Michael Cooke - a short profile

Following George V1’s Coronation on 12th May 1937, amid every sign of popular affection, Stanley Baldwin resigned. He was succeeded by Neville Chamberlain who became Prime Minister at almost seventy years of age, and he went on to sign the Munich pact and famously declare “Peace in our time. Our world of music also witnessed the untimely death of George Gershwin at the age of thirty-nine.

But during these heady summer days of 1937 following the coronation, as one noted musical star faded, another was born in the form of our good friend Michael Cooke on 10th July 1937 at Beckenham, South London

His father was a man endowed with remarkable musical talents, being an organist, a violinist and a piano tuner of the highest standing, responsible for the maintenance of the pianos at one of London’s leading recital rooms. His mother was also musical, being a good sight reading alto and amateur pianist. She was no less industrious, working for a time in a lampshade factory, but mostly as a housekeeper. She became a sincere friend of the family she served and Michael still keeps in touch with them to this day.

Michael was dedicated at PengeBaptistChurch as a baby, but by his second birthday the onset of war brought radical change, as his father joined the Royal Air Force, serving most of the war years in the Middle East as an aircraft airframes and rigging specialist. Michael and his mother were evacuated to Oxford where they lived with Aunt Ethel and Uncle Will.

He returned to Beckenham to start school at St. John’s C of E Primary School, Penge, although during the height of the blitz he attended St. Christopher’s C of E School at Cowley. Following the war the family returned to live at Beckenham together with Aunt Agnes and Michael’s grandmother — his mother’s mother — who both lived with them for the rest of their lives.

In 1947, aged ten, Michael started at Oakfield School, Dulwich where, he confesses, he spent some of his happiest school years. He was already a competent pianist and would accompany other classes’ singing periods, in preference to Algebra. He also played for the School Carol Service for which he was given a copy of Ernest Hutchinson’s book The Literature of the Piano. Michael started formal piano lessons with Miss Schmawll at school, but he would add his own 4-part harmonies to pieces, much to her annoyance, and they soon fell out. In fact Michael had been learning the piano from a very early age listening to music on the wireless and trying it for himself on the piano; there is a recording of him playing hymns in 4-part harmony at the age of four.

His father was responsible for the tuning and maintenance of the pianos at the Wigmore Hall and he arranged for him to have lessons with Miss Medd-hall there. Michael participated in two piano recitals at the Wigmore featuring Miss Medd-hall’s pupils, he remembers playing one of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues.

Michael left Oakfield School for Clark’s College, Croydon in 1953, although a few years earlier, in 1949, the nearby church of Holy Trinity Church, Beckenham was re-consecrated and he was persuaded, by two other boys, to join the choir; it was here he first took an interest in the organ. When his voice changed he was asked if he would like to be confirmed at Holy Trinity, or be baptised at Penge Baptist church. He chose the latter, he says, for the wrong reason; Penge Baptist Church, he felt was architecturally superior.

1954 bought entry to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, which was then in John Carpenter Street, London, studying piano and organ, the organ quickly taking priority. After three years at the Guildhall, he entered the Royal College of Music studying the organ under Dr J. Dykes-Bower but then, after just one year, National Service beckoned and studies had to be laid aside for the Royal Air Force.

Two of his three service years were spent in Gibralta as a Tele-printer Operator, Michael says it kept his fingers supple for playing the organ and not spoiling his touch for the piano. When not on duty he was Assistant Cub-master of the 8th Gibraltar Air Scout group (he was Cub-master of the 32nd Beckenham troop at Penge Baptist Church) and also organist of Wesley House Methodist Church; he later played for the 9.30 a.m. Eucharist at the Anglican Cathedral. He was the only person on “the rock” at the time capable of accompanying Stravinsky’s Soldiers Tale. Returning to civilian life in 1961 he continued his studies at the Royal College of Music attaining his ARCO in 1962 followed by his FRCO in January 1963, he went on to complete his ARCM in July 1963.

These were difficult times in which to follow a musical career, so Michael joined the BBC as a Tele-printer Operator, hoping to move into the Music Division. Upon being told he would have to learn “office procedure” and return later he took employment at a Merchant Bank for a year. This was 1965, the year his father tragically died, leaving him with extra family responsibilities. He was also accepted for a three-year course at Avery Hill College of Education at Eltham, but failed the finals. He confesses he would not have made a teacher anyway.

He had returned to Holy Trinity Church, Beckenham as Assistant Organist in 1961, but not liking the service he took a post at a Baptist Church playing an ancient Compton Electrone. But it was the attitude to worship that persuaded him to be confirmed and accept the post of Assistant Organist at Southwark Cathedral. Unfortunately it did not turn out as expected and he later moved on to Holy Trinity Church, Bromley staying until he and his Mother moved to Whitstable on 23rd February 1973. It may have seemed an act of lunacy, but Michael actually gave an organ recital at All Souls Langham Place on the same day.

His move to Whitstable brought his first contact with our Kent County Organists’ Association joining us in 1974. In the space of the next six years he took two, of what transpired to be, short-lived posts of Organist/Director-of-Music. But in 1980, Michael settled at All Saint’s Church, Whitstable where he remains to this day. In 1975, during a holiday on the Isle of Wight, he discovered the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England and has been of that persuasion ever since, making an annual pilgrimage to Walsingham and moving ever closer to Rome.

However, he is able to play any organ at the drop of a hat, his musical memory being phenomenal and, should that momentarily fail, improvise with prodigious ease, even creating mutation ranks that do not exist in an organ’s specification. It is then his delight to slide, knowingly, from the organ stool giving the sly smile of a cat that has just murdered a pigeon, as perplexed listeners pursue his pipework phantoms.

Michael had worked as a Telex Operator at various companies before joining British Telecom as a Clerical Assistant, retiring in 1996 at the youthful age of fifty-eight which, regrettably, was the year his mother died. Not owning a television set he lives quietly with his best friend Bluey, his ginger cat, able to pursue his music in a professional manner together with his hobbies of videotography, photography and computer operating.

Being an only child and something of a child prodigy, brought up in a war disrupted home with its proliferation of aunts, laid the foundations of the colourful character we see today. Michael never ceases to entertain at our meetings, treading where lesser mortals might fear to tread. As our President Elect, with his extraordinary kaleidoscopic character and boyish brilliance, he is indeed a fascination.

But, in truth, no matter how we might probe his quizzical quirks, he defies analysis, remaining for us an enigma brushed with genius.

As he stands poised on the cusp of his Presidency, we wish him well, sure in the grateful knowledge that his expertise and genius at the organ will continue to enhance and grace our Association meetings as it has done for so many years.

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