March 17th, 2004

Not long ago, I was startled to hear that the British journalist Alistair Cooke was retiring and had submitted his last audio essay, called Letter from America, to the BBC–startled not because Mr. Cooke was retiring but because he was still performing this activity, at age 95, just as he had for the preceding 57 years. Cooke is best known in this country as the Englishman who used to introduce episodes of Masterpiece Theatre on PBS. His Letters from America commentaries could only be heard in this country on shortwave, on the BBC.

I wonder if Cooke ever envisioned that his weekly 15-minute talks–many of them, at least–would live on the BBC Web site where they would be instantly available to anyone with a Web browser and a connection. It took me only a minute to find the last talk, a commentary on Bush and WMDs delivered with his usual grace and wit, and ending with nary a word of farewell. It’s far easier to hear him now, online, than when I was a teenager squirreled away in my father’s basement workshop, tuning in the BBC World Service on an Allied Shortwave radio, two heavy bakelite headphones clamped to my ears.

I urge anyone to listen to Cooke’s work today. His is a type of journalism almost gone from public discourse. Cooke never allows himself to be overwhelmed by the minutiae of current events, like so many bloggers and reporters (and blogger/reporters) do today. He picks and chooses the important images and gives you the big picture as well. His recounting of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy–an event at which by the oddest of coincidences he happened to be present–is incredibly riveting and moving. Yet, in his typical congenial way he takes a full five minutes to even begin to describe the event itself. It’s a leisurely style that can only be achieved by someone with a spacious mind and broad vision–qualities that are becoming all too scarce. If this blog achieves even a fraction of those qualities, I will consider it a success.