Miles Kington: Richard Boston, the ecclesiastical practical joker

'I had accidentally solved the mystery of all those abandoned Mayan cities. It was just that the inhabitants couldn't stand the mess any more'
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The Independent Online

I remember several things about the late Richard Boston.

I remember that he was a tall man with high forehead and not much hair, rather like one of those gaitered, dome-headed clergymen you saw in ancient Punch cartoons. His ecclesiastical appearance was wonderfully at odds with his subversive, dirty-minded, anarchic ways, and his fondness for practical jokes.

I remember that he was the first ever beer correspondent of The Guardian.

I remember that he used to have a small picture of his shiny-pated face at the top of his Guardian column every week, except for the week when someone by mistake printed the equally bald head of Telly Savalas instead. The readers were tickled by this, and so was Boston, because for weeks thereafter there was always a different picture accompanying his byline, up to and including one of Elvis. Richard told me that the editor, Peter Preston, tolerated this until the Boston byline was accompanied by a ravishing head of Brigitte Bardot, at which point normal service was peremptorily resumed and Richard's face reappeared.

I remember seeing him once on TV. He was in confrontation with a man from Watney's, who at that time were trying to flood the country with keg beer. So it was Boston, real ale champion, against a man in a suit preaching the cause of Red Barrel, which in those days did for ale what McDonald's now does for good home cooking.

"What exactly have you got against Red Barrel, Mr Boston?" said the chairman.

"The fact that it tastes like gnat's piss," said Mr Boston.

The man from Watney's went purple at this. Boston was breaking all the rules of TV discussion.

"You can't possibly say that..." he started. "Yes, I can," said Boston. "It tastes like gnat's piss."

It was a brilliant move. The Watney's man had statistics to counter all Richard's arguments. Except the fact that it tasted awful. The man from Watney's duly went away and committed suicide. At least, he should have done.

I remember Richard starting his arty ecology magazine Vole, which, well before its time, was a brilliant mix of doom-saying, prophesy, good writing and fun. He asked me to write something for it.

Me: I know nothing about ecology.

Him: Then what would you like to write about?

Me: I would like to write a series called "Tales From the Dublin Underground".

Him: But Dublin has no underground railway.

Me: That's the point. It would give me a lot more freedom.

Him: Do it!

And I did a series of yarns about the Dublin Metro in which Brendan Behan, drunk, always got off at the wrong stop, and people like Beckett and W B Yeats and James Joyce made appearances, but I no longer have copies of them, so I have no idea what I actually wrote, which must be why I remember them so fondly.

But what I remember Richard best for was a brilliant piece he wrote about untidiness. He told us sadly that the big table on which he always worked had got so crowded with stuff that there was finally no room for his typewriter, so he had decided to have a ruthless clear-out. Everything on the table would be thrown away unless there was a very good reason for keeping it. The first thing he looked at was a VAT Bulletin, No 9. He chucked it in the bin. The next thing was a magazine he hadn't yet read. He kept it. Then there were some letters which he hadn't answered. He kept them. Then some new typing paper. Couldn't chuck that out... He threw nothing else away.

He then looked in the bin, told himself that you never knew when you might need a VAT Bulletin, and got it out again.

At which point, relates Boston, he realised that there was another completely empty table next door to work on, so he shut his door on the crowded room and left it untouched and undisturbed. "It was then," he says, "that I realised that I had accidentally solved the mystery of all those abandoned Mayan cities in Central America. It wasn't disease that had made people move out. It wasn't war. It was just that the inhabitants couldn't stand the mess any more..."

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