Miles Kington: It's a terrible job, but someone's got to do it...

The idea was a controlled experiment to find out if half a dozen writers could share the same space for a fortnight, and end up still on talking terms
Click to follow

I shall be away for a while from Monday in order to partake in a very interesting literary experiment. It came about like this. Richard Ingrams, the editor of that fine magazine The Oldie, to which I contribute, was approached by Swan Hellenic, that fine purveyor of cultural tours and exotic travels, to see if he could muster a group of writers to go aboard the Minerva II and survive at sea for a week or two. Was I prepared, he wanted to know, to join them and undergo this ordeal?

He was not very explicit, but I gathered that the idea was to stage a controlled experiment in which they would find out if half a dozen writers, forced to live in the same space for a fortnight, could endure the experience and end up still on talking terms.

It was a very interesting idea, and I said yes immediately. After all, writers are ungenerous and solitary creatures, and the idea of forcing them to co-exist for a period, to see if they can unlearn their selfish habits and get on together is rather intriguing.

It was certainly my experience at Punch magazine that writers were not very clubbable. There were two classes of people who frequented Punch, the writers and the cartoonists (who referred to themselves as the artists) and the great difference between them was that the artists loved getting together and the writers loved staying apart. The artists would go to the pub together, even on holiday together, whereas the writers would ask for the bill, pay and disappear when nobody was looking. (Some of them without even paying. They know who they are.) The cartoonists went so far as to form their own dining club, the Toby Club, which met at regular intervals to eat, drink, be merry and criticise the stinginess of the Punch management, but the writers had no such tribal instincts.

The history of Punch was full of stories of contributors misbehaving. And it was always artists involved. Several told me of times they had personally fallen asleep on a Tube station and been locked in for the night, or fallen asleep on the train till the end of the line. (I think it was cartoonist Ross - Ross Thomson - who told me that he once had woken up in Eastbourne, having meant to get off at Haywards Heath, and, finding that he had missed the last train back, had trudged down to the sea front to find a hotel. He had first phoned his wife from a call box on the front and, when she said disbelievingly that he was probably still in London with some dizzy blonde, he had unsoberly held out the telephone to the crashing breakers and shouted: "What do you think that is, woman?")

Yes, it was the artists who always got drunk together, roistered together and sang together, while the writers took their coats and sneaked off singly into the night when nobody was looking and made their way home. Admittedly, I was once told the moral tale of a writer who had gone off to have a drink with Jeffrey Bernard and Hugh McIlvanney and had woken up next day on Crewe Station without the faintest idea how he had got there, but that was different because Jeffrey Bernard was Jeffrey Bernard, and I am sure McIlvanney was McIlvanney as well.

And I did hear Ian Rankin say on radio the other day that he had been having dinner with JK Rowling recently, and I know there is said to be a mythical creature called Literary London which gets together regularly, but I still maintain that writers are crotchety, surly, selfish beasts who flee each other's company on the whole, except when they are forced together at literary festivals, and then only fleetingly.

And, of course, in controlled experiments such as on the Minerva II. The names of my fellow victims are Rosie Boycott, Mavis Nicholson, Richard Ingrams and Beryl Bainbridge. No, I tell a lie. Beryl has apparently stood down and been replaced by Valerie Grove. This I find rather chilling. I can only imagine that Beryl has suddenly woken up to the horror of having to share space with other writers and has pulled the communication cord and asked to be let off the gravy train immediately. Well, the rest of us have to be braver than that. It will be grim but it has to be done. I will let you know how we all get on.