Revolting Rabbits

17 05 2009

[You can listen to this podcast here or subscribe by searching ‘James Townsend’ in iTunes Store.]

Alistair Cooke, the veteran broadcaster who died just a few years ago, had a wonderful and remarkable life. He was born in 1908 at Salford in Lancashire. He was educated at Jesus College, Cambridge and received a Commonwealth fund fellowship shortly after. This enabled him to study at Yale and Harvard universities in the United States – a country with which he very shortly fell in love.

At the end of his appointed time in America, Cooke was tempted back to Blighty for an interview with the BBC, to be their new film critic. Well, he arrived at the BBC hot foot from Southampton, but unfortunately twenty-four hours too late. The days of Concorde, and of David Frost jetting across the Atlantic at the speed of sound were still a long way in 1934.

Nevertheless, Cooke got the job and his relationship with the BBC didn’t cease until his death in March, 2004. And it was during his time as the BBC’s film critic that he started writing the weekly letters across the Atlantic which went to give him such great success of it.

The London Letter was broadcast on NBC radio across the United States, and was a ten minute round-up of life in Britain. In particular, it was Cooke who brought to the world news of the ongoing abdication crisis of 1936. The British press remained honourably silent about the whole affair, but Cooke was able to enthral the rest of the world with news of the high octane conflict between King, mistress and government.

But this was not to be the only exclusive in Cooke’s career. After a pretty much permanent emigration to the United States in 1947, he began a similar American Commentary, reporting to his homeland on the ways of the Americans during the Second World War.

At the close of that war the BBC commissioned what was to become his Letter From America. And between its first broadcast in March 1946 and the week before his death in 2004 Alistair Cooke filed a ten-minute letter every Sunday for his waiting, and adoring, British Public.

The series soon achieved a cult status, confirmed by one particularly remarkable letter in 1968. Cooke was always picking up material for his letters at parties, sitting cafés, or through his rapacious appetite for reading. But at this particular moment he saw everything at first hand.

Grand socialite that he was, Cooke had been invited to a party to celebrate Robert Kennedy’s successful primary campaign in California. His success had just been announced, and Kennedy was making his way to a large press room to give an interview. Just at the moment he passed Cooke, in a small kitchen-thoroughfare, Kennedy was shot.

The description of this moment, of the grey, stony face of the presidential candidate lying motionless on the floor is a superb piece of broadcasting, and secured Cooke a place in the journalist’s pantheon.

Of course, Cooke did do other work. His television series simply titled America charted the nation’s history right from the early settlers through to what was then the present day. It was told with such wisdom, delicacy and eloquence that President Reagan ordered a copy to be bought for every school in the United States.

But his presence at the Kennedy assassination was typical of Cooke. He somehow seemed to bumble along, finding himself right at the very heart of things without ever having a decent reason to be there.

Unfortunately for some of us, life cannot be enjoyed in quite the same way as Alistair Cooke did. I would venture that he never had to revise for finals exams at the same time as writing his letter.

This humble fan of Cooke has unfortunately spent most of this week studying the French Revolution. The University of York’s Morrell Library is not as glamorous as any of the many receptions and parties so often attended by the great man – though I am bound to say that the people in it are, no doubt, just as interesting.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of things which can be drawn from the French Revolution, and which might sit comfortably in a ten-minute radio letter such as this. Yesterday, I found out that the French Revolution was started by rabbits.

This may sound an unlikely explanation of the events which turned the Europe upside down, but I assure there is a legitimate (if not entirely convincing) argument to support it.

Recent historians have placed the beginning of the French Revolution not in 1789, with the storming of the Bastille prison. Although that does make for a dramatic and engaging story line. Rather, they choose 1787 and the little-spoken-of Assembly of Notables.

Like any ruler who will shortly be deposed, Lous XVI had run out of money. The chest was bare. So, he brought together a group of the country’s leading movers and shakers – nobles, clerics and, well – that was all he thought he needed. These were the people who had special tax exemptions. He brought them together and asked, very nicely, whether they would be prepared to cough up and pay tax like everybody else so that the government could avoid bankruptcy.

Well, as you can imagine, these elite groups were not massively keen on the idea but, rather than reject the suggestion out of hand, they deployed a cunning move. They claimed that they did not have the authority to approve any changes to the taxation system. That would have to be done by an Estates General – a sort of Parliament called every few hundred years or so.

Of course the nobles and clerics always held an inbuilt majority at the Estates General, so they would still decline the invitation to pay tax, but wanted to avoid accusations of self-interest. So, they invited some commoners in – the Third Estate – to make their inevitable decision more legitimate.

In the process of electing those commoners to represent the Third Estate, a series of documents were drawn up in every parish. They were called the Cahiers de Doleances – lists of grievances –  and included all the complaints that people wanted taking to the King.

Included on these cahiers were all those things that you might expect of a nation on the cusp of revolution – less taxation, more representation, fewer rights for the aristocracy, abolition of the feudal system. All these were there, but they differed from parish to parish, and typically featured a long way down.

The most pressing issue coming out of this informal consultation was the issue of rabbits. In particular, the French people wanted the King to abolish rabbits. Over the next few years, through the turbulence of 1789, even at his trial and execution in 1792, the King was unrelenting. He went to the Guillotine stubbornly refusing to abolish rabbits.

All this talk of revolution brings me back to the present day with a bump. The current furore over MPs’ expenses rumbles on ominously towards both police investigations and, more importantly, to an election on 4th June. (By the way, if you haven’t registered to vote yet you need to do so by Tuesday)

I don’t think we’re at the stage yet when amateur dramatic societies can start dusting down their guillotines, but the public atmosphere is not far off being revolutionary. I am pretty much as establishment as you can get without actually broadcasting on Radio 4. But even I am astonished by the arrogance of not just a few Members of Parliament, but seemingly the whole system.

If Alistair Cooke was here, he would tell some story that he’d picked over a canapé from some MP or other that would end the letter on either a witty or poignant note. Well, this week I have seen no canapés, but perhaps I can reference it all to my own life by saying this.

Marie Antionette famously suggested ‘let them eat cake’ when told of the starving crowds outside. Her modern day equivalent would be perhaps less poetic, but equally shocking. On hearing of the many unemployed recession victims, she might say ‘let them eat tax-payer-funded dog food’

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