"The Unseen Alistair Cooke"

Masterpiece Contemporary

by Simon Winchester

In their ancient Dorset cottage back in the 1950s my grandparents took great pride in their almost equally ancient radio set, an apparatus as big as a suitcase, polished walnut on the outside and glowing glass valves within, and with an illuminated dial inscribed with what seemed to me the most exotic-of names; Hilversum, Schenectady, Kowloon. There was another radio in the kitchen, for ordinary listening; but for special occasions, as each Friday evening at seven,  we gathered around the drawing-room behemoth, and we did so in sacramental awe.

“Good evening”. That was all.

On these Fridays my grandmother would dim the lights, leaving only the fire guttering in the grate, the dog doing his best to steal its warmth by slumbering in front.  My grandfather would then tune in the set with elaborate care until, out of the ethereal hissing and whistling  the BBC Home Service finally came in loud and clear. There would be the chimes of a London church, then the time-signal pips from Greenwich and the announcer saying with great formality "And now - Letter from America", whereupon the room would fall silent, aside from the gales thrashing the elms outside.  And then, the voice:

"Good evening".  That was all. The simplest beginning to what was a weekly family reverie. It was a greeting offered in a soothingly warm voice, a voice with just the lightest of American accents, an accent still faintly embracing another, though I wasn't sure which.

I liked the voice so much.  I liked to imagine it as the voice of a beloved and much-missed uncle, perhaps,  who had just come back from a year in Manhattan, or Kansas City, or Albuquerque or some similarly fabulous place, and who had just popped in to tell you a story of his adventures there, before you snuggled down and went to sleep.

It was the voice of Alistair Cooke, and we listened to him without fail every Friday night of my childhood, and it was he who prompted me to fall in love, as he himself had fallen in love many years before, with America.    

That I live here now, more at home in America than in all the many countries in which I have lived for the past half century, is all down to the weekly radio story-tellings of this son of a Lancashire ironworker who was born plain Alfred Cooke - a name which, in the first hint of the theatrical leanings which would color his later life, he swiftly abandoned for Alistair.

Back then I never imagined we would meet. From time to time I would see his picture in the magazines - sleek and silver-haired, tall, with a spectacularly aquiline nose, cutting a rather dashing, glamorous figure. He seemed austere, remote, a member of a faraway and cerebral elite. He mingled with Presidents. He counted all manner of swells among his friends. He knew H. L. Mencken, Lauren Bacall, Jawaharlal Nehru, Duke Ellington. He played jazz on the piano. He lived in Fifth Avenue, overlooking the Park. He was an amateur weatherman, and collected barographs. He was whisky lover, a man who famously said "one should never accept a drink before 6pm, and never refuse one after."  And he was the Chief American correspondent for the Guardian.

But as it happened, fifteen or so years after those Fridays spent huddling over that radio set in the Dorset gloom, I became a journalist, and after doing my stints in the English provincial cities I eventually joined the Guardian - a  happenstance that made the possibility of an encounter with my hero just a little closer.  It still seemed a long shot. I was at the time based in Belfast, covering the Irish Troubles. Cooke, as the hard-boiled sub-editors on the papers would refer to him as they admiringly checked in vain for errors in his copy, was far off in the United States, still remote and exotic, a high priest of the craft at which I was still an apprentice-boy.

Except that then in time, mainly for surviving the rigors of Ireland,  I was sent across the ocean to cover America; and in an instant I became, at least in theory, a Colleague. The paper maintained one political correspondent in Washington; one at the United Nations; Alistair Cooke writing whatever he pleased from New York or wherever he chose to be; and me, wandering about America at the pleasure of the Foreign Editor based back in Manchester.

It was not long before I found my way to New York. On the day my train pulled in to Penn Station I made some calls and discovered that indeed Cooke was in town. I made an arrangement to see him - and shortly before dusk on an appointed early autumn Friday arrived at the great man's flat. I was eager to tell him formally that we were now in harness together, part of the great Guardian effort to explain America to the British back home; and I was eager to tell him also that I adored America - and that this adoration was a direct result of my having listened to him so faithfully over the years, as he broadcast Letter from America  to my British family each Friday evening at seven.

The front door of the apartment was opened by a maid, who smiled warmly and allowed as to how I was indeed expected. But, she then said with downcast eyes, Mr. Cooke had been called away.  Unexpectedly. He was dreadfully sorry. She handed me an envelope, addressed to me in pen in an impeccable hand. This, she said, would explain all.

Inside was a short letter, expressing deep regret at not being there to greet me in person. We would meet again in the future, of course. Just not tonight. However, the note went on - please walk into the drawing room, make yourself comfortable, pull back the drapes, and let yourself gaze out over the lights on the far side of Central Park. Then lower the lights - the maid who let you in will show you how. And once all that is done, turn on the gramophone you see on the bookshelf just below the window. And listen.

It was clearly not the first time that such an arrangement had been orchestrated. And so I did as I was told. I lowered the lights. I gazed enraptured at the glittering amazements spread out before and below me. And I turned the switch.

There was a hissing and a click as the needle fell. And then, in the voice of that long-missed uncle, that warm, soothing voice that was half American and, I now realised, half Lancashire, came:

"Good evening."

And I stood there listening, transfixed. Alistair Cooke told me, as in my own personal Letter from New York,  the great story of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux and the original planning of the Park, and the size of it and the value of it and the role it had played in the lives of New Yorkers for a century and a quarter. Over the thirteen minutes and twenty seconds that the recording lasted - exactly the broadcast length of his Letters from America -  he told me a thousand things about New York I thought I would never remember and have since found I could never forget. He introduced me to the country's greatest city, and helped make me love it in just the way I had come to love America all those years before.

And that is the effect Alfred Alistair Cooke has had upon thousands of others. He was an incredible enthusiast, an infectious, learned, plain-speaking story-teller, a man whose impeccably crafted  words moved millions.  He was born a century ago, and it is unlikely he will be forgotten for a long, long while to come. And for reasons that will long endure, most certainly not by me.


Alistair Cooke - The Man Behind MASTERPIECE

Catch audio commentaries with daughter Susan Cooke Kittredge as she reflects on her father's work and life. And don't forget to watch "The Unseen Alistair Cooke" online, available for a week beginning the day-after broadcast, as this film will not be available on DVD.

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