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23rd November 1927 - 7th November 2013
On Thursday 15th May, 2014, at 11:30am a service of thanksgiving for the life of John Cole was held at St Bride's Church, Fleet Street.
The Venerable David Meara delivered the bidding:-
We gather to celebrate the life and honour the memory of John Cole, former Political Editor of the BBC, an instantly recognizable figure with his Ulster brogue and herringbone overcoat, who charted the events of the Thatcher years with incisive and impartial political analysis. His career began age 17 on the Belfast Telegraph, moving to the Guardian, then the Observer, and in 1981 to the BBC, stepping down in 1992 but continuing to broadcast on radio and television.
We remember a man who was admired for his trustworthiness and impartiality, who spoke with authority and exuded old-fashioned politeness while keeping his own political views firmly to himself.
He was proud of his Northern Irish and Presbyterian roots which were in many ways the key to his character: staunchly moral, incisive, modest and totally lacking in cynicism. Such is the man whom we remember today with admiration and affection, giving thanks for his life of service and his gift of friendship. Give to him, O Lord, rest and peace, the life that knows not age, and the good things that pass not away.Amen.
Listen to Address:
We are here to celebrate the life, and mourn the passing of one of the great stars of British broadcasting. John Cole’s career was spent mostly in newspapers, but its crowning glory came later when he found fame, if not fortune (this was the old BBC) as the best political editor the corporation has ever had. He had been the deputy editor of the Guardian and the Observer before turning himself into a broadcaster at the age of 54.
John would have been among the first to acknowledge that he was not exactly a shoe-in from Central Casting. He took pride in the fact that he was very different from his predecessors. He had not been to public school or university and he spoke with a strong Belfast accent. Private Eye mocked him with a regular column, based on the idea that he was incomprehensible. His spectacles and his herring-bone coat became a gift for cartoonists. But the vast majority of people soon realised that he was very far from being a figure of fun. He was a man of steel, a rare blend of strength and integrity; with his sense of fairness and warmth most of the news audience was quickly won over.
John had no time for intellectual snobs or for satirists, considering many of their jokes more flippant than funny. He bore their barbs with fortitude and doggedly pursued his aim to return to the reporting life, which he had left behind when he climbed Fleet Street’s executive ladder. He had a passion for political journalism, almost a sacred duty to try to understand what was going on and to communicate that with others.
John was, above all a serious person, though that didn’t stop him being delightfully funny in private. He was a great story teller; argumentative - yes, angry sometimes, but hardly ever frivolous. When we first got to know each other in 1981, I noticed a certain reserve. My time performing as a comedian at Oxford and later on BBC television was not in my favour. But I did have a redeeming feature; I had covered the violent events in Northern Ireland, or as he put it ‘I had served in the province.’ It meant that I understood why John felt so strongly on this issue that sometimes it was better to avoid the subject. We soon became close friends and colleagues. At his leaving do I suggested being his deputy was like being in a buddy/buddy movie, or to be more accurate I played Sergeant Lewis to his Inspector Morse.
One of the few glamorous moments of my Westminster days was to walk down Whitehall with John Cole on the way to and from the lobby meetings at No 10. The crowds parted and the road seemed to get bigger when John walked by. He was not only one of the most famous people in the country; he was one of the best loved and admired. How he achieved this level of success is not entirely obvious.
Coming late to fame was part of it. He never believed that he was anything particularly special. He was famous because he worked on television. John did not suffer from vanity; that great switch off for the viewer. He had things to say and he was not interested in appearing for the sake of appearing. Fame was a by-product, not an end in itself. And he was amused when he was mistaken for a weather forecaster. He told me of his surprise when someone came up to him and shouted: “You were wrong – it rained.”
John’s distinctive looks and character were greatly to his advantage. Viewers were more likely to conclude when John spoke that he wasn’t mouthing some official BBC version of events. He was giving his own considered opinion. He did not take sides; he did his best to explain what had happened and what was likely to happen. In the past the corporation’s idea of balance tended to be along the lines of on the one hand this, on the other hand that. John’s approach produced a sharp improvement in BBC journalism and whether they realise it or not all the senior correspondents are now of the John Cole school.
He was also an enlightened manager. His political correspondents were a competitive lot. They included Huw Edwards, Mark Mardell and Jon Sopel. Our editor adopted a clear view that we should not spend too much time pushing and shoving; we should enjoy each others company. He was our moral leader. And that is how John tried to live his life, as a Christian gentleman.
Despite all these strengths there was an extra force behind John which made everything else possible: his loving family. John used to say that in Roman times, with four sons he would have been let off paying taxes. But to him they meant far more than that. And at the centre of John’s universe, there was Madge. He would often launch into a family story and I was sometimes concerned that Madge might, just might, not come out of it very well. I needn’t have worried. In the Claygate Chronicles there was always only one hero, never John, always Madge.
I am honoured to have had a chance to speak about John, in our sadness at his passing and in celebration of an exceptional life. These feelings go far beyond the walls of this church. At the height of his powers few could equal John’s reach. He touched the hearts of millions.
Listen to Address:
The Rt Hon Lord Hattersley
I first met John Cole at the 1970 Labour Party Conference. The following day’s business was Ireland and, in anticipation of the debate, I had sent an article to The Guardian denouncing the 1921 Treaty which separated the Six Counties from the Republic. Ian Aitkin sought me out with the news that the deputy editor wished to see me. To my delight John told me that my piece was in the paper next day and that he had written a leader commenting on it. Then, smiling benignly, he added ‘It says that your article is nonsense from start to finish.’
For the next forty years, John and I rarely agreed about Ireland. But – Madge having asked me to say a word on the subject – I can say with great pride that, politically, we rarely disagreed about anything else. John approached politics as he approached life, guided by an unostentatious sincerity and a stubborn refusal to be diverted from long held principle by drawing room fashion. Not for him the third way or triangulation. Nor the insecure need to line up with whichever side was winning. During the 1979 general election campaign the proprietors of The Observer – to which John had moved from the Guardian – wanted the paper to support Margaret Thatcher. It was John who successfully argued against adopting the idea that it was ‘time for a change’ – even though he knew that the change was coming.
It is only to be expected that the BBC’s political editors take up the job accompanied by a good deal of political baggage. But John Cole was more outspoken about his convictions than most. Yet throughout his years in the job, politicians of all persuasions accepted – as Michael Heseltine said on the day of John’s death – that he would give them a fair deal. During the same week, I wrote in my letter to Madge that John was the most upright man I ever knew. Six months on, with the emotions of the time behind me, I see no reason to change that judgement.
Miraculously, John somehow managed to display that major virtue without being pompous, pious or patronising. His integrity sometimes made him an exacting friend. But I, at least, was never offended by either his reproofs or advice. That, in part, was because he never took refuge in euphemisms but – in the phrase - ‘gave it to you straight.’ It was also because, after the reproof would come a joke – as much likely to be against himself as at your expense. One day – it now seems long ago – we were having lunch as guests of a man who – quite wrongly and much to my annoyance – asked me to choose the wine because I ‘knew about these things.’ I told him that he was relying on Private Eye invention, no more true than the constant suggestion that John Cole had a funny voice. ‘But’, said John. ‘I do have a funny voice.’
I recall a more sombre humour. The account of the nurse, seen through a semi-conscious haze, licking the terminals of his heart monitor as the only way of making sure that they stuck to his chest, And one day, during a stay in Westminster Hospital he waited at the far end of the ward to see how I would react to his empty bed. Of course, I assumed the worst. It was during the time of those early illnesses that I came to recognise the strength of Madge’s devotion. Today I pay my humble tribute to her as well as to John.
Tony Hall - Director-General, BBC read Revelation 21: 1 - 6
I, John, saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and
the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw
the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from
God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a
loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all
things new.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and
Omega, the beginning and the end.”
Huw Edwards read Essay 1946 by George Orwell
My starting point is always a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book or an article, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.
But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience…. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes and distance myself from them with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.
It is not easy. It raises problems of construction and of language, and it raises in a new way the problem of truthfulness.
… One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.
I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.
Jon Sopel read Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802 by William Wordsworth
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
The choir & organist of St Bride's performed the following anthems and songs:-
Lord, Who May Dwell in Your Sanctuary? - Matthew Morley
Lacrimosa Dies Illa from Requiem Mass - Mozart
Ode to Joy from Symphony No. 9 - Beethoven
Danny Boy - trad, arr. Chilcott
I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles - Kellette / Kenbrovin, arr. Gant
Now Thank We All Our God
Be Thou My Vision
He Who Would Valiant Be
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