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Last Updated: Friday, 29 July 2005, 16:14 GMT 17:14 UK
Love letter to America
By Brendan O'Neill

Harold Evans is a legend in the world of journalism, known particularly for his successful championing of the victims of Thalidomide. After 20 years near the heart of US culture, and as he picks up Alistair Cooke's baton, how does he feel about his adoptive home?

How does one follow in the footsteps of Alistair Cooke, the man behind BBC Radio 4's Letter from America for 58 years and a bona fide British institution?

That is a question that Sir Harold Evans, former British newspaper editor turned Manhattan media royalty, has been asking himself as he prepares to take on the broadcasting slot held for so long by Cooke and latterly by Brian Walden.

Yet while Evans may himself be a giant of journalism - having edited The Times and The Sunday Times, headed the publishing company Random House, and rubbed shoulders with the Great and the Good in New York as part of the media jet set there for the past two decades - he's not so big that he can't admit that Cooke is a tough act to follow.

"Which is why I won't try to follow Alistair's act," he says. "I don't want to be compared to the master Alistair Cooke - and I can't say that often enough."


Letter from America kicked off in 1946 with a report on Britain's GI brides sailing on the Queen Mary to a new life in the US, and came to a close in February 2004 with a letter about the Democrats' growing belief that they could beat Bush in the Presidential election that year (which, of course, they didn't). A month later, Cooke died at the age of 95.

But Letter from America had become the world's longest-running speech radio programme, listened to by millions of people in more than 50 countries.

I don't want to be compared to the master Alistair Cooke - and I can't say that often enough

In his mellifluous tones (belying his origins as the son of an iron-fitter from Blackpool), Cooke, based in New York, painted a picture of a seemingly strange and vast continent for his British listeners - bridging the gap between two countries that, in the words of George Bernard Shaw, are "divided by a common language."

So how will Evans' Point of View differ from Cooke's Letter from America?

"Well, I've been told that I shouldn't feel confined by America, and that I should talk about Europe if I want to," he says. He pauses. "But, as it happens, I'm not much inclined to do that because I think there is so much to say about America."

"One difference is that Point of View will run only for 13 weeks", he says. I remind him that that's exactly what they said about Cooke's Letter from America in 1946, but it continued to be broadcast for the best part of six decades. "Yes," adds the 77-year-old Evans, "but it's very unlikely that my programme will last 58 years."


He admits there are similarities between himself and Cooke - both working-class boys done good and both Brits who moved to, and fell in love with, America.

"We came from the same kind of background, from similar Lancastrian origins. And we ended up in the same place - America - and became American citizens writing about American history. So I feel an affinity with Alistair, certainly."

Editor from 1967 to 1981
High profile stories includes scoops on Kim Philby
Paper won historic compensation for children victims of Thalidomide drug
Born in Manchester in 1928, he started his journalistic career on a local weekly paper at 16. He was later editor of the Northern Echo, and from 1967 to 1981 editor of The Sunday Times during what many refer to as its "golden age" of campaigning journalism.

He was briefly editor of The Times in 1981, but left following differences with its new owner Rupert Murdoch. He moved to America in 1984 where he and his wife Tina Brown - former editor of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and the short-lived but zeitgeisty Talk magazine - are about as well-connected as you can get.

The camera cannot lie. But it can be an accessory to untruth.
Evans, who also wrote leading textbooks on reporting and photography
Evans says he still loves America enough to be able to broadcast for 13 weeks about it.

"I will talk a little bit about why I identify with America, why I fell in love with it even while being aware of its blemishes. I'm also going to talk about anti-Americanism," he says.

Contemporary anti-Americanism, or Bush-bashing, gets his goat. While Evans has no problem with people making cogent criticisms of American politics and policy, he has little time for the knee-jerk assumption that everything America does must be bad or evil or driven by deep, dark ulterior motives.


"People shouldn't rush to judgement on the basis of one particular president and denounce America as 'Bush country'. Let's make cogent criticisms but let's not take the rent-a-mob approach which says that America is always wrong.

"America is a vast heterogeneous country, yet everything tends to be reduced to good guys versus bad guys. I am not uncritical of America, but I think we are seeing a rise in lazy America-bashing."

One thing that Evans loves about America is the fact that class origins count for less than they do in Britain, including in the world of journalism.

America is a vast country, yet everything tends to be reduced to good guys versus bad guys
"I've been 20 years out of England, but my guess is that there they are still inclined to put too much emphasis on appearance or lineage - whether it be educational or family or whatever kind of lineage. Maybe not as much as they did in the past, but it's still there.

"In America class origins are not so visible. They don't put badges on you, in terms of accent or background or whatever. It doesn't matter one bit that I have a North Country accent [and he still does, despite 20 years in the Big Apple]. I could be from Lithuania for all they care. In fact, maybe I should try that - A Letter from Lithuania...."

Evans also likes the fact that America is a vast melting pot of ethnicities, nationalities and religions who nonetheless are united by a common sense of being American citizens.

"In Britain, we've seen those isolated pools of Muslims in Leeds or Huddersfield who seem to have identified with some crazy mullah. But here they are much more likely to say I am American first and a Muslim second. At least, that's my guess.

"No one is ashamed of being a patriot here, whereas nobody dare be a patriot in England - at least not recently, because they are likely to be hooted out. In Britain, patriotism is thought to be the preserve of right-wing nutters and that's a tragedy in my view."

So perhaps A Point of View will be less A Letter from America and more of a love letter to America - which, indeed, is how one critic described Evans' first book on American history.

"Maybe", he says. "But I will be critical, too. I hope that I can present an accurate picture of the America I know, and get the balance just right."

A Point of View with Harold Evans will be broadcast on Friday at 2050BST and on Sunday at 0850BST on BBC Radio Four. His columns will also be published here in the BBC News Magazine.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I was surprised to read Harold Evans' views. As another Brit living in the US, I've found badging by ethnic lineage more prevalent, and wonder if people don't melt into the pot more slowly here. So the grandchildren, great-grandchildren and even great-great grandchildren of immigrants will identify themselves as 'Irish Americans', 'Jewish Americans', 'Italian Americans', etc, where in the UK they'd simple say 'I'm British'. I share Mr Evans' concerns about America-bashing and very much look forward to hearing the new programme.
Vicki Hollett, Philadelphia

I find myself defending America when talking to my brother (who's in England) or my parents (who are in Crete) because I think that they simply don't understand the scope of this country. The people are very diverse, because unless they are Native American, they are all from a different country at some point in their history. Plus, this place is HUGE. Think the United States of Europe and you're halfway there. And you can't encompass 289 million people in any sweeping statement. That's my two cents/pence worth.
Catherine Penfold, Brit in New York

I agree with Harold Evans to a point, I believe that the main reason that people bash America has everything to do with their total disregard for all other nations and their political structure. Any country that is part of an important alliance like Nato and totally ignores their wishes simply to invade a country to gain control will always be judged in such a way. As soon as America starts thinking outside its borders when it comes to the world and what's important, then people will stop the criticism.
Phillip Blumire, Rushden, Northants

Evans is right - America bashing is on the rise in many countries. Anti-Americanism is becoming as acceptable in middle class Britain today as anti-Semitism was in the early part of the last century. Both are equally mindless, racist and dangerous. Perhaps Evans' talks will help counter some of the prejudice but I'm not optimistic.
David Stone, Glasgow UK

Mr Evans is correct in many ways, but a bit off-base with his comments about accents not being fodder for being labeled - it does matter, at least on the east coast of the US. A Southeastern accent presented in the north carries the stereotype of being an ignorant hick; a New York or Boston accent presented in the south usually carries the stereotype of an obnoxious Yankee. It's not fair, and rarely accurate, but it is the way things are to this day.
Craig Zeni, Cary, North Carolina

I am warmed by what Harold Evans said about America. As an immigrant, I appreciate America's fair treatment of its people wherever they come from. It's really true that it is the land of opportunity. Of course, America is not perfect but the good far outweighs the bad. Looking forward to Mr. Evans' articles.
Martin Celemin, Las Vegas, Nevada

Although unthinking anti-anything is never a good thing, I shall be interested to see what positive aspects of contemporary America Evans manages to find. I have visited the US several times and work with many US citizens, but I find the prevailing views of Americans I have met to be extremely right-wing, parochial, anti-intellectual and frighteningly religious. In particular I find the pressure to profess a strong Christian faith has a strong parallel with the fanaticism of the Islamists the US fears so much.
Simon Langley, England

I am an American who works for a large European insurance company's office in the US. Whenever I deal with my European colleagues, or travel to Europe I am often told: "You are not a typical American". I always reply to that. "Yes, I am; it's the others that you see on TV that are not typical". I've found most Europeans tend to think of us as, well illiterate morons. Most Europeans are shocked that I speak three languages, and that I know what happened to England in 1066. I'm a product of the Los Angeles Unified School district, with a typical US education. Harold Evans is correct; in the US who you make yourself is far more important than where you came from. Even though you will hear folks here say "I'm Irish American", or "Mexican American" it's not from lack of love of this country - it's from the pride that they made it here, and were able to retain their ethnic identity with out the pressure of blending in so deeply that they lose it. My mom is from Poland, and my dad is from Ireland, I was taught by them to respect all people and ideas. I've found that is the way most people in the US are raised. I hope that Harold Evans is able to convey to the British people that Americans may be a bit odd at times, but overall we are really good people.
B. Laurens, Los Angeles Ca, US

Does Mr Evans get out much? The US may not have a class system like the UK but out here in small town America the right Name still counts for a lot and the Old Boys Network here has as much pull as any back in England. Having said that, as a transplanted Brit, I would still rather live in this sprawling, frustrating and beautiful country than anywhere else. When Mr. Evans has finished his 13 week stint, can I have a go? I could tell a few good stories from this dusty desert town.
Sue Laybourn, Coolidge, Arizona

I am very interested in hearing Mr. Evans on the radio; I am always interested in how foreigners perceive my country. However, I think he has misjudged the accent issue. Americans love British accents - they sound cultured and educated to an American ear - and we tend to love white foreigners because we take it as a compliment that they moved to the U.S. But I have been denied jobs because my American accent isn't quite right. Also, I know Mr. Evans has seen areas outside NY, but I wonder if he has met people in trailer (caravan) parks or what we call here "projects," living places for the urban poor. He might get a slightly different view of what an American is from such an experience.
Chris, Chicago, US

Before characterizing the US as "Bush Country," remember how close the last two presidential elections were. For every triumphalist, there is an anguished opposite.
Monica Orr, Louisville, Kentucky

It's great to hear a British person finally voice their frustration with inane American-bashing. Far too many people believe that Bush and his administration speak for the entire country, which thankfully is far from the case. The US is vast, complex and fascinating country, filled with very interesting characters.
Aiden Corkery, Santiago, Chile

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