Copyright 2011 Tao Ruspoli
I always called him Alex. “Alexander” seemed part of the old world he left in 1973; but “Alex” was a better fit for the world of highway maps and car engines, roadside stops and unruly nature with which I most associated him—apart from words on a page—for the almost thirty years I knew him. Alexander Cockburn died on July 21. To write those words is shattering. A big life, approachable, for me, now only in fragments.
Incredible journey. Alex spent a good bit of his early days in London movie houses, and the palimpsest of his memory was scored with the lines, images and mood shadings of even the most obscure films of the great auteurs. But by the time I met him in New York, that was all another country. He loved animal movies. Talismans of childhood, they offered respite from the barbarism of the age—Reagan’s America and Central America and Occupied Palestine, “the violence program,” as he called it, which cranked along whether or not there was a social program, and there was less and less of that as the rich got fit and the poor got prison and the cries of the oppressed rose up, spilled over, year upon ghastly year. “Is your hate pure?” he would ask a new Nation intern, one eyebrow raised, in merriment or inquisition the intern was unsure. It was a startling question, but then this was—it still is—a startling time. For what the ancients called avarice and iniquity Alex’s hate was pure, and across the years no writer had a deadlier sting against the cruelties and dangerous illusions, the corruptions of empire. But, oh, how much more he was the sum of all he loved.
Animal movies, in the scheme of things, were pretty small change. Smaller than animals themselves: his great, rangy dog, Jasper; his cockatiel, Percy. Smaller than nature, which he embraced not with solemnity but with a free-ranging brio. Smaller than the culture made by human hands and imagination down the ages, for which he had boundless and particular enthusiasms. Smaller by far than the constellation of strangers who became friends, friends who became loved ones and comrades-in-arms, associates (I’m thinking of that legion of interns) whom he gave a boost into the world of words and ideas and intellectual curiosity.
But what he called “the small change of life” was a thing of constant wonder to Alex. A perfect blue. An oxidized red on junkyard metal. A lovely turned bowl. The flutter of cheap fabric on a flirty girl. A bar of blues or country gospel on a Southern radio. Banana trees, “vagabonds of the plant world.” A bit of gossip on the phone. Any one of his experiments: wiring a pork chop in foil to a car manifold and driving from one part of California to another to test out a new form of tramp cuisine. (It worked, too.)
He phoned once after a long plane trip, excited from watching the onboard movie, Homeward Bound, without the irritating human voiceover. Two dogs and a cat are lost and have to find their way home against tremendous odds. They get separated; the cat is thought done for but is rescued by a kindly woodsman. Revived, she hearkens to a familiar bark, and there follows one of the great reunion scenes in cinematic history, with dogs and cat racing from either end of a wide, sun-cast field to meet, ecstatically, in the middle. Alex said the other grown passengers glared in his direction as he sat dissolved in tears before the little screen. It was a happy-ender, the only type of film he would watch.