Who’s Cuckoo?rnby James HillrnThe Last Cuckoo: The Vety BestrnLetters to The Times since 1900rnedited by Kenneth Oregon’rnPleasantvilk, M’: The Akadine Press;rn343 pages, $15.95rnNot too long ago, the London DailyrnTelegraph resurrected a 1962 essayrnby Ian Fleming on “How to Write arnThriller,” in which the creator of JamesrnBond said, “If you look back on the bestsellersrnou have read, ou will find thatrnthey all have one quality: you simplyrnhave to turn the page.” Anthologist KennethrnGregory’s collection of what herndeems the best of the letters to the Timesrnof London in this centur)’, the fourth andrnfinal in a series oi Cuckoo books, certainlyrnfits the Fleming prescription, hi turningrnpage after page, the reader discoversrnthat The Last Cuckoo is a marvelousrnchronicle of life’s ups and downs, its mysteriesrngreat and small, as described by thernpeople who talk back to their newspapersrnthrough letters to the editor. Even thernnon-Anglophile can appreciate the humorrnin the May 2,1940, letter from a Mr.rnJ.R.B. Branson, in which he discussesrnthe jo)’ of eating grass clippings, or in Mr.rnGregory’s retort: “A tpical meal chezrnBranson; lawn mowings mixed with lettucernleaves, sultanas, currants, rolledrnoats, sugar, and chopped rose-petalsrnsprinkled over the whole. On 13 MayrnWinston Ohurchill augmented Mr.rnBranson’s diet with the promise ofrn’blood, toil, tears and sweat.'”rnNewspaper editors have long suspectedrntiiat what they give the reading publicrnoften fails to reflect the public’s tastesrnand interests, and thus they rely on correspondentsrnto tell them what they miss.rnWell, at least until the creation of focusrngroups—where people off the street, for arnfree cup of coffee, evaluate what somernpolling expert thinks should be presentedrnas news. Alas, the “Letters to the Editors”rnpage has fallen victim to morerntrcnd’ ‘ehicles. (You ask whv circulationrnnationwide is falling or remainingrnflat?) One suspects that even the mightyrnTimes, now under the ownership of RupertrnMurdoch, mirrors this trend, tornjudge from the letters showing up on itsrnInternet edition. Yet for mo.st of this centur)rnthe Times was a powerful voice forrnjournalistic democracy through its lettersrncolumn, and it is this aspect of grassrootsrndemocrac}’ (or grass-clippings democracy)rnthat Mr. Gregory has captured sornwell in this antholog}’.rnBritish eccentricit}’ plays a big part inrnMr. Gregory’s selections, especially therncuckoo-sighting letters from which thernbook takes its name. (In 1900, a correspondentrnclaimed to have heard what herninsisted was the first cuckoo of the year,rnnot the last, thus settling the raging debaternof when the 20th century began,rn1900 or 1901. Look for the debate, cuckoornor not, in about hvo years.) Yet if readersrnof the Times were often eccentric,rnthey were also practical, informative, andrnconcerned with the search for truth.rnEven if they were not, many got a forumrnnonetheless, as did the Duce, who, in arnletter dated June 26, 1925, defended hisrnfascist experiment in Italy. (As Mr. Gregor}’rnnotes, “There is no record of Hitierrnor Stalin writing to The Times.”) Speakingrnof Stalin and Hitier, Sir John Squirernon Januan’ 11, 1936, commented not onrnthe gathering storm across the channelrnbut on his visit with a gentieman whosernfox terrier named Wessex had a passionrnfor listening to the wireless. A single linernreveals the inspiration for the letter:rn”Melodiously forth came—well, I won’trnsay a Bach Fugue, for I do not rememberrnasking Mr. Hardy whether his dog’s Bachrnwas worse than his bite.”rnMany of the letters chronicle Britain’srnperceied decline, still thought to be terminalrnwhen The Last Cuckoo was firstrnpublished in England in 1987. As a JohnrnCope asked on April 28, 1982, “In onernsingle week’s news items I ha’e heard thernfollowing names preceded b’ the titlern’Mister,’ and in one case ‘Sir’: Andv, Ben,rnBert, Bill, Bob, Dick, Ed, Fred, Freddie^rnGeoff, Jack, Jim, Ken, Max, Mike, Pat,rnRay, Rob, Ron, Sam, Sid, Stan, Steve,rnTerry, Tinw Tom, Tony, Vic, Viv andrnWill. Are we to understand tiiat at theirrnbaptisms not one of these people was givenrna real Christian name?” Mr. Gregoryrndeadpans in response: “On 12 Octoberrn1963 The Times published a letter fromrn’Anthony Wedgwood Benn’; a decadernlater, the same MP was Tonv Benn.'”rnManv of the correspondents selectedrnfor The Last Cuckoo are names familiarrnthroughout the world: WinstonrnChurchill, Arthur Conan Doyle, RebeccarnWest, Agatha Christie, EvelynrnWaugh, and George Bernard Shaw.rnFew of the greats met the test, as explainedrnby correspondent Sylvia Margolisrnon January 28, 1970, for epistolaryrnpublication —”I can bear witness that thernprime qualification you need to get lettersrnpublished in The Times is eccentricify”rn— in quite the wa’ Ne’ille Chamberlainrndid in his letter of January 24, 1933,rnin which he reported the sighting of arngrey wagtail in St. James’s Park. As Mr.rnGregory noted: “On 30 January AdolfrnHitier became Chancellor of Germany.”rn(He could have added that NevillernChamberlain was to go down in histor}’rnmore for what he did not see than forrnwhat he did.)rnLike any good page-turner, The LastrnCuckoo does not need much interpretationrnfrom its editor: the characters do thernheavy lifting here. In the end readersrnmay well find themselves asking, Whyrnaren’t letters to American newspapers inrnthe same league with these? Good question,rnbut not one of any interest to focusrngroups right now.rnJames Hill is the last editor of the editorialrnpages of the late Phoenix Gazette.rnThe Next to thernLast Cuckoorn^^”VT’ou say in our leading articlernJ. today, ‘No one has ever suggestedrnthat novels should have indexes.’rn”1 possess a translation of Tolstoy’srnResurrection, published bvrnMessrs. Grosset and Dunlap inrnNew York and ‘illustrated from thernphotoplay produced by InspirationrnPictures Inc,’ which has a particularlvrnfelicitous index. The first entr)’rnis: ‘Adulter)’, 13, 53, 68, 70′; the lastrnis ‘Why do people punish? 358.’rnBetween them occurs such itemsrnas: Cannibalism, Dogs, Goodrnbreeding, Justification of one’s position.rnSeduction, Smoking, Spies,rnand Vegetarianism.”rn—from a letter to the editor of thernTimes by Evelyn Waugh,rnOctober 13, 1961rnMARCH 1998/33rnrnrn