Been there, done that and he's still only ninety

Maybe Alastair Cooke's metabolism is slower than most humans, so he may be going for some time

ALASTAIR COOKE must be journalism's answer to Eubie Blake. Eubie Blake was a ragtime and jazz pianist who was born in 1883, published his first ragtime work before Queen Victoria died, and was still writing and playing in 1983, the year of his death, which happened a hundred years after his birth almost to the day. Shortly before he died, he made his most famous remark: "If I'd known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself..."

You get the feeling that Alastair Cooke has taken good care of himself and is good for a few more years yet, but you can't help wondering how it is that he has lasted so long already and what the secret of his endurance is. Is it something to do with the fact that he, too, plays the piano? Or that he hasn't had a proper job for the last 50 years? That all he has ever had to do is write a quarter of an hour letter once a week and read it very slowly into a microphone, then go home? I don't think so. Going into retirement notoriously hastens your decline and if Alastair Cooke has been in retirement for the last 50 years, merely devoting himself to a weekly letter, he would have expired long since.

I think we have to look elsewhere for his secret.

For a start, we have to look at his slow delivery. It has always been a source of amazement to me that one man can speak so slowly without sounding as if his spring has broken. Clement Freud does it when he is trying to speak for 60 seconds without stopping on Just A Minute, sounding like a 78rpm record of George VI being played at half speed, but the rest of the time, Freud speaks almost normally. One gets the impression that Alastair Cooke speaks like that all the time. If so, it puts me in mind of the great truth that David Attenborough is always impressing on us, that the brief life span of a mouse is as long as an elephant's relatively speaking. In other words, that because a mouse's heart beats much faster and his cycles of breeding etc are over much quicker, therefore he gets through the same amount of life as an elephant, but in a much shorter time.

It may be, in other words, that Alastair Cooke's metabolism or life-speed or whatever it is called, is much slower than that of most humans, and he is really only about halfway through his life, which means he may be doing his Letter From America for another 40 years yet, long after all the pipsqueak BBC radio managers, who are secretly wondering when to axe it, have gone to their grave.

Another of Alastair Cooke's secrets is that, unlike most commentators, he is as conscious of the past as he is of the present. Everything is put by him into historical context. When Clinton does something, it reminds Cooke of something done by someone long gone, or of some forgotten smoke- filled Democratic Convention. Why, when Clinton doesn't do something, it reminds Cooke of something that Roosevelt did do.

You might think that the present merely triggers Cooke's memory of the past, but this is not so - Cooke is often reminded of things that happened before he was born. One of his recent talks was about a Presidential scandal of the 1880s. One of his most memorable talks (for me) was an explanation of the present Presidential election system in terms of how bad travel was when it was first invented - i.e. that all the primary elections first took place because most Americans had no idea what the candidates looked like or stood for, and wanted to see them in person in ther neck of the woods.

(A lot of what I know about American history has been picked up from Alastair Cooke, who does for America what pub quizzes do for England. By which I mean that half the people in Britain could not name one of Henry VIII's wives, and the other half - the half that train themselves for pub quizzes - could name them all in order, and the manner of their deaths.)

But I fancy that Cooke's longevity is also due to something much simpler. To the fact that he has a name which is easy to spell wrong. For instance, I have a friend called Alasdair Riley, whose names can be variously spelt wrongly Alastair, Alistair, Alisdair, Reilly, Rahilly, O'Riley etc...

The wrong combinations far outnumber the right one, and all of them cause a slight flow of adrenalin, which keeps him going effortlessly. Now, you can only misspell Cooke one important way, as Cook, but even so, I am willing to bet (as someone who has had his life prolonged by being called Kingston so often) that if Alastair Cooke were John Smith, he would be the late John Smith, and I wouldn't be saying Happy Birthday, Old Chap.

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