Death of a polymath: 'I assumed Miles would always be there'

When Andreas Whittam Smith opened his <i>Independent</i> and read that the columnist Miles Kington had died, he felt as if a dagger had pierced his heart
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The Independent Online

When I reached page five of The Independent last Thursday morning I felt something like a dagger pierce my heart: "Miles Kington, polymath, wit and jazz aficionado, dies at 66." Miles dead! Yet I had read his column the previous morning. I didn't know he had been ill. No one at the newspaper was aware. He was writing every day, his copy was arriving on time, it was invariably of a standard few could match.

Reading that final article I had, as always, laughed at a turn of phrase. "There were places in Europe with consonants very close together (eg, Gstaad) and also vowels very close together (also Gstaad, curiously) where people got together to ski." That tickled me. So Miles must be well. Yet he cannot have been. He died from pancreatic cancer. That doesn't arrive suddenly and the next day you are gone. It makes itself at home and begins a lengthy attack. What courage and self-discipline were required to keep on writing to the very end.

What qualities, too, had been needed to do what few journalists have ever done. For he wrote his humorous column for The Independent every working day, every month, every year for more than two decades and before that for The Times and others. I have never been able to write even one funny article. But suppose one has the knack. Very well, then, attempt to do it on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday; and the next week; and the one after, and right through the following month. Imagine that and you will begin to measure his achievement.

Miles started working for The Independent in early 1987, a few months after it had been launched. He was one of a number of writers who came over from The Times. A few weeks earlier, The Times had stolen away from Fleet Street in the middle of the night and gone to Murdoch's new printing plant at Wapping. It had deliberately left behind its printers with their restrictive practices. Yet many Times journalists were concerned at working for what had turned out to be an aggressively anti-trades union publisher. The Independent was the happy beneficiary of that discontent.

Miles broke a rule that I held dear as an editor. That you must work in the office and be part of the bloodstream – the ability to gain inspiration from the non-stop debate that is one aspect of newspaper life. Even the political cartoonist of the day benefits from the chit chat, or so I believed. Miles refused point blank. He never came in. Or no more often than once a year. "Miles is in," people said in wonder. "I wonder why." He regarded me with suspicion. Give an editor an inch and he or she will take the proverbial mile, he obviously thought. They will start suggesting things and harrying you in irritating ways. Best to avoid them. Do your job. Send in your copy. Get on with your life.

I never thanked Miles for his enormous contribution to the success of The Independent. He would always be there, I assumed. But suddenly he isn't any longer. Thank you for being the most civilised voice in the paper, thank you for making us laugh, for letting us see there is much more to life than news, news, news.

Andreas Whittam Smith was the founding editor of 'The Independent'

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