Michael Bywater remembers Miles Kington
Humorous columnist, broadcaster and the inventor of Franglais
Friday 01 February 2008
Miles Kington, who has died suddenly at the age of 94 after apparently contracting a rare leg disease from a Madeira cake allegedly sent to him by extremist followers of the late Philip Larkin, was best known to readers of this newspaper as The Independent's daily columnist for over 20 years. But the truth of his life was very different. He was said to be an international man of mystery (though nobody could be quite sure), and his columns were in reality written by a team of Gujarati scholars, later supplanted by Poles, while Kington pursued a life of high-level intercontinental intrigue in his own personal Zeppelin, won in a game of poker from a German brewer shortly before – and perhaps implicit in – the outbreak of the Second World War.
Kington was, above all, a man who would have wished his obituary to begin with a series of utterly false statements. His last published book, Someone Like Me (2005), was perhaps the most unreliable memoir of childhood ever written, composed of things misremembered from his own life, things that had happened to someone else that Kington had come to believe had happened to him, and improbable lies worthy of, though less baroque than, Baron Münchhausen himself. It was a source of equally mixed alarm and triumph to Kington that, despite all his best efforts, readers and reviewers believed the book to be true. As he said on bumping into an acquaintance in Bath, the experience had taught him a valuable lesson for life, but he refused to say what that lesson was, because he hadn't made it up yet.
In truth, Miles Kington, who died after a short illness aged 66, was the son of a director of Border Breweries in Wrexham, and led what, from the outside at least, appeared a charmed life. After he graduated in Modern Languages from Trinity College, Oxford, he "plunged into free-lance writing, 1963; took up part-time gardening while starving to death, 1964", an obligatory reference to early struggles in his Who's Who entry. Thereafter, the record is one of easy achievement. The following year, aged 24, he became jazz reviewer of The Times (the job he had dreamed of at Oxford, but dismissed as being quite unachievable). At 26 he joined the staff of Punch, still riding high in the Sixties, where he became Literary Editor in 1973. Seven years later, he left to go freelance: the tolling bell of many a Fleet Street career, but in Kington's case cushioned by five years writing the "Moreover. . ." column in The Times until 1987, when he joined The Independent, his first column appearing in March of that year.
Meanwhile he was also pursuing a second career as double-bass player with the cabaret quartet Instant Sunshine, founded by three doctors from St Thomas' Hospital, London. In this, too, success attended him. Instant Sunshine became a much-loved institution and made at least five records before Kington left the group in 1998.
He also made a number of television programmes, including two for the Great Railway Journeys of the World series, wrote stage plays, performed on stage, broadcast regularly, wrote a dozen books and edited several others. Perhaps his most recherché broadcast was his 1996 documentary In Search of the Holy Foreskin, in which, despite at one stage there having been between eight and 18 such foreskins, he found himself unable to produce even one, the last having been allegedly lost after being kept in a shoebox in the wardrobe of a priest. Undaunted, Kington instead displayed to his viewers such devotional relics as a feather from the wing of the Holy Ghost, some of Mary's Holy Milk and the Breath of Joseph.
Despite all his extracurricular activities, Miles Kington remained a writer at heart, even though he claimed to have hit upon the trade more or less by accident. His father was anxious for him to join him at the brewery, sending him to Koblenz, aged 17, to learn about wine. Kington père, according to an essay Miles once wrote for The Times, saw this as an opportunity to expand from the grain to the grape, and his son's facility for languages as a useful business skill. Unfortunately for the beverage world, fortunately for his readers, the only way Miles impressed his host was by knowing the German for "gear lever". (Schalthebel, he wrote triumphantly.) This was followed by a grape-picking season at the Château Palmer vineyards accompanied by his brother Stewart. Miles Kington neither knew nor cared that they were in one of the greatest vineyards in the world, preferring to moon about after girls. His brother took it more seriously, going on to study brewing at Heriot-Watt, before giving it up to become an abstemious cameraman.
Abstemiousness would not have done for a jazz critic, nor, in particular, at Punch, with its famously bibulous Friday lunches where there was a steady parade of guests drawn, if not from the great and good, at least from the interesting and witty. At Punch, Kington was one of the most reliably funny columnists, reaching his zenith with "Let's Parler Franglais", a macaronic jeu d'esprit in which he dissected the vagaries of the British from behind the screen of a crazed bilingualism. His London cabby is exemplary, complaining that Marble Arch is "un peu dodgy aujourd'hui. Le traffic est absolument solide. C'est tout à fait murder. . . Personellement, je blâme le one-way system. Et la police . . ." Four books of "Let's Parler Franglais" were published, two recently reissued by Robson Books. (His linguistic skills were varied; his Latin dictionary, at the alleged behest of the Vatican, memorably glossed, among others, "Curriculum" as "Indian restaurant," "Ex libris" as "dirty books", and "Tertium quid" as "33p".)
Kington's comic hero was the Irish Times's great columnist, Brian Nolan, who wrote in the Times as Myles na g'Copaleen and elsewhere as Flann O'Brien. Miles drew from Myles, but without slavish imitation, the idea of a discourse with the reader; in his frequent irruptions from The Independent's readers, chiding and arguing with their columnist, are echoes of Myles's "Plain People of Ireland", forever taking issue and demanding their money back. So, too, the recurring fictional settings and characters, like the terrible language expert, Dr Wordsmith, and the affably incompetent council of gods the United Deities.
In this respect, Kington's humour was very English. He made a nod to the old Punch style of "recognition humour" by devoting a chapter of Someone Like Me to lawnmowers: the object of Punch's detractors, who characterised its weaker comedy as "A middle-class man who can't make his lawnmower go". But Kington's humour was more cutting, and more precise, than its courteous surface might have suggested. In the last few weeks alone, his topics included a conjoined attack on war and romance fiction with his imaginary publisher Mills and Bang; a denunciation of fake grieving over celebrity deaths (perhaps a homage to the late Alan Coren, who, too, was fond of setting a severe reductio ad absurdum in an imaginary pub; a neat skewering of Peter Hain; the assertion that the Second World War ended in the Sixties; a typically courteous attack on "boutique medicine"; and a delightful piece on Harpo Marx which, en passant, nicely shafted the head of GlaxoSmithKline.
Had he done more television earlier, Miles Kington might have become another Michael Palin. He certainly had the looks for TV stardom; complaining about a letter sent to him when Kington was Literary Editor of Punch (not surprisingly; the letter, chasing up an overdue review, famously simply said "Dear Jeff: Are you going to write the fucking piece or not?"), the late Jeffrey Bernard said "Who does he think he is? His trouble is, he's too bloody handsome." And so he was: women swooned over him with his clean-cut British good looks and his stylish wardrobe. But television was a side-show. Like a true jazzman, Kington preferred words.
And like a true journalist, he guarded his pieces. His family knew he was ill, but The Independent hadn't a clue; if they knew (he said) they'd start scrutinising his copy, and he wasn't having that. ("The great thing for a freelance," he once said, "is not to go into the office. They'll start looking at you, and thinking 'Hmmm. . .' and next thing you know they'll have given you a desk.")
Writing a daily column would, for most writers, be gruelling work. Kington disagreed. "It's like a pension," he said. "You get your eye in and file each morning, and then the day's your own. Much easier than doing it once a week. You just do it, every day." He stuck to that principle to the end. The last thing Miles Kington did before dying, quite swiftly and unexpectedly, was to deliver his copy on time.
I was a fan of Miles Kington from reading Punch as a teenager, and "Let's Parler Franglais" was required reading in the family home, writes Simon Gilman. So I was somewhat starstruck in the early 1990s when I got the chance actually to work with him. I wrote the songs for and performed with him in two of his stage shows under the direction of his wife Caroline: Bizarre and The Death of Tchaikovsky – a Sherlock Holmes Mystery.
The plot of the latter was pure Kington – when Holmes mysteriously disappears at the Reichenbach Falls, it is in fact Moriarty and not Holmes who survives, and as the master of disguise, the Napoleon of Crime takes on Holmes's persona to track down to Russia and eliminate the only witness: Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Typically, though, this wasn't just fancy: Miles had bothered to marry the ludicrous plot to real-time history; Tchaikovsky could easily have been in Switzerland in 1891, and the circumstances of his death in 1893 remain something of a mystery even today.
Miles was one of those rare, brilliant men, like a favourite professor. He would sometimes appear distracted, vague, eccentric, but only because his mind was an absolute reliquary of anecdotes both fictional and true, of rare and early jazz, of railways around the world, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the 19th-century French humorist Alphonse Allais; he was an excellent and instinctive jazz bassist, but also a very good pianist, and we would occasionally spend time out of rehearsal sight-reading piano duets together.
Even during the rehearsal/writing process, Miles would still have time and space in his head to write and submit his daily column, bake bread, play pétanque or take the rowing boat lazily up the Kennet & Avon canal from the bottom of his garden.
My wife swears that he was always "the sexiest man in the room", with his somewhat roguish twinkle. But I think I shall always remember him for the story he told me of the young English instrumentalist eager to discover new and exciting music around the world who was invited to stay in a remote Congolese village.
The young man at first accepted but then started to get rather stressed at the constant pounding of African drums somewhere away in the jungle. One day, he went to the chief of the village and asked when, if ever, the drums would stop beating. "Oh," said the chief, "you don't want the drums to stop." "Why's that?" asked the young man. A look of warning and remembered horror crept across the chief's face as he leant closer to the Englishman and whispered: "Bass solo!"
He was a bassist himself and this was typical of Miles Kington's British charm and self-deprecation.
Among the many facets of Miles Kington's life cited in Michael Bywater's fond obituary was his role as double-bass player with the cabaret group Instant Sunshine, writes Alan Maryon Davis. But his real contribution to the humorous singing quartet, over a period of 20 years, was his wonderfully dry, witty chats between songs.
Before every show, while his fellow performers Peter Christie, David Barlow and I were tuning up and checking the sound, Miles would be pacing thoughtfully in the wings – and then duly deliver some hilarious piece of whimsy that had everyone, us as well as the audience, falling about. Miles left Instant Sunshine in the mid-Nineties, but many of his ideas live on in our current performances, and his link-pieces are featured in EMI recordings shortly to be re-released on CD.
Miles Beresford Kington, humorist: born Downpatrick, Co Down 13 May 1941; staff, Punch 1967-80, literary editor 1973-80; columnist, The Times 1981-86; columnist, The Independent 1987-2008; married 1964 Sarah Paine (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1987), 1987 Caroline Maynard (one son); died Limpley Stoke, Wiltshire 30 January 2008.
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