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.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?