Let's Parler Kington: Miles at his very best

The master humourist remembered
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The Independent Online

2 March 1990

In these days of high winds, a fence acts as a natural resting place for anything being blown cheerfully cross-country, and you are certain to find a colourful selection of countryside riches on the windward side of many a fence. Orange synthetic twine, blue feed-bags, empty cement sacks, old newspapers, abandoned prams, tangerine boxes, beige files marked MINISTRY OF DEFENCE: HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL – these are some of the things I have spotted in the past week in our locality.

And how many different kinds of fence there are for the lucky spotter! A hedge is only a hedge, but a fence can be an old metal railing, a post-and-wire effort, a white-painted paddock fence, a neatly creosoted stripped-pine construction, traditional palings, or an apparently flimsy wire through which course enough volts to set your eyelashes trembling. My favourite? A fence made of old bedsteads which, combined with a couple of old enamel bath drinking troughs, is enough to give a field an inside/outside flavour the Tate would not be ashamed of!

Let me know if you come across any unusual fences – or anything unusual on them!

10 October 1990

Lord Wyatt has, apparently, inserted a clause into the Broadcasting Bill that will ensure that future factually based television programmes are balanced. In other words, any opinion expressed therein will have to be countered by the opposite opinion, and equal space given for the opposite opinion. Setting aside the interesting notion that as soon as the Gulf war finally erupts, British news programmes will have to give half their air time to the Iraqi viewpoint, this raises the equally interesting notion that Lord Wyatt may be off his trolley.

A supporter of Lord Wyatt writes: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to put the opposite view concerning Lord Wyatt. I have known this man for many years, and you must not be deceived by the impossibly plummy voice and the ineffably wafted cigar, nor indeed by the frequent comment that he is somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan. He has a mind as sharp as a scalpel, and if he thinks programmes need balance, there is probably a damned good reason for it.

Dear Mr Kington, In the interests of balance, it must be pointed out that the phrase "off his trolley'', as used above, may or may not be justified with reference to Lord Wyatt, but certainly causes a great deal of distress to the trolley industry. For far too long we in the trolley industry, or at least we in the PR firm serving the trolley industry, have striven to counteract the insidious....

A message from Saddam Hussein. Greetings to the British people, and to Sheikh Wyatt. I am sad to note that I spotted a reference to the inevitability of the Gulf war. How can this be? What war? Who is fighting? All I have done is reclaim the so- called state of Kuwait as the part of Iraq it has always been, taken the best bits, and sold the rest for scrap. Thank you for letting me have the right to reply, a concept which, I must confess, was new to me.

31 December 1992

This year, as every year, I have tabulated a list of the top 10 boys' names of 1992 and the 10 most popular girls' names. This has not been done by reference to the births columns of the national papers, which is very unrepresentative even of top people, but by analysis of the headlines. After all, it is only in the headlines that the most important people, and therefore the most important names, are to be found, and the top 10 list is based entirely on the frequency of each name's mention.

The most curious thing about the boys' list is that you would expect the Prime Minister's name, John, to figure in it. Mr Major, however, is not known by his first name (unlike Maggie, Jim or Harold). This is because, as with George Bush, his second name is short enough to fit into headlines, and therefore his first name is never needed. If a headline were to proclaim John had done or said something, nobody would know who was meant. Unless it were John Smith.

However, without further ado, here is this year's list of top 10 male names, with last year's positions in brackets.

1. Prince (-)

2. Jacko (-)

3. Saddam (10)

4. Gazza (7)

5. Ross (-)

6. Boutros (-)

7. Norman (-)

8. Bill'*'Al (-)

9. Nigel (-)

10. Matrix (-)

The winning position of Prince as the leading name is due entirely to the fact that it is shared by a famous American performer and a British royal who has scarcely been out of the news in 1992. Indeed, the sort of headlines attached to the British Prince have often been of the kind more often expected in relation to US showbiz stars. Jacko also owes its presence on the list to the fame of an American performer who does not actually bear that name at all, but is called Michael Jackson.

The rest of the names are fairly self-explanatory, except perhaps that of Boutros. This extraordinary newcomer to the top 10 list owes its popularity entirely to the new UN Secretary- General, who seems to rejoice under the name of Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Can I really have got it right? There have been odder names on the list (older readers will remember such weird entries as Koo and Sting), but not many. Nigel owes its presence chiefly to the hard work of Kennedy and Mansell, especially to the inability of either to decide for whom he wanted to drive or play. There were narrow misses for exotic names such as Goran and Slobodan, Boris and Linford, but it was nice to see the newcomer Matrix make it to No 10 – Matrix Churchill is, of course, the well-known arms-dealing member of the Churchill family.

It was also nice to welcome the name Ross for a season, though I do not expect to see it back next year – a pity, if only because Ross Perot briefly became the only known rhyme for Prospero. And there were one or two curious double names that nearly made it to the top 10, such as John Selwyn and Daniel arap and Right Said.

7 January 1994

"I first saw the truth," said the old man sitting opposite me in the train, "when I was working in Fleet Street a long time ago." This extraordinary, unlikely statement caught my attention immediately. "I thought that people who worked in Fleet Street had extreme disrespect for the truth," I said. "All journalists are cynics, are they not?"

"Oh yes," he said, "but that does not mean they do not respect the truth. In fact, they respect the truth so much that they do not waste it on their newspaper readers. They keep it for their private conversations in the pub afterwards. The story a journalist is not allowed to print is always more interesting than what he was allowed to get away with. Mark you, a journalist also thinks that the way he got a story is generally much more interesting than the story itself, which is very seldom true."

6 February 1995

Am I the only one who finds it odd that the OJ Simpson trial has attracted so much attention over here? Why that particular trial? Is it just because we always follow the latest American soap opera, whatever it is? Are there people in Britain watching the OJ Simpson trial who actually, really think it is a soap opera? Do people write in to the TV channel to ask for the name of the superb actor who is playing OJ Simpson?

Tomorrow: Free family tree wall-chart – How OJ Simpson and Wallis Simpson are related.

12 August 1996

I would like to correct a gross factual error made in The Independent last week. The error was made at the bottom of this page, in a statement which said: "Miles Kington is on holiday." This was not true. Miles Kington was gearing himself up to go to the Edinburgh Festival to take part in a show on the Fringe, and anything less like a holiday cannot be imagined.

Normally when you go on holiday, you pack a car with beach clothes, cameras, tennis rackets and so on. The stuff I was putting in my car included a hat stand, a deerstalker, a pedestal, a bust of Tchaikovsky, a euphonium, an electric piano, two bentwood chairs, an oriental rug....

You need a roof rack for a load like this. So before departure I went to my local Saab dealer and ordered a roof rack. I tried to buy one on the spot, but the model I needed was not in stock.

"We had one till yesterday," said the man called Steve (I knew he was called Steve because he had a lapel badge saying so, even though I got the impression that he might have punched my nose if I had addressed him as Steve), "but a bloke came in and bought it yesterday."

Are sales staff taught to say this? To cover up for the fact that they haven't had one in for weeks, do they always say it went yesterday?

"How soon can you get another one?" I said, with the sinking feeling that always accompanies that question. "Well, it's got to come from Sweden," said the man called Steve, scratching his head, "so it's going to take a couple of days." A couple of days! I have known it taking a couple of weeks to get things from Swindon, and that's only 20 miles away. In future, I'm going to order everything from Sweden.

5 December, 1997

"Did you know that most foxes are killed not by fox-hunting or shooting, but by being run over on the road? That more foxes are run over than are culled by all other methods put together? Yes, fox-motoring is by far the best proven method of cutting down on fox numbers! And yet Parliament is even now trying to make things more difficult for us, maybe even kill the sport!"

The speaker is Bernie Purdue, who lives in Kent and has been running over foxes almost as long as he can remember. He learnt to enjoy the sport first with the hunting group known as the Faversham Shoppers, but after going out fox-motoring round about the county with different outfits, he now goes out with the London-Kent hunting group known popularly as the M25 Late Late Crowd.

28 May 1998

We all seem to want Japan to apologise for war crimes, but why is it only Japan that is expected to feel sorry for anything? Has Britain nothing to apologise for? Shouldn't Britain feel sorry for occupying so much of the East in the first place? We didn't go into Burma, for instance, at the invitation of the Burmese – we fought, shot and killed our way in there. But did we ever say sorry to the people of Burma?

Did we ever say sorry to the Irish for what Cromwell (and a lot of others) did?

No, of course we didn't. And if we did, we wouldn't mean it. Like children, we say sorry with our fingers crossed behind our backs. So, in order to diffuse the blame a bit, I have tabulated a brief round-the-world summary of what we would like a few countries to apologise for, and what those countries would REALLY like to apologise for. We would like the Japanese to say they are sorry for the cruelty that was practised on prisoners of war in World War II.

The Japanese would like to say that what they are really sorry about is that they did not win World War II. Still, the way Japanese history is being rewritten in Japanese schools, it is going to look pretty soon as if they did win World War II, which they really did, actually, if only on an economic level. Sorry about that...

We would like the French to say sorry for being so arrogant and refusing to understand us even when we try to speak French. The French would like to say how sorry they are that French, which is an infinitely superior language to English and used to be the universal language of diplomats and gentlemen, has been replaced by the clumsy Anglo-Saxon tongue which, by sheer accident, has been adopted by the barbaric Americans, who can never think of any good film ideas of their own but are always remaking French films very badly, ah, ces crétins americains. . .

We would like the Germans to apologise for making up for a couple of world war defeats by always sneaking lucky victories against the English in football.

The Germans would like to apologise for nothing.

We would like the Americans to apologise for inflicting McDonald's on the rest of the world, or, failing that, at least to apologise for Disney turning so many good European stories (Pinocchio, Hercules, etc) into the same American junk culture, or, at the very least, for sending all the worst aspects of American culture abroad, and keeping all the very best at home.

The Americans would like to apologise for having rescued Europe in two world wars and gotten nothing but ingratitude in return, and they won't be making that mistake again.

We would like the Australians to apologise for being too good at cricket and rugby.

The Australians would like to apologise for thinking that Terry Venables could get them into the football World Cup finals.

We would like the Russians to apologise for making a hash of Communism. The Russians would like to apologise for having failed to realise, during 70 years of Communism, that Mafia methods represented the true way forward all along.

We would like the Swedes to apologise for Abba.

The Swedes would like to apologise for Abba....

We would like the Norwegians to apologise for being boring.

The Norwegians would like to apologise for getting to the South Pole first.

We would like the Chinese to apologise for there being so many of them. The Chinese would like to apologise for many things, but not while anyone from the West is listening.

3 December 1998

We have all experienced that frisson you get from finding an old newspaper lining a drawer and dipping into it long enough to rediscover names you had totally forgotten (Francis Pym, Hugh Scanlon, Zola Budd, Mott the Hoople) and being struck for a moment by the evanescence of fame. If you think about it, you then realise that all the names which crowd our newspaper headlines today will also be gone tomorrow, or at least lining old sock drawers: Mandelson, Pinochet, Jospin, Hurley, Madonna, Oasis, Chris Evans, will all come peeping up from under the fit-all-foot- size socks and underpants, and we will say, "Who on earth were they? Whereas it will take longer for us to look at our underpants and wonder who Calvin Klein or C H Ilprufe was.

Nothing vanishes faster than the importance of party politics. That is one of the reasons I enjoy reading the International Herald Tribune. It contains very little about British party politics. It hardly admits to the existence of Peter Mandelson, Matthew Parris, David Blunkett, Alastair Campbell or anyone like that. It has applied the test of history overnight and instantly eliminated people who take years to vanish in the British press. It has an instant sock drawer effect.

21 December 2001

Have you ever noticed that people who read magazines with the words "Classic Cars" in the title don't really look the part? You might imagine that they would be dressed in classic car clothes – knickerbockers, plus-fours, tweeds, Ulsters, that sort of thing – but they never seem to be.

18 June 2002

My World Cup Advice Corner for people who are not interested in football has obviously filled a gap, so I have gathered my panel of experts again, and asked them to deal with more of your shrewd, perceptive and non-football-oriented questions.

I am puzzled by international footballers' habit of exchanging shirts after a match. I can see that once it might have been a spontaneous gesture, but for it to become a meaningless ritual after every game, there must be some other explanation.

Dr Dirk Savage, anthropologist and presenter of the TV series Homo Footballicus, writes: You are quite right. Football is only the carrying on of war by other means, and one of the most important aspects of war is the carrying off of trophies, which is why the British prefer to collect German helmets rather than British helmets, and why indigenous Americans had the world's finest collections of scalps. Shirt exchanging is the exchanging of scalps by other means, and a recognition that war has come to an end.

Yes, but on a purely practical level how is it possible for all teams to exchange shirts after every match? Are there enough shirts to go round? Normally countries play each other at fairly rare intervals, but during the World Cup people will be engaged in six or more matches, so do they bring enough shirts to exchange one shirt after EVERY match? Or do they, as I suspect, quietly give each other their own shirts back after the match in the changing rooms?

28 March 2003

There are some very striking new stamps out this week from the Post Office. They show colour photos of 10 different fruit and veg, each dramatically outlined on a white background. The fruit include an apple, a strawberry, a pear and an orange. Oh, and a lemon. The vegetables comprise a potato, a Brussels sprout, an aubergine and a red pepper. Oh, and a tomato. Should do wonders for the British diet.

And it's pretty democratic, being five of each, unless you are of the pedantic school of thought that insists that a tomato is a fruit. Who was it who once said that knowledge consists of knowing that a tomato is a fruit, and wisdom consists of not putting it in a fruit salad? Well, it was me, actually. Thank you.

Some of the fruit have protruding stalks which unbalance the composition, and the stamps actually allow for this by letting the stamps have extra sticking-out bumps to contain the full stalk. I have never seen a British stamp before that was not a perfect square or rectangle or some other geometrical shape, and I think there is something rather admirable about letting a lemon bulge out of its stamp, top and bottom.

We would like the Belgians to apologise for there not being six famous Belgians.

The Belgians would like to say, Not six famous Belgians? We are very sorry. but haven't you heard of René Magritte? Georges Simenon? Django Reinhardt? Adolphe Saxe? Eddie Merckx? And, um, let's think – ah, Jacques Brel! Phew! Glad you didn't want seven famous Belgians.

Full list of global apologies on request. Just send blank cheque.

28 December 2005

Dear Mr Marzipan,

My family and I pulled at least a dozen Christmas crackers during our Christmas dinner, disgorging the usual contents of paper hats, trinkets and jokes. We dutifully read out the jokes, but not one got a laugh. This has happened every year I can remember. I must have spent hundreds of pounds on crackers over the years, and never got a laugh in return. I am beginning to resent all that lost money. Can I sue the makers for failure to amuse?

Top lawyer Adam Marzipan writes: That all depends on whether there is an unwritten contract to amuse built into the purchase of a cracker.

There are some contexts in which a joke always gets a laugh, whether it is funny or not. If the Queen makes a joke, for instance. Or if a High Court judge makes a joke, everyone in court laughs. Indeed, if a High Court judge only seems to be making a joke, or if a High Court judge makes what seems to be an ordinary remark, and then laughs, and we suddenly realise he has made what he thought was a joke, then we all laugh. There is no compulsion to laugh. A High Court judge cannot sue us for not laughing. Yet he can punish us in other ways, so the act of laughter takes place.

11 September 2006

"Miles [said Andrew Marr] we've been discussing the Prime Minister. When do you think Tony Blair will leave office?"

My honest answer to this is that I neither know nor care. The soap opera surrounding his future has not been well-written in the past few years. The plot has been far too repetitive, and unimaginative, and the characters invented by the scriptwriters have tended to be too dreary (one thinks of Jack Straw), far-fetched (John Prescott) or badly developed (Gordon Brown) to keep me switching on. Like someone who has managed to give up The Archers, I keep a vague eye on the Blair/ Brown story to make sure none of the major characters is killed off, so that I can more or less keep my end up in daily conversation, but the idea of actually following the soap day by day....

"Frankly, Andrew," I found myself saying, "I neither know nor care."

18 October 2007

I happened to be up in London the other day when who should I bump into but my old friend Adrian Wardour-Street, the kingpin of the British PR industry, the man behind almost everything that happens....

"Adrian!" I cried, as he swept past me, openly checking his emails in public. "Whither away so fast?"

"Oh, hello, lad," he said, in that condescending tone of voice that some Londoners reserve for their out-of-town cousins. "I'm in a bit of a hurry... Look, if you're not doing anything, why not come along with me? It might make a bit of copy for you."

"What might?"

"Selection party for a new Lib Dem leader," he said. "Come along – starts in five minutes...."

"Selection party?" I said. "Don't you mean selection process?"

"You haven't seen the Lib Dems in action," he said.

25 October 2007

Lord Bragg of Cumbria

Was a clever old bloke

Who wrote clever novels

And knew clever folk

Who said clever things

When he asked them to go

On that cleverest of programmes,

The South Bank Show.

But Lord Bragg of Cumbria

Was also aware

That there's no point being clever

If there's no one out there.

You can say all you like

About science and art

But if nobody's listening

It's not worth a fart.