It's the centenary of the birth of Alistair Cooke, an occasion that is being marked with due ceremony by the BBC - despite the fact that for most of his broadcasting career the BBC was trying to get rid of him. It's a BBC tradition - the high-ups always hate and resent their best talent, usually because it tends not to sit easily with the prevailing leftist-PC ethos. Every now and then some BBC aparatchik would be sent over to New York to try to dislodge Cooke and put an end to Letter From America, a programme the go-ahead BBC regarded as hopelessly dated. Said aparatchik would invariably return scratching his head, rubbing his chin and wondering what happened - and the great man, having bamboozled and charmed the young whippersnapper from here to eternity, would carry on as before.
He was, as the BBC - now he is safely dead - acknowledges, a very great radio broadcaster, who turned the quarter-hour talk into a form of high (but entirely effortless and unforced) art. Ars celare artem and all that - his talks seemed quite astonishingly casual at the time he started them, as hearing anyone else's radio talks from the time confirms. And he kept going, far, far beyond the normal career span of a broadcaser, let alone a programme. He was there for 9/11 and rose to that terrible occasion as well as anyone at the time. There will, of course, never be another Alistair Cooke, and the art which he perfected, the short talk, is barely clinging to life - a great shame, as it has endless possibilities in the right hands. Clive James, for example, can do it - here's his latest. Enjoy.