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The Autobiography of Claud Cockburn

Claud Cockburn —father of Alexander, Andrew, and Patrick, three brilliant journalists— was the original model. In 1967 his three volumes of autobiography were consolidated and published by Penguin as I Claud... It's hard to find a copy, so I'll quote up to the legal limit. 

Claud Cockburn (left) and Fred Copeman of the British Battalion of the International Brigades, taken at the battle of Brunete in the summer of 1937 by Gerda Taro.

Claud Cockburn was born in Peking (now Beijing) in 1904. His father, "a younger son of Lord Cockburn, the great Scottish advocate and judge who shone so brightly in the golden age of Edinburgh society," had passed the necessary exam at age 19 and become British Vice-Consul in "the then-remote city of Chungking...

"At the time it was forbidden for foreigners to reside in or even visit that part of Chungking on the right bank of the Yangtze. Righty, the Chinese believe that if you give the foreigners an inch they will take an ell. Once a month my father —designing to establish precedents and break down this ban— used to send a formal notification to the governor, who resided on the right bank, that the British Vice-Consul proposed to call on him on a certain date. The governor, not wishing to make a formal breach of relations, always acceded. On the day fixed, my father was transported across the river, and was met on the opposite bank by the governor's litter, with a heavy guard of soldiers. The steep street to the governor's residence were lined with furiously hostile crowds their natural hatred of the intruder encouraged and stimulated when necessary by agents of the governor. They pelted the litter with stones. Every couple of hundred yards the litter was halted while the soldiers battled with the populace.

"At the governor's residence the governor entertained the vice-consul and they talked for a couple of hours. At some point during the conversation, the vice-consul took occasion to remark with satisfaction that it was now evidently the policy of the Imperial Government to permit an Englishman to visit the right bank of the river at Chungking. At some other point the governor would take occasion to express his satisfaction that in this single instance it had been possible for the Imperial authorities to suspend for a few hours the inviolable rule against the presence of foreigners on the right back, and that the efficiency of the troops had sufficed to curb, on this particular day, the profound indignation of the people.

"The parting ceremony was also a somewhat elaborate maneuver, it being necessary for the vice-consul to take his leave in words carrying the general sense of au revoir, whereas the governor must give to his courteous parting remarks the unmistakable nuance of an adieu. Then came the progress back to the river, with stoning, battles, and occasional bloodshed."

Claud was educated in England with an interlude in Budapest, where his father was posted for three years. "The valley of the Danube was the first area in which I ever felt immediately and completely at home," he writes. "Since then I have twice experienced the same sense of being immediately at home in an entirely strange place —once in New York and once in Oklahoma City."

He won a scholarship to Oxford, then a fellowship that would support him for two years. Journalism, deemed unclassy in Academe, was his chosen profession. He headed for Berlin with a letter of introduction to the Times of London bureau chief. His supposed connection was gone, but the new chief, Norman Ebbutt, was short-handed, put Cockburn to work, and introduced him to his sources. "Norman Ebbutt was intelligent and courageous," Cockburn writes, "and he needed to be, for he was a man of goodwill... Politically he was, I suppose, what could be described as a Left Wing Liberal, which meant, at any rate in his case, that he hoped for the best in everyone."

For a while Cockburn wrote articles that the Times ran but wouldn't pay for. Then they paid him as a free-lancer. Then, at Ebbutt's urging, the London office offered to hire Cockburn; but this would have entailed moving up a career ladder in England before he could be a foreign correspondent —the job he wanted and already had— so he declined. People at the Times' London office were reportedly, "shocked but rather pleased. For years nobody had actually refused a job on the Times: they thought this showed originality."

Then Cockburn broke a big story. "Towards the end of a blazing afternoon," he recounts, "tornadoes of rain rushed suddenly down on Berlin, and there were reports of a cloudburst on the borders of southern Saxony. The reports in the evening papers had that curious smell about them which suggests immediately that somebody somewhere is trying to conceal something."

Cockburn caught a train "At my own expense —an alarming speculation. I got there at dawn, observed with satisfaction that there were no other journalists about, and found that, in one of the strangest small-scale catastrophes of the decade, the cloudburst had poured unheard of quantities of water into little mountain streams, which tore down trees formerly far above their beds, jammed the broken trees against the bridges until they formed high timber dams, and, pushed harder than ever by the dams, rose and rushed along the streets of sleeping villages on the valley side, peeling off the front of houses like wet cardboard, and killing more than 100 people in a few minutes. Half a mile of that little valley smelled of death. There were corpses in the mud and in one house the table in an upper back room had been late for breakfast. In several other houses canaries were singing or moping in their cages."

After his major scoop the Times offered Cockburn a quicker path to his goal, skipping two lower rungs of the career ladder and moving directly to an editorial job in the Foreign Room, readying correspondents' dispatches for print. He declined again. Then he realized that he had already received and spent the last installment of his fellowship payment, so he accepted the position, moved to London, and yearned for reassignment. 

One day, irked by a story by a journalist named Pugge that glorified the forces of law-and-order in Berlin, Cockburn drafted and put on Pugge's desk "the dispatch which I conceived Pugge would have written — From Our Own Correspondent in Jerusalem — had he been covering events there approximately 2,000 years ago. It was a level-headed estimate studded with well-tried Times phrases. 'Small disposition here,' cabled this correspondent, 'quote attached undue importance protest raised certain quarters result recent arrest and trial leading revolutionary agitator followed by what is known locally as 'the Calvary incident.'  The dispatch was obviously based on an off-the-record interview with Pontius Pilate. It took the view that, so far from acting harshly, the government had behaved with what in some quarters was criticized as undo clemency.'  It pointed out that firm government action had definitely eliminated the small band of extremists, whose doctrines might otherwise have represented a serious threat for the future."

Pugge glanced at Cockburn's draft, saw the familiar cliches, and passed it on along with his report from Berlin. The prank was discovered, Pugge was outraged, but Cockburn's career was not derailed. His Uncle Frank, a Canadian banker "who looked upon Europe as a little more than a fascinating museum in which it was good for people on holiday to pass a certain amount of time each year," had a friend on the Times board of directors. The friend saw to it that Cockburn would get assigned to New York if he he was approved by the current Wall Street correspondent, Louis Hinrichs. After a trip by Hinrichs to London in 1929, he got the go-ahead.

Becoming a Communist

In 1927, surveying the crowd at a party given by a Viennese Baroness, Claud Cockburn had had a realization. "They were for the most part Austrians, Hungarians, Poles or Russians... Most of them were between the ages of 25 and 45...  All of them been inescapably involved in the social upheavals and conflicts of the years after 1916... what all of them despite their curious differences of view, shared... was a recognition of Communism as the central dominating factor of our century. A platitude of course.  To people nowadays such a recognition may seem a somewhat limited achievement, but I am speaking of the year 1927...

"I began to be irked by my own ignorance of the events and particularly of the writings which had so profoundly affected these peoples lives. Reluctantly, because I felt sure it would be tedious and utterly wrong-headed and mistaken, I bought in Vienna... a volume nicely printed now and freely displayed in the book shop containing all those pamphlets and manifestos of Lenin and Zinoviev which 11 years before had to be smuggled dangerously across Europe... I found them shocking, repugnant, alien. They pricked and tickled like a hair shirt. They seemed to generate an intolerable heat. They existed in the world of notions with which I had no contact, and, exasperatingly, they dared totally and contemptuously to disregard most of the assumptions which I have been brought up and educated, or else to treat them brusquely as dangerous delusions peddled by charlatans bent on deceiving the people."

By 1929, Cockburn writes, he "had read Das Kapital and the 18th Brumaire and The Civil War in France and other works of Marks and Lenin; State and Revolution, and Imperialism, and Materialism and Empirical Criticism, and been particularly impressed by Bukharin's Historical Materialism. Yet at the same time highly informed books continue to appear in quantity, proving that what was happening in the United States in that year of boom, 1929, was making the surest nonsense of Marx, Lenin, Bukharin and everyone else of their way of thinking. The United States hung over my thoughts like an enormous question mark. I felt that I should never be able to make up my mind about anything unless I went there and saw for myself."

(To be continued…)

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