Looking back on a life of letters

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The Independent Online

Many people have desired to read their own obituary, but not many can have got closer to doing it than Alistair Cooke. No sooner had news leaked out that he would have to retire from doing his Letter From America than tributes poured out, many couched as if he were already dead. (I couldn't help noticing that even here in The Independent David Thomson instinctively used the word "was" a lot. "Cooke was very adept at..." etc) And I expect that as Cooke sits in his Manhattan eyrie and riffles through the world press, he has taken a bitter-sweet pleasure in reading his own premature life reviews.

But, in a way, it is a style he has set himself. Increasingly, over the last few years, Cooke has written his Letter From America not so much about what is happening today, as about what it reminds him of in the past. Increasingly he would kick off by saying something like: "On a snowy day in February 1951..." or "There died the other day a very elderly gentleman who, in his day, was one of the best-known figures in the USA..." and then he would be off down memory lane, reminding us of forgotten facts and figures which, although seemingly disconnected from today, usually served to remind us that nothing ever changes much. That people are still noble or corrupt, that wars still break out for reasons which are forgotten by the time the war has ended, that everything has been invented before and that golf is a funny old game.

Sometimes his letters were pure history lessons. He once started by saying that he wanted to explain the baffling succession of state primaries in the run-up to a Presidential election. It had never occurred to me to wonder why there were so many primaries - the system used to elect an American President seems too batty to me to even wonder about - but Cooke kindly explained that it was all because the USA was such a big country.

In the old days, way before radio and TV, most of the country would never have heard of any of the candidates. So the candidates would wearily visit each state to let the electors listen to their policies and have a look at the man himself. Nowadays, in an era of TV, there is no need for this, but some things never change, and the state primaries are still firmly based on the needs of an age of horse-based travel.

I've never forgotten that. Mark you, I have forgotten lots of other stuff Cooke has told us over the years, though I have noticed that as time has worn on, he has become more and more American, certainly more American than his accent suggests. He has increasingly taken the American view of things, and when Europe has been impatient with America, Cooke has been impatient with Europe.

When British opposition to GM foods became widespread, Cooke got quite cross at the way the British were so resistant to scientific advances. You Brits, he seemed to be saying, you always stick your heads in the sand, and by the time the all clear has sounded, you have been left behind by the opposition. It was almost as if his Letter From America had ceased to explain America to us and started to defend his new homeland to us.

One thing that surprises me is that he has given up his Letter from America on medical advice. What on earth do the doctors think has been keeping him going all these years? I think that unless Alistair Cooke finds something to replace it, some new deadline, some worrying project, he will find time hanging heavy on his hands and will rapidly decline.

I think it's up to the BBC to look after him. And I have a serious suggestion. Why not give him a seat on Just a Minute ? If anyone could talk more slowly than Clement Freud, and still keep going longer, it must be Alistair Cooke.

It could be the start of a new career for him...