my Transatlantic Messages in the fourth issue of Bikwil
(November 1997), I see I was considering the hopeful prospect that a year
from then we would see the celebration of the ninetieth birthday of
veteran BBC commentator Alistair Cooke.
indeed, are they whose wishes come true, and for once I
can be counted among their number. For Cooke, pacemaker
and all, is now in his tenth decade and in fact is still
going strong with his Letter from America, the
longest-running radio show in history. (On the weekend of
his 90th birthday week — 20-22 November 1998 — Cooke
delivered his two thousand-five-hundred-and-
mentioned before in this column my regular visits to
ABC Radio National’s
web site. A call in there recently revealed a new link — click on
Letter from America and you get taken to the BBC’s site. And guess
what? The latter provides
transcripts of the 20 most recent broadcasts of
relevant here is the amount of space (under the heading Ninety Years
Young) the Beeb have been giving to the birthday of this doyen of
makes him tick
letter 1968 (Cooke was actually there, on the other side of those swinging
pantry doors, when Robert Kennedy was assassinated, and his programme,
Bad Night in Los Angeles, is reproduced in full)
poignant are the scores of heartfelt messages from ordinary listeners
around the globe — Botswana, Chile, France, Glasgow, Illinois, New
Zealand, Nottingham, Oregon, Singapore, South Australia . . .
even an audio-visual tribute you can hear and watch.
does Cooke talk about in that historic programme no. 2597? He calls
it Indelible Memories on This Special Occasion, and he begins by
responding to the invitation to reminisce about some “particular talks
that stayed in the memory” with these words:
talks that are most easily recalled by me are ones that surprised me by
the numbers of people who felt moved to respond . . . Perhaps it’s a good
idea . . . to retell the gist of one or two . . . since the swishing of
that scythe at my back suggests that maybe while there’s any memory left I
should tap it.
proceeds to recall and summarise The Summer Bachelor (1950) and
Alcatraz (1959), and concludes with the story that produced “far and
away, the largest mail, from all sorts of people of every class and
country”. None other than A Baby Is Missing (1950).
chance is it that these three Letters are all on that double BBC cassette
set I referred to in Bikwil No. 4.
the ABC Shops now have available a second BBC cassette compilation of
Cooke’s Letters. It covers the 1970s. These 16 talks include:
of China (1972)
Benefits of Clergy (1975)
Die before Noon (1978).
a biography of Alistair Cooke has been written by Nick Clarke of BBC Radio
4. With any luck, it should have appeared by the time you are reading
this. (And, like Don Bradman, Cooke will have had his 91st birthday.)
haven’t yet experienced Alistair Cooke, I trust that in this and the
earlier column I have given you a taste of what you’ve been missing. Seek
him out. You will not be disappointed.
7.10 pm Sundays.