The Patient Has the Floor, by Alistair Cooke. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 224 pp. $16.95. Celebrating the 4th of July was all a mistake, and we were too early with the Bicentennial. As Alistair Cooke points out, July the 2nd was the date on which the Declaration of Independence was signed. The Constitution had to wait until 1789.
These inconvenient facts, as well as other words of wisdom, were dished out to the United States House of Representatives in a speech made to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the First Continental Congress, one of many talks reprinted in this book.
Anyone who has watched him on US television introducing Masterpiece Theatre can imagine the delight Mr. Cooke must have taken in teasing the House. We can even, thanks to his superb artistry, hear his voice while we read, a talent he explained in a recent interview with the London Sunday Times:
``What I do,'' he said, ``is to talk to my typewriter -- I actually do that, because I really am alone. That's what gives people an impression that it is off the cuff, that you're thinking aloud, and that is what I've been working on for 40 years -- how to write for talking. . . .''
Since it is Cooke's conviction that most experts are desperately cut off from the fearless voice of the layman, he has made a definite decision to ``accept only invitations from learned bodies about whose specialty we laymen have firm and quirky convictions they may be unaware of.''
Of the 14 of those lectures included here, five were delivered to medical bodies. Other favored institutions include Yale, the Senate of Cambridge University (England), the Philadelphia Bar Association, and the US State Department.
Cooke's popular British Broadcasting Corporation program, ``Letter From America'' (it has been running for 40 years) shows how well he not only clarifies the obscure but makes it entertaining into the bargain, thus proving his contention that the truth may often be embarrassing but is never dull. So, though some parts of some speeches are over the heads of some readers, there is enough treasure here for all of us.
Take, for instance, his warning to doctors -- a warning that certainly belongs on both sides of the consulting room door:
``It is worth any doctor's while to pause from time to time and ask himself whether he's really pursuing a new and fruitful line or whether he's running with the herd; whether he's falling back on a well-worn conviction or whether he's falling back on a national prejudice, or even a prejudice of the school he was trained in.'' Watch out, he warns, against ``the subtle tyranny of fashion, even in the sciences, even in medicine.''
He might have added a warning to the rest of us to base our decision about whether or not to get married, become an activist, a jogger, or an eater of wheat germ, on our own judgment, not on the latest fashionable ``life style.''
Whether he is talking to the Mayo Clinic (jargon, he warns, will do your thinking for you if you don't watch out), or to historians, he attacks our temptation to be obscure.
When it comes to practical advice for laymen, it is hard to equal what he told the English-Speaking Union Conference of British and American Scholars. In fact, anyone about to make a speech, write a letter, or even tell a joke, should be warned that to do so without reading Alistair Cooke could be hazardous to the health of the language.
From what he says here, I am afraid he has given up all hope for people over 40, considering their language beyond redemption. It is a pessimism we would be wise to ignore whatever age we are and include ourselves among those who will cease at once from using such expressions as ``behind schedule'' (late), ``in view of the fact that'' (because), ``an impaired vertical clearance'' (a low bridge).
Who is going to warn the children, asks Cooke, ``about the whole Grammar of Anxiety which springs from the chronic fear of being thought uneducated or banal and coins such things as `more importantly,' `he invited Mary and I' . . . and `the end result' ''?
Of course a man famous for being at home on both sides of the Atlantic (balancing his British birth and upbringing against 45 years as an American citizen) is going to have things to say about Anglo-American relations and how prejudices are formed.
``Whenever I hear or read a spontaneous anti-English remark, or a brisk anti-American paragraph, I usually sense that a wild generalization is being made out of a single personal experience. . . ,'' says Cooke.
``. . . By a contradiction that afflicts every nation at some stage of its history, the more it develops a new character, the more it clings to the reputation of the old.''
Prejudice is something this speaker has no time for. But as these lectures all make clear in one way or another, the main ingredients of Cooke's recipe for success are clarity and truthfulness. And wit, of course.