Obituary: Alexander Cockburn, journalist and writer
Born: 6 June, 1941, in Ardgay, Ross-shire. Died: 21 July, 2012, in Bad Salzhausen, Germany, aged 71
Although he was born in the Highlands to a renowned old Scottish family of judges and military men, and went to school in Scotland, Alexander Cockburn spent the latter 40 of his 71 years in the United States, where he became one of its most respected but also most feared radical left-wing writers. His “pen” was acidic, acerbic and merciless, not only against American conservatives or Republicans but against those on the Left he felt were letting the side down through hypocrisy or corruption. He considered US Republicans and Democrats pretty much interchangeable but whomever he attacked, he rarely took his eye off the jugular.
At his peak, his columns appeared in more than 40 US publications, from the radical Village Voice and the left-wing weekly magazine The Nation to the mainstream Wall Street Journal (where he worked for 11 years) and Esquire magazine, often engaged in a war of words with the higher-profile British expatriate journalist Christopher Hitchens, who died last December.
Having moved from Scotland to Ireland at the age of six, Cockburn became an Irish citizen, even though he returned to Scotland to attend Trinity College, Glenalmond (now Glenalmond College), near Perth. He became a US citizen in 2009.
In recent years, he was best-known for his hard-hitting articles in the avant-garde magazine CounterPunch, which he co-founded and co-edited from his home in the remote village of Petrolia in northern California.
Needless to say, he was never on the US White House Christmas card list, whether a Republican or Democrat was in residence.
He once compared US President Barack Obama to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il because the former backed the holding of untried terrorist suspects at Guantánamo Bay rather than trying them on US soil.
Unlike most American “liberals”, however, he expressed scepticism over how much mankind was responsible for climate change and global warming. He consistently attacked Israel, as well as pro-Israeli US policies, saying that when the Israeli government resorted to calling him an anti-semite, he “knew they must be feeling guilty about something”.
He once called US filmmaker Michael Moore “a blowhard and a jerk”.
Despite being treated for cancer in a German clinic, something known only to his closest friends and family, he continued to write, publishing his last column in The Nation ten days before his death.
In it, he predicted that the collapse of the international banking system was inevitable sooner or later, due to its “culture of rabid criminality”. Despite the searing accuracy of that phrase, few of us journalists would get it past our editors.
Alexander Claud Cockburn was born in the Dornoch Firth village of Ardgay, at the time in Ross-shire, now part of Sutherland, on 6 June, 1941.
His father Claud Cockburn, a famous communist journalist and fervent Scottish nationalist through his historic roots, had sent wife and child to the safety of the Highlands after the Luftwaffe blitz of London.
It was a smart move. Their London home – Claud was working for The Times – was hit later in the war by a German V-2 rocket. Only the family cat was in the house, and survived to greet the family “somewhat suspiciously” towards the end of the war, Alexander recalled.
His father Claud was one of the finest and most controversial journalists of his generation, fighting alongside the Republicans in the Spanish civil war and at the same time reporting on the war, putting his moral compass ahead of his objectivity.
It was something he would pass down to his three sons, Alexander, Patrick and Andrew. With Alexander gone, Patrick and Andrew remain among the leading journalists and authors of their own generation, Patrick having survived childhood polio to become one of the world’s finest war correspondents.
Their mother – Claud’s third wife – was Patricia Byron (née Arbuthnot), also from an old Scottish family. Alexander would later use the title of one of his father’s novels, Beat the Devil, as the title of his column in The Nation magazine, which became a must-read for left-wing intellectuals, Washington insiders and students of journalism.
Alexander’s grandfather was another famous Scot, Henry Cockburn, British Consul General to China and Korea.
Another ancestor was Henry Thomas Cockburn of Bonaly, Midlothian, Lord Cockburn, a leading lawyer, judge and literary figure who served as Solicitor General for Scotland in the 1830s.
Once he had emigrated to the US, and soon into the White House’s bad books, Alexander used to revel in the story that another ancestor, rear-Admiral (and later Admiral) Sir George Cockburn, helped burn down Washington DC, including the White House, in 1814 during the so-called War of 1812 between the upstart United States of America and the British Empire.
Although he was anything but an imperialist, Alexander could never resist a wry smile at that image.
At Glenalmond – known as “Coll” to its pupils and staff – Alexander was a “Patchellian”, a member of the school’s Patchell’s House.
He was a key player in the school’s rugby First Fifteen, considered a formidable team Scotland-wide. He also played double bass in a jazz band with schoolmate Miles Kington, at the time a piano and trombone player, later to become one of Britain’s greatest journalists and writers.
While the family had moved to Ireland – to Youghal in Country Cork – Alexander went up to study English Literature at Oxford (Keble College), where he started his journalistic career with the student newspaper Cherwell.
Commenting on Cockburn as a young journalist, another writer almost of the same generation, Godfrey Hodgson, wrote in a Guardian obituary on Monday: “He had something of the air of the classic Bollinger Bolshevik: elegant, with his blue shades and his Gauloises cigarettes, well-connected and perversely radical politically.”
After Oxford, Cockburn worked for the Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman before heeding the call to “Go West” in 1972. He would remain in the US for the next 40 years, but for his chemotherapy treatment for colorectal cancer in Germany over the last few months.
Those months of blood transfusion were painful and debilitating but Cockburn insisted his friends kept his condition quiet while he kept writing. He didn’t want personal sympathy to influence reaction to his work, friends said.
In his German clinic, he finished his memoirs, A Colossal Wreck, expected to be published by next year.
Alexander Cockburn is survived by his daughter Daisy (from the novelist Emma Tennant, to whom he was married from 1968-73) and by his brothers Andrew and Patrick, the latter a foreign and war correspondent for The Independent.
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