Miles Kington: How to be an expert without really trying

Unnoticed by me, I was cornering the market in steam trains, until I asked to be put off at the next station
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The Independent Online

Yesterday I was talking about Gervase Phinn, who seems to have cornered the market in the funny things that children do and say, and the more I think about it, the more I realise that if you corner a market in anything, you are made for life.

Yesterday I was talking about Gervase Phinn, who seems to have cornered the market in the funny things that children do and say, and the more I think about it, the more I realise that if you corner a market in anything, you are made for life.

Nigel Rees has cornered the market in quotes, for instance. And Bill Oddie has cornered the market in birds. This doesn't mean that either is a world expert - I am sure there are ornithologists and literary anthologists who could run rings round them both - but Rees and Oddie have gained a reputation for doing the business entertainingly and briskly. One day they may be replaced by up-and-coming quote and bird enthusiasts - Simon Barnes has made quite a stir with his charming book How to be a Bad Birdwatcher, so he is worth watching, especially if you are Bill Oddie - but for the time being they have it made.

Other examples? I remember a time when, if musicals were being discussed, Gerald Kaufman was the man always sent for, as he had gained a reputation for omniscience in that field. Before him it was Benny Green, who also had an enviable reputation for knowing all about jazz and about cricket. (It takes an energetic man or woman to corner more than one market.)

I don't think any of these men set out deliberately to become the leaders in their field; it was just an enthusiasm which took over. Sometimes this can even happen by accident. I know this, because it has happened to me in a small way. When I wrote a weekly column in Punch called "Let's Parler Franglais", collections of which were issued in paperback by Penguin (and now again by Robson), it got about that if quirky comments on the French language scene were needed, I was your man.

So I would start getting phone calls from programme researchers saying: "Mr Kington, I don't know if you have seen that a French shop-owner has been fined for using the English words 'Fast Food' on his business instead of the French equivalent, I wonder if you would care to talk about this sort of thing on our programme this afternoon ..."

(Indeed, I remember once getting a phone call from a BBC researcher who wanted me to do a brilliantly funny piece on the kind of Franglais, or mix of French and English, used in the TV comedy Allo! Allo! I said I had never seen the programme. Disbelievingly, they sent me an episode on video. I watched it. There was not a single word of French used throughout - it was all English spoken in a heavy French accent. I rang back and said they were wasting my time, and they went very quiet ...)

I left Punch and Franglais behind to go and make one programme in the Great Railway Journeys series, which was great fun, as it took me to Peru and up the Andes. When I came back I starved for a bit, as I had no job, but then a nice man from BBC 2 rescued me by asking me to present six half-hour programmes on steam railways, which was good fun, as it got me to Fort William and up to Mallaig.

After that I still had no job, but a nice publisher suggested that I team up with a photographer to produce a glossy book on surviving steam in Britain called Steaming Through Britain, which was good fun, as it got me to Bridgnorth and Minehead ...

You see what was happening? Apart from taking shorter and shorter trips? Unnoticed by myself, I was starting to corner the market in steam trains. I had done one programme, which led to another six, which led to a book, and which would undoubtedly have led on to more train-oriented things and even a train-linked career, had I not woken up in time and demanded to be put off at the next station, since when I have done nothing about trains at all.

But the point is, my children, that if someone like me can start to corner a market merely by accident, then each one of you can do it on purpose if you put your mind to it. Now, go out there, find your niche and do it!

Tomorrow, we finally ask the big question - is Gervase Phinn really his real name?

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