At 95 years of age, my icon, Alistair Cooke not long after announcing his retirement from a long and exemplary journalism career. Renown for his 15-minute Letter from America program on BBC world service, Mr. Cooke moved to a slower life in retirement in his 15th floor apartment in New York’s Central Park where he lived for decades.
Born in 1908 in Salford, UK Alistair was brought up in a Blackpool boarding house. He graduated from Cambridge with an honors degree in English and joined the BBC in 1934 as a film critic. His first letter from America was broadcasted in March 1946. It was aired every Friday on the domestic BBC channel 4 radio and then repeated in the World service of the BBC heard by millions around the world.
Besides Letter From America, he also hosted Masterpiece Theatre in the United States for 22 years and has written many books. In 1973, Alistair was awarded an honorary knighthood and in 1974 addressed the United States Congress on its 200th anniversary.
He has received an award from BAFTA for his contribution to Anglo American relations and a Sony Radio Award for his services to broadcasting. He has also been the Broadcasting Press Guild’s Radio Broadcaster of the Year and the Voice of the Listener and the Viewer has recognized his Outstanding Contribution to radio.
In between times, Alistair has enjoyed a number of other careers. Any one of which would have been a source of pride and satisfaction to the rest of us: a quarter of a century as the Guardian’s man in America; a ground-breaking cultural television show – Omnibus – which changed the face of American television in the 1950s; writing and presenting the first full-blown TV history of the United States. This series so impressed his adopted home that the tapes were placed in every public library in the land; a stream of successful books culminating in ‘America’, which sold two million copies.
Alistair now inhibited by nonagenarian aches and pains can no longer leave his New York apartment or play golf in San Francisco on the West Coast of the US, as he loved to do. He is now a stooped old man a few inches shorter than his original 6ft height. But his energy to work and write remains boundless according to Nick Clarke, his biographer. “His enthusiasm for his work, well into his nineties, has remained undiminished, and he can still draw on that vast memory-bank for the characters and stories that enliven his talks.”
In his later years his determination to keep going became obsessive, so much so that several programs were recorded in hospital beds. Why did he keep going so long, and after so many other careers (Guardian correspondent, television star on two continents, best-selling author) – any one of which would have satisfied most journalists? The simplest answer is that Mr. Cooke saw it as a personal mission to explain America to the world, a job which he found himself to be uniquely qualified.
With much practice, Alistair had managed to corner the art of writing to a tee – as many writers struggle to learn and keep up – to inform, to captivate and to keep it simple. So simple perhaps that many people in Rural Africa listened to and understood him even though their English may have been a little rusty.
The first I heard that Alistair has retired was from the chagrined watchman at my estate who told me that it has been a ritual in his family to listen to Alistair Cooke since he got his first “wireless” in 1960 from his colonial boss who was going back to Britain. He says that it is from the letter from America that he learnt of the death of the American President JF Kennedy.
I found it interesting to sit in a modest pub in Nairobi and listen to several people discuss Alistair and the most memorable things they heard from Mr. Cooke. One particularly ardent fan impressed upon the group the Guardian’s 1968 editorial on Cooke that he had read and agreed with somewhat: “Cooke is a nuisance,” said the celebrated Guardian editorial, “He telephones his copy at the last moment. He says that he will be in Chicago and turns up in Los Angeles. If all of his colleagues were like him, production of this paper would cease. But we think he’s worth it.” How many journalists, the fan wanted to know, would have such professional privilege anywhere?
Alistair’s anecdotes read in a rhythmic clear tone over the radio, over the years informed his listeners – both young and old of world events from many years ago that may not have occurred to the young to know.
An anecdote that has stuck with me since I heard it from Alistair years ago was the story that for me found great relevance in Kenya. He went to his doctor and described the symptoms of pains and ailments that he had been suffering from for a while and his doctor assured him that after a certain procedure, he would be “as good as new”. A while after the procedure was done, he found that not only did he have the same aches and pains as before but he also had a new irritating itch. On describing this to the doctor, the doctor began to explain what it was. Mr. Cooke Interrupted him with the quip, “don’t name it, just cure it.”
Not many journalists and writers are able to consistently hold on to those careers for more than half a century and many do not leave to retire at the ripe age of 95. It is a dream of many writers (if not all) to do so and Alistair Cooke inspires these. He said recently that he was given this piece of advice by a well meaning producer, “don’t get too popular or they’ll drop you.” Triumphantly he proclaimed recently, “its been 51 years!”