Archive for January, 2012

Alistair Cooke’s Winchester, Ky.

If you lived in rural America in the 1970s, you probably watched plenty of public television, because all you could get on your antenna were the three original commercial networks and PBS. And if you did, it’s likely you remember Alistair Cooke, the  distinguished British-American host of the BBC’s “America” series and

Alistair Cooke was a young BBC reporter who had just become an American citizen when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941.

author of the bestseller, “Alistair Cooke’s America.”

For decades, Cooke, who became an American citizen on Dec. 1, 1941, used his journalistic talent to portray his new country both for a British audience and for Americans, in a way that let us to see ourselves through others’ eyes.

Last December was the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II, which renewed my historical interest in what life was like at home for those who have been called the “greatest generation,” and my interest in the “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom.

I had found a copy of Alistair Cooke’s “The American Home Front: 1941-1942,” and began reading it around the holidays.

The book chronicles Cooke’s journey around the country beginning soon after the U.S. joined Britain in waging war against Germany, Italy and Japan.

I was pleasantly surprised that one of the first impressions he had on his American odyssey was of my hometown, Winchester, Ky., and its surroundings.

After leaving Washington, D.C., traveling through Appalachia, he described the transition from the mountains to the Bluegrass region. It’s a little long, but if you’re familiar with Winchester and Clark County, it’s worth reading:


In "The American Home Front: 1941-1942" Alistair Cooke chronicles his journey around America in 1942, just after the United States entered World War II. One of his first visits was Winchester, Ky.

“There is a vertical line on the map a few miles east of Winchester, Kentucky, that marks precisely the beginning of the Bluegrass country. The region is shaded so plainly that you cannot believe it until you get there. But exactly where the map marks X, and without any apparent rhyme or reason, the landscape suddenly grows spacious, the wide fields turn green, the tumbling fences tauten and come out in white paint, and the trees are high and delicate, carefully planted to hedge off the farms. The mules give way to horses, cows and fat sheep. It is another world. If it were a touch more gracious and commanding, you might be in Maryland’s exquisite Green Spring, Worthington and Delaney Valleys. Though the Bluegrass is by no means as unique and breathtaking as its natives would have you believe, you can understand how it always must appear so to to anybody driving west out of the drab sandy ridges of Appalachia. From now on there is every sign of a cared for, disciplined country. A sign says ‘Advertising forbidden within right of way’. There is an excellent white two-lane highway, and you drive into Winchester ready to believe all the more ornamental legends of the Southern myth.”

Cooke goes on to describe eating lunch in “a pleasant room that has warm paneling and racing prints tempered by a juke box. The menu offers ‘escalloped salsify’ and candied yams, and for dessert there is a mellow, incomparable chess pie.”

He describes three young girls by the fountain that he describes as “uniformly pretty” but not very bright. They can’t tell him what’s in a chess pie, and don’t seem to know there’s a war on. Instead they giggle, put a nickel in the juke box and jitter to “Why Don’t We Do This More Often?”

I’d like to know where he had that meal!

After leaving Winchester, Cooke describes the drive to Lexington, the “estated” horse farms of the landed gentry, the limestone soil and bluegrass, and the tobacco fields. He opines that since the war is so highly mechanized, there is “no possible use for thoroughbreds,” and therefore, “the government will certainly let the Kentucky Derby go on forever ‘in the interests of morale’.”

The first chapter continues with Cooke’s observations of soldiers in Louisville on leave from Fort Knox, and the huge smokeless powder plant in Charlestown, Ind., across the Ohio River, where workers from all over the country have come to find work and aid in the war effort.

He describes Louisville in less charitable terms than Winchester and Lexington, saying it reminds him of the “seediness of English provincial towns” and “looks like a town in the English north or midlands trying to go American.”

Although I began reading the book in December, I put it aside to finish some others, including one I got for Christmas, and have just picked it up again. I’m going to take with me when I go on vacation next week to Gatlinburg, Tenn., and continue with the next chapter, “Deep Down South,” which begins in southern Kentucky and Tennessee and ends in Florida and along the Gulf Coast. From there, Cooke’s epic journey by motor car goes through Texas and the desert of the Southwest, along the coast of California and the Pacific Northwest, across the Rocky Mountains, through the Great Plains and the old Midwest, to New York (which was Cooke’s home in the U.S.) and finally ending in New England.

I’m looking forward to joining him on his tour through the America of another era.

No comment: Why I won’t be writing about politics

When it comes to politics, I no longer have any opinions.

That may surprise some who have been reading my commentaries on public issues for more than two decades, but I won’t be publishing any more of them for at least the next four months.

When I began Newer World several years ago, I was both the managing editor and editorial page editor of The Winchester Sun. Part of my job description, in addition to managing the newsroom staff and occasionally working as a reporter, was to write editorials and columns, including political commentary. This blog was an archive of those opinion pieces, as well as some I’ve done since leaving the newspaper.

(By arrangement with the Sun’s publisher, I was allowed to keep the column on my own website, but it no longer has any connection to the newspaper or its parent company.)

It is not an unusual at community newspapers, because of their small staffs, for newsroom employees to write both objective news stories and personal columns. But staffers are expected to keep their opinions on the editorial page, or in columns, which the readers know, are the writers’ own views.

The Associated Press, however, has no opinion page. Its strict code of ethics requires that employees refrain from declaring their views on contentious public issues in any public forum. As a recently hired AP employee, I must adhere to that standard.

On Friday, I began a 17-week assignment as a legislative relief reporter for the AP’s Frankfort bureau. I will be assisting the bureau reporter, Roger Alford, in covering the legislature — and anything else I’m assigned to report on.

From this point on, until at least April 30, when my work with the AP ends, I won’t publish anything on this blog that might call into question my ability to write about state government in an unbiased manner.

Politico: Independents now largest registration

One of the things that makes tomorrow’s New Hampshire Republican primary — the first in the nation — different from other primaries is that independents (people who have no party affiliation) can vote in the partisan contests.

In recent years, the number of independents in this country has been growing, and according to a new poll published on, those who describe themselves as independents is now 40 percent — the largest affiliation in the country — if choosing no party can be considered an affiliation.

According to the recent Gallup poll, Democrats are now 31 percent of elected voters and Republicans are 27 percent. Read the full story at

Journalism and literature as mirrors of truth

‘The only commodity we have is honesty’

This is my quarterly books column for fall 2011.)

Tri-X Pan. I had forgotten that name until I read it in a novel about newspapers this fall. It surprised me because it had been a part of my daily life for so long.

Kodak’s versatile 400-speed black-and-white film was the standard for photographers and reporters who carried cameras in the early 1980s, when my career began.

Equipped with a Pentax K-1000, the heavy metal workhorse of the trade, a canvas camera bag filled with black canisters of Tri-X,  a Portage reporter’s notebook, Bic Stic pens and a Panasonic microcassette recorder, a newspaperman had all the technology he needed to do his job.

There were no cell phones, so it was a good idea to carry a pocketful of quarters in case he needed to call in a story to an editor, who would hammer it out on a typewriter or word processor as the reporter dictated over a land line.

Alan S. Cowell of The New York Times

Now a reporter, if he’s without his MacBook and Nikon, can record the interview, write the story, edit it (using an online style book), take the picture (and video), and post it to the newspaper’s website, all using his iPhone.

The newspaper, of course, is what we still call those multimedia companies that still have a print edition for older readers like me who like the feel of newsprint and the smell of black ink with their morning coffee.

In some ways, that’s progress. In other ways, I’m not so sure.

There are fewer people in newsrooms to do the work now, because the advertising hasn’t followed the transition from print to digital. And having to get the story out fast often results in sloppy reporting and editing.

In “The Paris Correspondent: A Novel of Newspapers Then and Now,” described on the jacket as “a tribute to journalism, love and liquor in a turbulent era,” Alan S. Cowell, a real-life correspondent for The New York Times, based in Paris, tells the story of Ed Clancy and Joe Shelby, two veteran correspondents who “are in shock at being ambushed by the Internet age and 24-hour news cycle.”

In the opening pages, Cowell contrasts the sound and fury of an old-fashioned newsroom with its shouting editors and clattering typewriters, to the current newsroom, which is “quiet as the grave, a particularly apt simile for our industry.”

“Newspapers were dying the death of a thousand cuts,” Cowell wrote. “They started off like Shelby — bighearted and slightly crazy — and ended up like Duffie — small and mean-spirited.”

Yet accurate, independent journalism is essential to how we live our lives.

Many today think the news is free, but it’s costly. That’s one point Cowell drives home in this remarkable book: “ … news comes with a serious price. And whatever the citizen journalists with their cell phone cameras might tell you, that price is worth paying.”

To believe that everyone can be a journalist these days is as absurd as believing that we can all be lawyers or surgeons. It is a skilled craft and a method committed to objective observation and integrity.

Toward the end of the story, Shelby gives the best defense of the professionalism of his trade that I’ve read in a long time. Unless we’re honest, he tells a prima donna reporter, “we have nothing to justify what we do. We have no right to ask our readers to trust us. Trust is what it comes down to. It takes years to build it. Seconds to destroy. … If we let this monster of the web push us into untruths, then we’re lost. If we cut the corners, there’ll be nothing left. Print’ll go down and digital with it. The only commodity we have is honesty.”

Cowell’s novel resonated with me because this year I was one of those “thousand cuts.”

After nearly three decades in newspapers, I saw my position as managing editor of a small daily eliminated. I was told it had nothing to do with my performance. But I thought I might have held onto it a little longer if I had adapted more quickly to the digital era. I was trying, as Ed Clancy and Joe Shelby were.

Cowell’s book reminds me of what Ernest Hemingway, an icon of both journalism and literature said: that there is as much truth in fiction as in fact. But you should never conflate the two.

Maybe it was only coincidence, or maybe it was because I was missing my work, but many of the books I read this fall (October through December) were written by journalists, even though most of them weren’t journalism.

Some were, such as “This Troubled Land: Voices From Northern Ireland on the Front Lines of Peace,” written by a young American reporter, Patrick Michael Rucker, and “JFK in Ireland: Four Days That Changed a President,” by the Irish reporter Robin Tubridy.

Others were fiction, such as Cowell’s novel and two pieces of vintage fiction by old-school reporters that I nearly always read at Christmas time: “The Snow Goose” (1940) by Paul Gallico, a former sportswriter, and “The Day Christ Was Born: A Reverential Reconstruction” (1960) by Jim Bishop, a newspaper and magazine editor.

One I read again wasn’t written by a journalist, but for journalists. “The Grouchy Grammarian,” by Kentucky writer Thomas Parrish, is a delightful read about common mistakes “made by journalists, broadcasters and others who should know better.”

The chapter titles alone make me chuckle: “Apostrophe Atrocities,” “It’s a Contraction — Really,” “Drug is a Drag. It Must Have Snuck In,” “A Case of Lead Poisoning,” and “Whom Cares?”

So do Parrish’s references to his alter ego in the book. Take this one, for example, under “Silly Tautologies”: “Describing an Eric Rohmer movie, the New Yorker commented that ‘it’s all low-key conversation, and there’s a thin veneer of chic over everybody.’ Well, says the grouchy grammarian, if you find a thick veneer anywhere, cut off a piece of it, wrap it in heavy paper, and send it to him. He promises to refund shipping costs.”

Parrish’s slender grammar for grown-ups is one book every journalist should read.

Here’s a list of the books I read this fall:

The Spirit Level by Seamus Heaney

J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter

The Fellowship of the Ring (Being the First Part of the Lord of the Rings) by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Two Towers (Being the Second Part of The Lord of the Rings) by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Return of the King (Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings) by J.R.R. Tolkien

In Search of Ireland by H.V. Morton

This Troubled Land: Voices From Northern Ireland on the Front Lines of Peace by Patrick Michael Rucker

London: A History by A.N. Wilson

In the Heart of the World: Thoughts, Stories and Prayers of Mother Teresa, edited by Becky Benenate

All is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir by Brennan Manning

The Paris Correspondent by Alan S. Cowell

A Dublin Student Doctor by Patrick Taylor

John Sherman Cooper: The Global Kentuckian by Robert Schulman

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller

The Day Christ Was Born: A Reverential Reconstruction by Jim Bishop

Creating a Habitat for Humanity: No Hands But Yours by Jonathan T.M. Reckford

Wealth Without Wall Street: A Main Street Guide to Making Money by Don McNay

Pearl Harbor Christmas: A World at War, December 1941 by Stanley Weintraub

The Death of King Arthur: A New Verse Translation by Simon Armitage

JFK in Ireland: Four Days That Changed a President by Robin Tubridy

The Grouchy Grammarian: A How-Not-To-Guide to the 47 Most Common Mistakes in English Made by Journalists, Broadcasters, and Others Who Should Know Better by Thomas Parrish

The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico

Books I read in 2011

1. The Forest – Edward Rutherfurd (F)

2. The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great – Benjamin Merkle (NF)

3. Henry Clay: The Essential American – David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler (NF)

4.  Living Mission: The Vision and Voices of New Friars – edited by Scott A. Bessenecker (NF)

 5. Ronald Reagan – Michael Schaller (NF)

6. Abraham Lincoln – James M. McPherson (NF)

7. John F. Kennedy – Robert Dallek (NF)

8. Ronald Reagan 100 Years – Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation (NF)

9. When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan – Peggy Noonan (NF)

10. The Tea Party Goes to Washington – Rand Paul (NF)

11. Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-wing Nature Lovers, and Their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatives Plan to Save America (or at Least the Republican Party) – Rod Dreher (NF)

12. St George – Giles Morgan (NF)

13. The Challenge of Easter – N.T. Wright (NF)

14. The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling – John Stott (NF)

15. The Green Bible Devotional: A Book of Daily Readings – Carla Barnhill (NF)

16. The Gospel According to the Earth: Why the Good Book is a Green Book – Matthew Sleeth (NF)

17. Rediscovering Values on Wall Street, Main Street and Your Street: a Moral Compass for the New Economy – Jim Wallis (NF)

18. Welcome to the Episcopal Church: An Introduction to Its History, Faith and Worship – Christopher L. Webber (NF)

19. In Search of England – H.V. Morton (NF)

20. After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters – N.T. Wright (NF)

21. Our Fathers – Andrew O’Hagan (F)

22. Faintheart: An Englishman Ventures North of the Border – Charles Jennings (NF)

23. The Fort – Bernard Cornwell (F)

24. A Reason to Believe: Lessons from an Improbable Life – Gov. Deval Patrick (NF)

25. The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party – Ryan Sager (NF)

26. In God’s Time: The Bible and the Future – Craig C. Hill (NF)

27. New York – Edward Rutherfurd (F)

28. Christians and the Common Good: How Faith Intersects with Public Life – Charles E. Gutenson (NF)

29. A Short History of the United States – Robert V. Remini (NF)

30. Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics – Alisa Harris (NF)

31. Writing in the Dust: After September 11 – Rowan Williams (NF)

32. Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life – Richard Rohr (NF)

33. The Spirit Level – Seamus Heaney (V)

34. J.R.R. Tolkien: a Biography – Humphrey Carpenter (NF)

35. The Fellowship of the Ring (Being the first part of The Lord of the Rings) – J.R.R. Tolkien (F)

36. The Two Towers (Being the Second Part of The Lord of the Rings) – J.R.R. Tolkien (F)

37. The Return of the King (Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings) – J.R.R. Tolkien (F)

38. In Search of Ireland – H.V. Morton (NF)

39. This Troubled Land: Voices from Northern Ireland on the Front Lines of Peace – Patrick Michael Rucker (NF)

40. London: A History – A.N. Wilson (NF)

41. In the Heart of the World: Thoughts, Stories and Prayers – Mother Teresa, edited by Becky Benenate (NF)

42. All is Grace:  A Ragamuffin Memoir – Brennan Manning (NF)

43. The Paris Correspondent – Alan S. Cowell (F)

44.  A Dublin Student Doctor – Patrick Taylor (F)

46. John Sherman Cooper: The Global Kentuckian – Robert Schulman (NF)

47. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism – Timothy Keller (NF)

48. The Day Christ Was Born: A Reverential Reconstruction – Jim Bishop (NF)

49. Creating a Habitat for Humanity: No Hands But Yours – Jonathan T.M. Reckford (NF)

50. Wealth Without Wall Street: A Main Street Guide to Making Money – Don McNay (NF)

51. Pearl Harbor Christmas: A World at War, December 1941 – Stanley Weintraub (NF)

52. The Death of King Arthur – a new verse translation by Simon Armitage (V)

53. JFK in Ireland: Four Days That Changed a President – Robin Tubridy (NF)

54. The Grouchy Grammarian: A How-Not-To Guide to the 47 Most Common Mistakes in English Made by Journalists, Broadcasters, and Others Who Should Know Better – Thomas Parrish (NF)

55. The Snow Goose – Paul Gallico (F)


January 2012
« Dec   Feb »