A Colossal Wreck

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(386)

Alexander Cockburn, Verso, £20

The journalist Alexander Cockburn liked to drive around America's highways in decrepit cars sending in his copy when it suited. It's not the worst life for a journalist and Cockburn was far from the worst journalist.

A Colossal Wreck is an acerbic and eclectic new collection from the past two decades. Cockburn, who died last year, "lived in every quadrant of the United States and has driven across it maybe 40 times".

It's an untidy book that captures an untidy mind and no worse for it. He kept watch through his windscreen on unchecked corporate power. He was able to shift effortlessly from the personal to the political.

He banged away against what he called "the criminal tendencies of the executive class", writing in 2002, "The finest schools in America produced a criminal elite that stole the store in less than a decade."

Political essay collections often date quickly but this one will linger because of Cockburn's language.

Cockburn says the former Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska "would drill through his mother if he thought there was oil in substrates below her coffin". Food is a recurrent theme, whether it's bemoaning the tastelessness of farmed trout or insisting on the advantages of a messy kitchen to encourage wild yeast.

Cockburn's principal concern was politics. He is particularly effective when skewering the progressive pretensions of American liberalism. "I've never heard a politician so careful not to offend conventional elite opinion while pretending to be fearless and forthright," he writes of Barack Obama back in 2006.

His opposition to the neoliberalism and imperial adventuring is instinctive and heartfelt. His collaborators mostly did the investigations - Cockburn brings the wit, the analysis and the writing.

Here he is, for instance, on 12 September 2001, reflecting the preceding day: "The targets abroad will be all the usual suspects: rogue states (most of which, like the Taliban or Saddam Hussein, started off as creatures of US intelligence). The target at home will be the bill of rights."

He launched the website Counterpunch, he was an early adopter of the internet as a potential medium for good journalism - though inevitably Cockburn clung to using a typewriter for a long time.

He tangled with fellow exile journo Christopher Hitchens, who he came to see as a hack writer, a warmonger and a tattler. "The surest way to get a secret into mass circulation is to tell it to Hitchens, swearing him to silence as one does so."

Cockburn also liked gun shows because "they are anti-government, genuinely populist and lots of fun". He thought teachers should carry guns and he admired the Tea Party's zeal if not their politics, and was a climate sceptic.

He would like us to believe that his departures from progressive politics are libertarian. Cockburn describes himself as Marx-ish. Perhaps. Regardless, Cockburn was a fine muckraking journalist and always worth reading.

A Colossal Wreck is available from Bookmarks bookshop.