Books: Even As We Speak — Peter Cook |
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Peter Cook

In the restaurant on top of Ajax mountain at Aspen, Colorado, my wife and I had just started eating lunch when Barry Humphries suddenly appeared beside us and said that Peter Cook had died the day before. I hadn’t known, and hated not having known, guilty that I had enjoyed the previous evening’s dinner. I ate my lunch but didn’t taste it. Later on I was glad that it was a fellow comic writer, one of my masters, from whom I had found out that another of my masters was no longer with us. It fitted the way that Peter’s influence worked. He got used early to the adulation of a wide public and eventually decided that he could do without it: long before the end, fame had to chase him far harder than he chased it. But among his fellow practitioners his lustre was undimmed, unequalled and unchallenged, a large part of the binding force that joined them even as their individual ambitions forced them apart. Just as the astronauts riding up on their rockets all worshipped Chuck Yeager, the jet pilot who never joined them in space because he flew too well with wings, so the media millionaires all knew that Cook was the unsurpassable precursor who had done it all before they did, and done it better. Indeed his superiority was easier to take after he ceased to exercise it. In his last years, when he sat at home reading newspapers while defying alcohol to dull his brilliant mind, he was a cinch to love. Early on, when we were all struggling to get started and he was effortlessly up there dominating the whole picture, to feel affection for him took self-discipline. Admiration was too total. You couldn’t write a line without imagining him looking over your shoulder, not very impressed.

To imagine him doing that was particularly easy if you were coming up to Pembroke College, Cambridge, which I did in 1964. His legend haunted the place with an intensity unrivalled even by that of Ted Hughes. The poet, after all, had only begun to practise his art there. But the comedian was already the leading man in his field before he went down. I thought, perhaps incorrectly, that I could write poetry of my own without worrying too much about Hughes. But there was no question of doing comedy without worrying about Cook. When Eric Idle drafted me to assist him in producing the Pembroke Smoker in the Old Library, he made it clear to me that the tradition begun by Cook had to be kept up, even if it was unlikely that our concert would emulate Cook’s in forming the basis of a West End hit revue. Cook created Pieces of Eight while still in statu pupillari. He had two revues running in the West End before he sat the Tripos. At the porter’s lodge, so the story went, his accountant was told to wait because a Hollywood producer had not yet left. Stories about Cook grew with the telling, but only because of the magnitude of the initial impetus. It would be our task, Idle informed me, to be worthy of his example, at least to the extent of not perpetrating a disaster. Together we built a stage out of beer crates.

In subsequent years, when I had installed myself as perennial sole producer of the Pembroke Smoker, I always had Cook’s damnably precocious originality in mind to keep me humble. When Germaine Greer did her famous Striptease Nun routine, or her sensational rendition of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ in which her mouth moved out of synchronization with the words while the audience fell thrashing out of their chairs, I would stand proudly in the wings, confident that he would have approved. I only wished that I could have been as confident about my own efforts. Most of them were comic monologues, and none of us ever delivered one of those without remembering who had been on before us. That tiny beer-crate stage could feel as big and lonely as a Roman arena.

We had all felt his influence long before that, of course. With mingled envy and awe I had memorized the whole of the Beyond the Fringe LP, including the liner notes, the year I arrived in London. But in Pembroke those four indecently gifted young people started to become real, simply because I could hear the exemplary echo of Cook’s footsteps on the flagstones. He was practically a physical presence, although strangely enough he was the last of the quartet that I actually met in real life, and it was more than twenty years later before I experienced the delights of his conversation. When I finally did, it immediately became apparent why he was producing less for the public. It was because he was lavishing it on his life. He gave it away to his friends. In an hour of casual talk he spilled out enough wit and perception — in him the two things were uncommonly near allied — to keep anybody else going for a whole television season. That was the cruel fact which so few of his obituarists, even at their most laudatory, could bring themselves to face: he wasn’t just a genius, he had the genius’s impatience with the whole idea of doing something again. He reinvented an art form, exhausted its possibilities, and just left it. There is always something frightening about that degree of inventiveness. Leonardo used to scare people the same way, by carving in ice, painting on a wet wall, or just never getting around to creating any more of the masterpieces that everyone — wise after the event — knew that he was capable of. But he knew that better than they did. Cook, mutatis mutandis (he couldn’t paint, but then Leonardo couldn’t imitate Harold Macmillan) was in the same case. He didn’t lose his powers. He just lost interest in proving that he possessed them.

In a television special called Postcard from London I filmed a conversation with Cook and we did a good deal of incidental chatting while the magazines were being changed. More recently, in his last years, I had the pleasure of his company when he sweetly agreed to descend from his mountain fastness and become the most adventurous guest in every season of my weekly talk show. On screen he was invariably magisterial, but off screen he was even better than that. Most good speakers husband their resources, especially when it is getting late. Few of them will play to an audience of one. He would give his whole wealth without hesitation. I wish we had spent more time talking about the Dear Old College but it didn’t work out that way. In my experience, he wasn’t much of a one for reminiscence, and he wasn’t kidding about his profound indifference to Establishments of all types. It would be sentimental to suggest that Pembroke, or even Cambridge, formed him. It would be truer to say that he formed them — to the extent, at any rate, of providing one of those periodic injections of concentrated intelligence which our venerated institutions depend on for their continued vitality. He did the same for the whole country. A supreme master of the language that unites this nation, he was the laughter in its voice: sceptical, critical, yet always joyful, revelling in the verbal heritage which for him was the tradition that really mattered. (It was a pity that he never read from The Anatomy of Melancholy, because there are whole stretches of it which you would swear he wrote.) If his college ever puts up a statue to him, it should be rigged to speak, as a reminder that the illustrious roster of Pembroke poets which began with Spenser surely included Peter Cook.

(Pembroke Magazine, 1995)

See Peter Cook in conversation with Clive