RADIO: Salute to an Anglo-American institution

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We have contradictory attitudes to longevity in this country. On the one hand, as Alan Bennett once noted sardonically in his diaries, we think that anyone over 90 who can eat a boiled egg deserves the Nobel Prize; on the other, we treat them as an embarrassment and pay through our noses to shunt off aged relatives to nursing homes modelled, it would seem, on the kind of institution portrayed in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. I thought about this after listening to Alistair Cooke's Letter from America last Sunday.

Cooke's survival in this slot is a matter for wonder. As the population of this country becomes ever older, a perverse and maybe even desperate worship of youth becomes more entrenched. A letter in the Guardian last week from one of Denise van Outen's former co-presenters, sacked for the crime of reaching the age of 30, made the point quite eloquently. Cooke, who will be 91 on 20 November, still goes on (and on, his impatient detractors might add). I heard a rumour that he had once made some kind of watertight deal with the BBC that only death or flagrant senility would prevent him from broadcasting; given the apparent ease with which Auntie can terminate contracts, one can only conclude that he has some kind of Mephistophelean hold over the governors. This alone deserves our admiration.

I found myself listening to Letter from America while driving through Lewes trying to find a shop that (a) sold eggs and (b) was open. So I wasn't really paying full attention. But I did notice that the subject of his talk - the aggressive, patronising insularity of those who live in big metropolitan centres and who imagine that everything that happens outside their suburbs is of pitiful lack of consequence - was, by one of those funny coincidences, exactly the topic of a conversation I had had with a friend in the pub the previous evening.

Cooke was even-handed, acknowledging not only the insufferable condescension of the metropolitan but also the cosmopolitan wince that accompanies evidence of the equally appalling backwardness and ignorance you can find in the boondocks without looking too hard. (For instance: I am glad, for once, that I don't live in Paris right now, and so don't have to go about in a permanent cringe at the astonishingly vulgar and hypocritical jingoism we are displaying over the French attitude to our beef.) I may have missed some of the minor points, but it seemed like a typical Cooke performance; helped, of course, by the fact that if you're lucky, your voice doesn't age anything like as badly as your face.

People say that Cooke is an "institution", and that can be good or bad, depending on who's talking. (The House of Lords is an "institution", too, for instance.) But Cooke is a special case, obviously. The point about radio institutions is that memories accrue, willy-nilly, to them, and you monkey about with people's memories at your peril.

I have grown up listening to Cooke, his broadcasts having this particular and personal quality to them: that, as an Englishman who seemed to have become half-American, he was a poignant mirror image of my mother, who had made the journey across the Atlantic in the other direction.

We were acutely aware that the programme was, however subliminally, as much about Anglo-American assimilation as about its ostensible weekly topic; and chez Lezard, Letter from America was treated with near-reverence, which filtered down to me and is an attitude that is very hard to shake off.

It does prevent one from paying attention, though. I do not so much listen to Letter from America as let it wash over me; it is the tone and the cadence that is important, a matter of evoking vivid nostalgia more than anything else (like Derek Cooper on The Food Programme, Cooke has the ideal radio voice, one that sounds, if anything, both clearer and more honeyed on Long Wave than on FM).

But I do remember raising two astonished eyebrows in 1996 when Cooke said that the fact that 96 per cent of US servicemen had not been accused of serious sexual assault on their female counterparts showed "remarkable restraint". That was a bad gaffe, and he nearly paid dearly for it. The egg it left on his face was, I suspect, sufficient punishment. But people do not always say the things we would like them to say, and if anyone else has had a 70-year-long career without making more than a small handful of howlers, I would like to hear about it. So I salute him now, while he is still around, in theory at least, to hear about it.