Jesus' Broadcasters and Athletes

Alistair Cooke’s so brief long-jump career. Sir Jack Longland’s pole-vault successes

Investigated by the editor of “Track Stats”, Bob Phillips, published in the September 2009 issue

Alistair Cooke, that most accomplished of radio broadcasters famed for his weekly “Letter from America”, is not renowned for any sporting prowess, though he did play rugby union and cricket when at school in Blackpool, and he is also said to have been something of a long jumper as an undergraduate at Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1926-27. In a voluminous biography, published in 1999, Nick Clarke writes of Cooke: “He was inveigled into college athletics and found himself taking part in trials for the University team as a long jumper. There was even talk of his competing in the Olympics. He and another Jesus man, A.C. “Ghost” Williams, one of many New Zealanders at the college, would traipse down every Tuesday afternoon to Fenners, which doubles as athletics track and cricket field. This soon lost its charm, and Cooke’s most strenuous activity at Cambridge thereafter was at the end of a punt-pole”.

It has to be said that there is not the least evidence that Cooke ever achieved any distance of note in his brief long-jumping career, and those anonymous souls who talked of him as a potential Olympian were at best blinkered optimists. There was no long jumper at Cambridge during Cooke’s time of the calibre of Harold Abrahams, whose Inter-Varsity record of 23ft 7¼in (7.13m), set in 1923, would last for 41 years, but there were some very capable performers at the event. Villiers Powell, who had won for Great Britain against France in 1926, took 1st place for Cambridge in the 1927 Inter-Varsity match, with his team-mate, G.C. Pomeroy, 2nd. Pomeroy had been selected for Cambridge ahead of Powell’s colleague in the French match, H.K. Bagnall-Oakeley, who was only 3rd in the Cambridge University Sports.

If Cooke competed in the Freshmen’s Sports in November of 1926, he made no great impression, as the long jump was won at 19ft 9in (6.02m) and he was not listed in the first three. Nor does Cooke even figure in the first three in the inter-college match between Trinity Hall and Jesus that winter, for which the long-jump winner was a future GB international, James Cohen. Susan Sneddon, the modern records manager at Jesus College, has checked the archives on behalf of “Track Stats” but can find no positive evidence of any long-jump achievement by Cooke. Tall and slim, Cooke could well have been described as being of athletic build, but in subsequent life, after he had made his home in the USA, he indulged in no leisure activity more demanding than golf and an occasional swim.

One of his contemporaries at Jesus College, Cambridge, who had a fair degree of success as an athlete was John Longland, who was equal 2nd in the AAA pole vault of 1929 at a height of 11ft 6in (3.50m), which favourably compared with the existing British record of 11-10¼ (3.61) set the previous year by another Cambridge graduate, Laurence Bond, and Longland was also, coincidentally, to achieve widespread popularity as a radio broadcaster. He was a renowned rock-climber and a leading member of the Cambridge University Mountaineering Club who demonstrated his pole-vaulting skills in highly unusual circumstances as a member of the 1933 British Everest expedition when at what was said to be 18,000ft-altitude he cleared an improvised bar held by colleagues as the climbers’ Tibetan sherpas looked on bemusedly. Longland and eight of the sherpas got to within 1500ft of the summit of Everest before extremely adverse weather forced them to retreat in what has been described as “one of the great epics of the Everest story”. Longland, who became Sir Jack Longland, said in later life of his rock-climbing ability: “I was a pole vaulter which I think gives you pretty strong fingers”.

After post-graduate work at Cambridge and in Germany, he had been a lecturer in English at Durham University from 1930 to 1936 and a fervent supporter of the proposals for simplified spelling. He became renowned as an educationist, setting up the first local authority outdoor pursuits centre while he was Director of Education for Derbyshire from 1949 to 1970, and he was vice-chairman of the Sports Council in the years 1966 to 1974. His radio following could certainly be said to be comparable to Alistair Cooke’s because he was a panel-member for “Any Questions” and then for 20 years from 1956 was quiz-master for “My Word” which featured the witticisms of Frank Muir and Denis Norden. Sir Jack Longland died in 1993 at the age of 88.