Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Alistair Cooke

It was a habit of Alistair Cooke's, especially later in life when he was less able to get out and mine his nuggets of American life in person, to hang his Letter From America on the hook of an anniversary - most often the death of someone famous, or infamous. My favourite was a piece about his own sporting hero, golfing legend and man next door, 'The great, the incomparable' (Cooke's own words) Bobby Jones.

Well, to take a leaf: Alistair Cooke died on this day in 2004, and apart from my father there is no-one I miss more. For almost thirty years I listened to him every Sunday morning at 8.45, and after my father's death in 1977 it was a weekly ritual shared by my mother. Wherever I was, I knew that for thirteen and a half minutes she was there too, and indeed I usually called her immediately after the broadcast with a cheery 'Good morning!' in fluent Cooke, and we talked about that morning's Letter.

I once asked John Cole, the BBC's erstwhile political editor, if he had known the man, because I was aware that in the 1960s they had both worked for what was then The Manchester Guardian; and he said, 'Cookie? A law unto himself.' This is a fairly common reaction amongst those who worked with Cooke, regardless of how much they admired him. John had been in the US during Hubert Humphrey's vice-presidential campaign (remember Tom Lehrer's classic, 'Whatever Became Of Hubert'?) and found himself travelling with Humphrey by plane to one of the Primaries, I think it was in the Deep South. It was meant to be Cooke's story, but ever the maverick, Cooke was following a story of his own on the west coast, and John Cole's most vivid memory is of their editor's mildy frustrated messages coming over the wire: 'Where's Cooke?!' John filed the story himself.

Anyway, I feel privileged to have been transported, beguiled, amused - always enlightened - by Cooke on a weekly basis for all those years, and I still listen to his silken voice in the car when I'm low, nostalgic or simply in need of inspiration.

When Cooke retired in early 2004 at the age of ninety-five, with the simple words, 'I want to carry on, but I can't', I felt a sense of bereavement, but took some comfort from the fact that millions will have felt the same way.
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