Remembering Alistair Cooke

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(Host) Commentator Peter Gilbert remembers BBC broadcaster Alistair Cooke.

(Gilbert) Last month, the American flag flew atop London’s Westminster Abbey for the first time in its thousand-year history. The occasion – a memorial service for naturalized American citizen Alistair Cooke, who died in March at the age of 95. His daughter Susan, a minister in East Montpelier, Vermont, led the prayers, and granddaughter Jane played the second movement of Bach’s violin Concerto in A Minor.

Born in 1908 near Manchester, England, and raised in a Blackpool boarding house and not to the manor born, Alistair Cooke was graduated from Cambridge and awarded a two-year fellowship to Yale. He moved to the United States in 1937, and became an American citizen in 1941. He was for 58 years author of BBC Radio’s weekly Letter from America. Americans know him best as host for 22 years of Masterpiece Theatre, which caused him to be recognized as a masterpiece himself.

George Bernard Shaw famously remarked that Americans and English are two peoples separated by a common language. Perhaps more than any other person in the twentieth century, Alistair Cooke interpreted one group of English-speakers for the other. In the process, he helped America understand itself better as well. With intelligence, freshness, and conversational informality, he talked of events big and small, culture and ideas, people and progress. He combined deep knowledge and thoughtfulness with openness, curiosity, and equanimity.

The memorial service included three taped recordings of Cooke speaking. Toward the end of the service he said,

“I’ve never trusted the Big Bang theory, not until someone tells me who triggered it, who struck the match. But if I were compelled at pistol point to choose between the Big Bang and the Book of Genesis I should plump for Genesis: ‘And God said: ‘Let there be light!’ And there was light.

“And then bring on the thunder and lightning of The
Hallelujah Chorus.”

And that was the cue for the full BBC orchestra and choir!

I remember an episode of that quintessential American TV show of the 1970s, “All in the Family.” Its dramatic high point was when Archie Bunker’s daughter quotes Alistair Cooke on the optimism and faith that causes us to continue to choose to bring children into the world, despite its sorrow, pain, and injustice. Cooke’s words – eloquent, poignant, humane – bring peace and reconciliation to the Bunker household – to all except Archie, who remains in the dark, as usual, repeatedly asking in exasperation, “Who’s Alice the Cook?”

Millions on both sides of the Atlantic know, remember, and honor Alistair Cooke.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

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