Don't those oldies say the darndest things?

At a certain point in their lives, distinguished public figures are expected to shut up and enjoy their dotage
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The Independent Online

Would it be unkind to suggest that the more sensitive of radio listeners will be secretly relieved to know that Alistair Cooke has broadcast his last Letter from America? He may be an institution and a weekly reminder of a gentler, more courteous age, but recently it had become difficult to listen to him.

Those smooth, mellifluous tones had begun to sound so very, very old and creaky that one began to worry whether he was going to make it to the end of his letter. Sometimes he seemed in danger of tottering off on a great rambling reminiscence - about a conversation he had in the year of (pause) 1961 with a young (pause) vigorous (pause) politician, a scion of a great (double pause, breath) dynasty of the Democrat Party of the then (search briefly for the perfect adjective) turbulent United States of America - and simply losing his way.

Nothing new there, critics might say. As a broadcaster, Cooke had an extraordinary style that was simultaneously seductive and soporific. Often, as his voice came on air, there would be a temptation to switch channels but, unless one moved quickly, it would be too late. The smooth, fireside manner would draw you in. Fifteen minutes later, you would realise that what had been said may have only been mildly interesting, that perhaps nothing of great moment had been revealed, but that a soothing draft of experience, and sometimes wisdom, had been administered.

Essentially a conjuring trick, those chats provided the illusion that one had been invited into a dark, comfy club in which old men of power and influence sat in leather armchairs and put the feverish concerns of today into the context of past excitements. There was something reassuring about being reminded that whatever rows happened to be breaking over our heads - and, cleverly, the BBC scheduled Letter from America after Any Questions - they would one day be the stuff of wheezy reminiscence.

But if Cooke's broadcasts were a sort of celebration of the advantages of an intellectually lively old age, the manner of his departure has been a reminder of its perils. Retirement is never easy and, by an unkind paradox, it seems to become more difficult with age. For most people, leaving a job opens new doors; if you are in your nineties when you retire, there is really only one more door to open. Work and life have become dangerously conflated.

The old and active, particularly if they have been buoyed up for several decades by the pleasures and vanities of public life, tend not to go quietly. Last year, the great Jimmy Young almost had to be crow-barred out of Broadcasting House after the BBC decided that he should be retired: there are sad stories of how he had to be diverted from the studio when his successor, Jeremy Vine, was rehearsing.

Alistair Cooke, it appears, had more or less accepted that his radio career was drawing to a close. Although he wrote his 1,700 words in an impressive two hours, broadcasting them had become increasingly exhausting. But the idea of just fading away after 58 years and 2,869 shows seems to have offended his well-developed sense of theatre.

His plan, according to press reports, had been to break the news himself by reading two "carefully crafted sentences" before tonight's programme, which will be a repeat of a past letter. The BBC deemed that such a swansong would be inappropriate after the story of his retirement had leaked (or been leaked) from the corporation. Cooke, in the manner of Jimmy Young, has said he is"furious... absolutely appalled".

This rage at not being accorded a final bow by his employers is all the more endearing for being at odds with his unruffled and urbane public persona. After all these years, Cooke had learnt that, to survive in broadcasting, the old, however in touch and intellectually alert they may be, have to fight like ambitious 25-year-olds to retain their position. As a culture, we have become queasy about ill-health and downright panicky about death. Ancient voices and faces, whatever they happen to be saying, remind us of both and make us uneasy.

So, at a certain point in their lives, distinguished public figures are expected to shut up and enjoy their dotage quietly and in private. As if no one over 80 has anything worthwhile to say about the times in which we live, they tend to be removed from the contact list of current affairs programmes. A few honorary oldsters - actors, mostly - are allowed on chat shows where they are treated with a drivelling sentimentality, as if anything coherent that they might say is a thing of wonder, a matter of oldies-say-the-darndest-things cuteness.

It is given to few people to make the perfect exit from a job, and farewells can often misfire but, after Alistair Cooke's 58 years behind the microphone, it was graceless of the BBC not to allow the old boy his last two well-crafted sentences.

terblacker@aol.com

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