Sunday, November 14, 2021

Letter to America

If you were to stand on the cliffs near my house looking in a vaguely west-south-westerly direction, the next dry land in your line of sight would be the eastern seaboard of America. To reach it would require 3,000 miles of sailing into the wind, assuming that is, you don't drift north to Canada or slip south to the Bahamas. Only a few centuries ago, thousands of migrants took that chance, departing from the harbours of Pembrokeshire, just as they did from Cardiff and Bristol and Cork. 

I often think about how grim life must have been to impel those early settlers. Anyone who lives here doesn't romanticise the danger of the sea; to embark on that journey in the full knowledge of the risks must have taken great courage. If we add in the one-way nature of the voyage and the ignorance of the land and life they were sailing towards, it's near certain that desperation was their most likely driver.

In what's a free-flowing post, it would be understandable if I were to now veer off my intended course and make comparisons with the migrants of today. After all, there's little doubt that what drives the diasporas from the Middle East to Europe, from Central to North America —or for that matter, from rural to urban India— is a not dissimilar anguish. 

But instead, I'm going to hold to my compass, and reflect, as I did while looking out to the ocean this morning, that it's because of our connection with its past, that North America is simultaneously foreign and yet familiar to us today. In many ways travelling to France is a more alien experience, an idea that's  captured in the classic geopolitical essay question: 'The Channel is wider than the Atlantic. Discuss.'

This tension between the foreign and the familiar was surely key to the appeal of Alistair Cooke's legendary radio broadcast, Letter from America. For over fifty years, he wrote a weekly epistle on the everyday lives and politics of the USA, gently—and generously— exploring the subtleties that are lost in mainstream media. In a sense, it was not that dissimilar to a blog, reflecting on his comings and goings and those of people he knew; building a picture of a place and its people over time. I miss those broadcasts, and more to the point, think we are lesser in our understanding for their loss. 

How I wonder, would Alistair Cooke would have written of the Obama years, or of Trump and the Capitol riots? Here in the UK we tend to think of US history in terms of its presidents and wars, just as we delineate our own in relation to monarchy and conflict. But I suspect Cooke would have focused more on the attitudes and aspirations—as well as the despairs and desperations—that define us more accurately than the words or policies of any politician. 

There's a growing trend in academic writing for what's sometimes called 'history from below.'  In contrast to the traditional focus on supposedly seminal events, this 'micro-history of communities' emphasises the role of everyday struggles and beliefs as underlying drivers of change. When I think of my own village, and the reality that even today I have neighbours who've travelled no further than Cardiff, I wonder if it's not a more accurate perspective on our past, and indeed our present. 

One of the delights of writing this blog is that I never know what metaphoric shores my words will wash up on. Over the years, I've made connections as far apart as Australia and Alaska, neither of which places have I physically visited. In writing that last sentence I  could have equally have chosen Nepal and New England both of which I've travelled to, but would not pretend to know in any deep sense. Indeed, with the exception of France, I suspect I've learned more about life overseas from the blogs I read, than my limited time abroad. 

A few weeks ago, two US followers of Views From The Bikeshed asked me how they might obtain copies of my books. It seems that copyright laws aren't as internationally seamless as we might wish them to be. No matter, a trip to the post office and the packages were soon on their way to Pennsylvania and North Carolina. What a joy that I could do that so easily... 

Seriously, what a privilege it is to be able to share words across continents.  And what a delight that someone should take an interest in my life and what I have to say, thinking that perhaps it has something of relevance to them. That one copy is now in Pennsylvania is especially appropriate for it was there that the majority of welsh settlers found a home. The other in North Carolina is but a geographic stone's throw from my friend, now resident in Greenville, but who once lived down the road.

In truth, none of my writing is really about me. It's intended to be universal, and if it succeeds it's because the connections between us are closer than we think. This autumn, I had hoped for my latest collection to be published; it's now scheduled for next year. When the first copies arrive I shall send some to the US once again; to those bloggers who follow me and who in their way correspond in return. If I can be so bold, I hope it will be my own small Letter to America;  a tiny contribution to narrowing the width—and the fear—of the ocean between us.


  1. What a kind and generous post Mark. I also enjoyed Alistair Cooke's weekly radio reflections and of course it was surely that famous slot that The Proclaimers were thinking about when they sang:
    When you go will you send back a letter from America?
    Take a look up the rail track from Miami to Canada

  2. As one of the recipients of that book, I can tell you that it is really a lovely evening read, after I climbed into bed. It is gentle and aware, and the little snippets of time with your boys are so sweetly captured that I find myself thinking "What a wonderful gift to his boys! They'll have his words forever." It is a very nice book.

    My own Dylan is a father himself now, and your stories and mindful fathering remind me of him and his daughter. Their first child died shortly after birth, and I think he knows how precious this experience is.

  3. Alistair Cooke was always one of my musts too - such wise words - and I feel this with your post too - a lot of sympathetic food for thought here.

  4. Today, I would find the 3,000 mile sail a great adventure. The sailboat would have to be at minimum 30 feet long, built for blue water sailing and fully equipped. Alistair Cook was legendary.

  5. I haven't heard that "classic geopolitical essay question" before. (I guess I didn't take many geopolitical essay tests.) But it IS thought-provoking! My own ancestors were aboard some of the earliest ships from Britain to the North American colonies, and it is hard to imagine how persecuted they must have felt to make that journey.

    In the USA, Alistair Cooke was best known as the host of "Masterpiece Theater," which basically repackages BBC shows to air on PBS, our public television network. For years I thought that was all he did!

  6. Hari Om
    Oh yes, AC was very much part of our family listening a few decades back. That melifluous voice and erudition are not matched by anything close these days. The media wants immediate and loud and flashy headliney stuff - never mind the depth, feel the breadth... (to paraphrase another 1970s 'institution!') YAM xx

  7. What a lovely, thoughtful post. I came here from Debby's "Life's Funny Like That" and glad I did.

  8. Another long time fan of Alistair Cooke's much missed 'Letter from America' radio broadcasts here! The blog comparison had not previously occurred to me, but does seem apt.
    One of the reasons I enjoy reading dog blogs is the sideways insights you get into lives and culture in different parts of the world (as well as the pictures of bloggers' local areas as they exercise their pets). And Bertie's readers in the USA not infrequently comment on how fortunate he is to be able to roam relatively free and unleashed in both city parks and (livestock free) countryside. That this is not the case in most of the USA can surely be linked to their different ideas on property and access rights, gun laws and compensation culture.

  9. Our blogs are indeed windows to other worlds and at the same time, allowing us to see how much we hold in common. It's interesting.

  10. Another listener to"Letter from America" here...and Garrison Keillor's"Lake Wobegone Days".

  11. I'm thrilled to be the other' US recipient of your wonderful book Mark and am half way through reading slowly and carefully. It has become my favorite time of day turning the pages. I'm not rushing because I love the nature descriptions as well as your adventures with the boys - and am learning a lot about you! The Welsh name places are so hard to pronounce for a Devonian such as I, but I try because they are beautiful, conjuring up views of that ancient dark countryside of Britain. I still miss it, especially Dartmoor, having been gone almost sixty years!
    I love essays/short stories. You are brave to be so open - something I would like to be able to do, but doubt I could, if I ever get around to writing my own stories for publication. COUNTING STEPS will eventually be tucked into my 'favorites shelf' to be read often, never shared (people are bad about returning books), certainly NOT passed along to the thrift shop or one of the 'little libraries' which have popped up on neighborhood streets. Thank you again Mark - I will write about your book on my blog after turning the last page.
    This post is wonderful and resonates with me being an ex-Pat who took the leap westward across the pond. Having canceled so many trips home due to COVID, we long to return to England - and perhaps manage a side trip to Wales where we have friends, and that list now includes you! We loved Alastair Cooke also!
    Mark, thanks again for bringing my real home closer, both in your book pages and your always great blog posts.
    Happy week.
    Mary in NC

  12. You're first paragraph is so true. There is the Fastnet Rock and it's lighthouse near me. It's often called the tear drop of Ireland because it's the last piece of land emigrants and convicts saw before their sea journey to new lands many miles away.

  13. I had to think about this for a while. F comes from one of those families who crossed the sea. Hers were on one of the first 4 ships taking settlers to the new provincial colony of Canterbury in NZ. Were they desperate? Who can say now? Are people who gaze into space and call it the last frontier desperate? Some folks who pull up roots and cross continents are indeed desperate, but some seem to be born with that need to go beyond the horizon. Is it a natural curiosity, some genetic programming of the human species that creates a few that always want to know what is around the corner, on the other side of the hill, on the shore of the next island, over there....? There's a certain element of species survival in having a few like that. As for Alistair Cookes letters, F goes all misty. She loved his broadcasts and as a child in NZ listened to a very unfashionable radio station in order to absorb them. She says it's a form of considered journalism that the world could do with paying more respect and listening to right now. We make people work very hard and get very old before we afford them that widespread respect and pay attention to their views. If David Attenborough did letters about the species 'human' for example, more people might pay attention.

  14. It always shocks me when some people speak so heartlessly about migrants and immigrants. They seem to have forgotten what our own ancestors said about coming here to Canada (and some to the northern U.S.) from Sweden and Norway. When asked how they could do it -- leave their homes -- they said "It's not hard to leave nothing." People don't strike out for places unknown with their children on their backs for no good reason. -Kate

  15. You left a comment at mine the other day expressing regret that cousins could not help with family history and yet the immigration and other issues of which you speak here are often integral part of many people's history and one they sadly know nothing about. How did your family get to be where it is? Figuring that out provides a whole new perspective on migration and conversely, why some stay wherever it is they are. My cousins know less than I do and some do not know me, which should help answer the question cloaked in your original observation.