By Dan Hagen
In the Sunday predawn, with the beagle curled up near me under his yellow satin blanky, I was reading Alistair Cooke’s biographical sketches in “Six Men” and finding his prose oddly bracing in its combination of gossip and zeitgeist.
Earlier in the week, I had raided the preview book sale at the Mattoon library and came away with several treasures, among them Dr. Seuss and Curious George for my new great-nephew Clark, P.D. James’ “Death Comes to Pemberley” for a friend who loves Jane Austen, the light-hearted memoirs of Clarence Day in one heavy 450-page volume, the baby boomer childhood satire “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” and finally “Six Men,” Cooke’s middlebrow’s-eye-view of three highbrows (Bertrand Russell, Adlai Stevenson and H.L. Mencken), a genius (Chaplin), a leading man (Bogart) and a leading example among ungrateful and treacherous parasites (Edward VIII).
Neither particularly thoughtful nor particularly idealistic, the avuncular Masterpiece Theatre host was an eloquent and reassuring establishmentarian. He seems to have learned early on to keep his praise dry and preserve it for whoever would eventually turn out to be the winners.
Still, Cooke’s chumminess wins you over with its just-between-us wink and its implicit wave toward the sideboard. “Oh, have another glass of that and did I ever tell you about that time when...?”
And Cooke’s best-known quotes tend to express those qualities. For example, he said, “Curiosity endows the people who have it with a generosity in argument and a serenity in their own mode of life which springs from their cheerful willingness to let life take the form it will.”
He also said, “Cocktail music is accepted as audible wallpaper;” “As always, the British especially shudder at the latest American vulgarity, and then they embrace it with enthusiasm two years later;” and “A professional is someone who can do his best work when he doesn't feel like it.”
I particularly agree with that last one.