The president steps down

Radio - Jan Morris has been waiting 40 years for Alistair Cooke to do the decent thing

About 40 years ago, when I was in the brash prime of my life, I came to the conclusion that I was the right person to succeed Alistair Cooke as author of BBC Radio 4's Letter from America.

Not that I expected him to retire right then, but he had, after all, been writing and broadcasting his weekly letters for three decades and was bound to get tired of it before too long. Besides, he was also the chief US correspondent of the Guardian and the celebrity presenter of an Ameri-can TV show called Masterpiece Theatre, which made him a household figure among millions of Americans who had never read a word of his prose. He surely couldn't do all that for much longer. I could afford to await my moment.

I had first met Cooke when, in 1953, I went to America myself on a Commonwealth Fellowship, a generous institution that enabled its beneficiaries to spend a year studying and travelling in the US. Soon after I got there, I appeared on the TV show Omnibus - together with four climbers from the 1953 Everest expedition, which had just made the first ascent of the mountain - and whom should we find there to interview us, sitting on a high stool like a very epitome of sophisticated cool, but Alistair Cooke of Letter from America.

Cooke had been a Commonwealth Fellow himself, 20 years before, but whereas I spent all of my year travelling and none of it studying, he had done diligent research into dramatic criticism at both Yale and Harvard. This did not surprise me at all. He was in many ways a theatrical figure (he had founded the Cambridge Mummers), and was certainly a natural Ivy Leaguer. Slim and handsome, he had already evolved the elegant mid-Atlantic accent that was uniquely his own, if distantly related to Cary Grant's. He was kind and helpful to my year's intake of Fellows, and I was greatly taken by his easy command of his own situation - still very English in some ways, very American in others, as knowledgeable about jazz as he was about political intrigues, an accomplished pianist and exactly the same on camera as he was off.

At the end of our Commonwealth Fellowships, we were bound to return to our homelands for some time - I forget how long - and I was told that it was because Cooke had never gone home at all, but had stayed in America ever after. This was supposed to bely the purposes of the exercise, which were about improving European understanding of America, but in fact it had triumphantly vindicated them, for Cooke had already achieved an almost legendary status as a trans-atlantic interpreter.

During the next 30 or 40 years, I was to get to know him slightly better, though never well. For a time I worked for the Guardian, and so met him professionally whenever I was in America, and I came to realise what a remarkable place he occupied in American society. Everyone seemed to have met him, half the nation knew what he looked like, and people repeatedly expressed to me the wish that he might be president of the United States. Once I heard him address a joint session of Congress, with infinite confidence and subtlety, and then it seemed to me, too, that he was to the White House born.

I invited him one night to join me for dinner at a Manhattan restaurant: when I arrived, the maItre d' turned me away because of what I was wearing, but I told him who my guest was going to be and he instantly forgot all about dress codes. At my favourite hotel in America, the Huntington in San Francisco, I was not in the least surprised when I arrived one day to find a set of rooms recently renamed "The Alistair Cooke Suite".

The years passed, the years passed . . . I awaited my moment, but Cooke seemed to be always in his heyday. His broadcasts were as brilliant as ever, immaculate in prose and timing. His talks came out as books, and in 1973, when he was 65, he published Alistair Cooke's America - to my mind, one of the very best essays ever written about the whole grand sweep of American history. He never appeared to falter. He seemed to be always playing golf, hobnobbing with statesmen, witnessing world events, calmly surveying Central Park from his Fifth Avenue apartment or spending delightful Christmases with his daughter in Vermont.

And so he has come, with the rest of us, into the 21st century, having been born in the first decade of the 20th. For me, as for innumerable others, Sunday morning has not been complete without his voice over the cornflakes - a voice that has truly linked the continents, if only because most Britons assume he is American, while most Americans are damned sure he's a Brit. Officially he's no longer a subject of the Queen (and so only an honorary knight), but he is really a true Anglo-American, and that is why, on both sides of the ocean, the announcement that he is retiring has come as a true sadness and a bit of a shock - we never thought it would happen!

Well I did, as you know. But I've been hanging around for 40 years, waiting for this moment, and now that he's done the decent thing at last, he's done it too late. Alistair Cooke is retiring in his 96th year, but dear God, by now I'm 77 myself.

This article first appeared in the 15 March 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Has America begun to think again?