Miles Kington Remembered: How to become a favourite uncle to precocious children

1 August 2002
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The Independent Online

Today, I am bringing you a tale for younger readers. It's another nature ramble, in which Uncle Geoffrey takes his young niece and nephew, Susie and Robert, for an instructive walk in the English countryside.

Uncle Geoff paused at the top of the meadow and pointed.

"Look at those swallows!," said Uncle Geoff. "Look at them wheeling and whirling at the bottom of the field. Do you know what that means, children?"

"Yes," said Susie. "It means there's a sewage farm there."

"And the swallows love eating the insects that thrive there," said her brother Robert.

"Thus spreading many a faeces-linked disease," said Susie.

"Which may explain why dysentery is such a common ailment in Egypt and the Sudan."

"Yes, it's taken over there directly from the Berkshire countryside by nasty little germ-laden, verminous, migratory swallows," concluded Susie.

Uncle Geoff fell silent for a while. He sometimes felt that his role as a knowledgeable, affable, twinkling favourite uncle was a lot harder work than it should be. He also felt that he would sometimes like to strangle Robert. Not always. He sometimes felt he would like to strangle Susie instead. But he never did strangle either of them. People would only talk, after all.

"You know," he said, bravely trying again, "swallows are in the air night and day. They eat while flying, even sleep while flying!"

"Then how do they have babies?" said Susie. "You can't have sex while you are flying."

"Oh, I don't know," said Robert. "You could do if you were passengers in the first-class section of a transatlantic flight, fuelled by champagne."

Uncle Geoff sighed, What newspapers did young children read these days? The Daily Telegraph, probably – the law pages perhaps.

"Soon, the telegraph wires will be full of swallows gathering in preparation for the long journey south," said Uncle Geoff, trying to steer the conversation away from birth, procreation and death. "What do you think about that?"

"Well, I think lots of things, Uncle Geoff," said Robert. "I think: what did swallows perch on before they invented telegraph wires? I also think: why do we still call them telegraph wires, because we haven't sent telegraphs down them for years, so why don't we call them telephone wires? Why doesn't the Daily Telegraph rename itself The Daily Telephone?

"I also think: what on earth is that body doing over there?"

"What?" said Uncle Geoff, startled. "Which body? Where? Who? What are you talking about?"

But Robert was right. There, in the grass before them, lay the body of a well-dressed man in his fifties, with a bottle in his hand.

"It's very important we don't touch anything," said Uncle Geoff, taking charge immediately, "so that when the police arrive they won't find anything disturbed."

"It's very important that we work out what has happened first," said Robert, taking over from Uncle Geoff, "so that we know if it's worth sending for the police at all."

"It's pretty obvious to me what has happened," said Susie. "This gentleman has been invited to an evening out at Glyndebourne and isn't sure if he can stand the pace of the entertainment, so he has come out to this field to practise. Hence the bottle. He is merely intoxicated."

"On the contrary," said Robert. "Look at the cut of his clothes. Look at the style of his hat. This is a man who has recently come back from tropical climes, probably African. I deduce that he is a Zimbabwean farmer who has left the country after persecution and is suffering here in England from an extreme guilt complex."

"You are both quite wrong," said the well-dressed gentleman, suddenly coming to and picking himself up. "I was on the train home from Paddington not an hour ago, standing in the buffet with a bottle of wine, when I became so outraged by the constant stoppages that I thought it would be quicker to walk home. So I got out at the next red signal and started walking across the fields. Alas, the red wine must have affected my mental faculties... Why, it's young Robert and Susie, isn't it?"

"Hello, Uncle Fred!," they said. "Great to see you!" And they walked off, arm in arm with their favourite uncle, leaving Uncle Geoffrey behind wondering bitterly why a knowledge of nature was no longer enough to endear him to the younger generation.