5, 2009

How Alistair Cooke describes “Six Men”

My dear students, friends, colleagues,

Description is an attitude and technique that is losing ground. Under pressure from news that is "breaking" 24 hours on TV, Indian newspaper editors delude themselves, "Which readers want to read stale reports the next morning.?"

So they abandon the report, filled with crisp facts (checked and re-verified) as well as precise description (based on accurate observation). Instead, opinionated features -- a hotch-potch of news, analysis, photographs and computer graphics, wallowing in the slush of wishy adjectives and slime of washy adverbs -- tell the readers what to think.

I have resisted this silly tide and consistently risen to the defence of the old-fashioned report and the tribe of reporters, who are likely to becoming an endangered species of journalist.

Alistair Cooke belongs to that “good and great” tradition of British journalists, who excelled at facts and description. Born in 1908 and settling down in America in 1937, a few years after the Great Depression and a few years before World War II, Alistair Cooke broadcast his “Letter from America” over the BBC for 58 years. Cooke died in 2004 at the age of 95.

In this column, I reproduce an extract from his book, “Six Men” (Bodley Head, 1977), in which Cooke wrote “character studies” of six men. To illustrate my point about the need for description, my extract is of Cooke’s meeting with H.L. Mencken (page 96 of the 1980 Penguin paperback edition):

“I met him first in the back room of Schellhase’s restaurant and when I arrived he was sitting there behind a stein of beer with A.D. Emart of the Baltimore Sunpapers. For some reason, having to do with my preconception of a scourge calling sinners to repentance, I suppose I expected to see a florid giant, the local Balzac swivelling his bulk to bark at lackadaisical waiters. But he was no more conspicuous than any local shopkeeper.”

In this paragraph, please note Cooke’s three sketches of Mencken: his preconception of “a scourge calling sinners to repentance” and expectation to see “a florid giant, the local Balzac swivelling his bulk to bark at lackadaisical waiters”, dispelled by the reality of a man “no more conspicuous than any local shopkeeper.” Cooke continues to observe meticulously:

“What I saw was a small man so short in the thighs that when he stood up he seemed smaller than when he was sitting down. He had a plum pudding of a body and a square head stuck on it with no intervening neck. His brown hair was parted exactly in the middle, and the two cowlicks touched his eyebrows.

“He had very light blue eyes small enough to show the whites above the irises; which gave him the earnestness of a gas jet when he talked, an air of resigned incredulity when he listened, and a merry acceptance of the human race and all its foibles when he grinned.

“He was dressed like the owner of a country hardware store. (On ceremonial occasions, I saw later, he dressed like a plumber got up for church.) For all his seeming squatness, his movements were precise and his hands in particular were small and sinewy.”

Within 232 words, Cooke describes “the private face of a most public man whom few people could stop to look at for the fire and smoke of his old reputation of a scourge calling sinners to repentance”.

We are lucky there was no TV in Mencken's "under-whelming" days, or else a free-marketeering editor would have chopped off Cooke's description, arguing that a few close-up camera shots had already caught Mencken on the small screen in an interview the previous day!!!

The 207-page paperback “Six Men” has Cooke's memoirs on:

1. Charles Chaplin – The One and Only
2. King Edward VIII – The Golden Boy
3. H.L. Mencken – The Public and the Private Face
4. Humphrey Bogart – Epitaph for a Tough Guy
5. Adlai Stevenson – The Failed Saint
6. Bertrand Russell – The Lord of Reason.

I urge you to grab anything by Alistair Cooke that you can lay your hands, eyes or ears on.

Please comment on this post, before you proceed to the rest of my column.


feddabonn said...

i find such a detailed description difficult to read, especially when used as a prelude. i most definitely would not want my news paper to read like that! :)

Joe Pinto said...

baruk - I like the way you put it, when you agree. But I like the way you say it -- even more -- when you disagree. Thank you for adding panache to the comments section.

Gargi said...

point taken sir, indeed lovely choice of words...but the text message and internet generation have the time or patience to read through such long winded description, leave apart analysing them?

Joe Pinto said...

My dear Gargi,

The struggle to write well and share clearly is an ancient struggle, which distinguishes human beings from the animal world.

Every generation will find its own way. ("gmail" is five years old!) Have you read George Orwell's 1946 essay on the Politics of Language? He harks back to the language of the Bible. Worth the salt of this entire earth. Orwell is on one of my lists in the left-hand margin alongside these posts.

Keep in touch. Warm regards - Joe.

Joe Pinto said...

Gargi - Click on the Orwell mug-shot. The link opens to the essay.
Warm regards - Joe.

feddabonn said...

joe, you are way too kind. honestly, i'm try to be nice because you expect me to be. lol.

Joe Pinto said...

feddabonn - Kindness. And above all, compassion. - Joe.

Gauri Gharpure said...

While i found this description a little wordy, it reminds me of Maugham..

And Orwell describes people and situations just as well with an astounding economy of words.. For example:

'The other memory is of the Italian militiaman who shook my hand in the guardroom, the day I joined the militia. His shabby uniform and fierce, pathetic, innocent face... This man's face, which I saw only for a minute or two, remains with me as a sort of visual reminder of what the war was really about. He symbolizes for me the flower of the European working class, harried by the police of all countries...

The Italian soldier shook my hand
Beside the guard-room table;
The strong hand and the subtle hand
Whose palms are only able

-George Orwell, Looking Back on the Spanish War

Orlando Fernandes said...

Dear Joe,
On your mission statement, I believe we could accelerate things a wee bit if we think that we ARE the conscience.

JBF said...

Hi there. I've just posted a record of Cooke's, Talk About America on my blog Music Makes Me, address

Also, the series on America he did is available somewhere on Rapidshare for anyone interested!