Alistair Cooke 1908-2004

Alistair Cooke died last month only three weeks after retiring at the age of 95, and it’s difficult to distinguish cause and effect. Did he retire because the end was so near, or did he lose the will to live because he now had nothing to do? In a prescient statement a few years ago he said “I’ve noticed that if you retire you keel over” (Alistair Cooke’s first letter). “Speak for yourself” is what most of us are probably thinking, and that’s precisely what he did throughout his long career.

Apparently, he started out with ambitions to become an actor, but decided that telling America’s story was far more interesting than anything on the stage. He fell in love with America’s dynamic spirit of free enterprise, and became a US citizen in 1941. Given his subject, it’s highly ironic that he should succeed largely through non-profit, public broadcasting. Would his career have lasted as long had he been exposed to the harsh realities of the commercial world? I doubt it. Despite a publicly-subsidised audience of millions, Cooke still appealed to relatively few. Nevertheless, he clearly knew how to make the best of both his worlds: dynamic, aggressive America and inquisitive, but world-weary Britain.