David Thomson: He missed only one deadline. And that was enough

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The Independent Online

Having missed one assignment because of ill-health, the 95-year-old Alistair Cooke has decided that his Letter from America is over. He had been doing the report for 58 years, from the moment when war ended in 1945 and the BBC guessed that being "transatlantic" was hip, and as romantic as Denis Compton.

Cooke was established before then - he had been The Guardian's man in America, a film buff, the friend of Charlie Chaplin, and proof that Mancunian dryness could blend with New England acerbity, so long as the writer had enough love of the US to trust that, despite passing horrors or silliness, the American hope would last.

And so the voice slipped into being as Lancashire turned Manhattan (or San Francisco, his favourite American city, where he has a room named after him at the Huntington Hotel on Nob Hill). He was a writer: you can read any of his pieces and delight in the wit, the timing and the supple strength of the words.

But he was a writer on radio, blessed with the softest of baritones, a voice that seldom needed to laugh or nudge you for the humour to flow, and who could do every mood except anger. He let me watch once, as he recorded his talk in a San Francisco studio.

He came in with scraps of paper and linking pen strokes. He did a run-through, heard he was four minutes over, reflected for a moment and organised a second take that was on the nose. That 15-minute rhythm was in his bones by then, just as for many who grew up on Cooke his soft voice is the cool answer to the question "Are you English or American?" - "Can't I be both?". Who knows how far that new dispensation has helped the world get along?

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