It was tough when Miles called me off the subs’ bench
01 February 2008
There are various well-tried ways to assess the success of a writer – reviews, books sales, prizes, the grinding envy of his peers – but the most reliable is the simplest. How much pleasure does his work give his readers? By this criterion, as the many readers who have turned confidently to this column down the years will know, Miles Kington had few rivals.
In a flashy, self-aggrandising age, it is often the writers who take themselves most seriously who are taken most seriously by the world at large and, in that sense at least, Miles was distinctly unfashionable. He made being funny, day after day, year after year, look as natural as breathing. It was one of the reasons why his columns inspired such an intense, personal loyalty. Reading him was like being in the company of an intelligent, perceptive and funny friend. It was an astonishing talent.
Effortless prose is never easy, nor is writing with an easy, glancing humour about daily events. I was not a close friend – we met at parties, exchanged emails about this and that – but once or twice a year I was reminded of just how good a writer he was. When Miles was on holiday, or more recently when he was ill, I came off the substitutes’ bench to take his place in this column.
The phrase “a hard act to follow” is not quite adequate here. There is no other writer at The Independent, and few in the whole of the British press, who inspires such fierce affection among readers. Occasionally, one of them would show their displeasure at being deprived of their daily fix of Kington. When, in another column, I mentioned that one of the most dreaded sentences in the English language was “today’s short story comes from Wales”, a reader sent an email containing the sentence he most dreaded reading: “Miles Kington is on holiday.”
Taking Miles’s place, I found that writing a column once a day is a treat for about a week. During the second week, one becomes edgily aware that the tank is running low on fuel. Other columnists have daily events, quotes, facts, to fall back on. A humorous piece has none of that; it is writing without a safety net. In week three, the pressure really begins to tell. However delighted Miles’s readers were when he returned from holiday, few of them can have been quite as relieved as his substitute.
There are a whole range of pitfalls for the long-distance columnist. He can be over-relaxed and repetitive, become the sort of club bore that Craig Brown parodied in Wallace Arnold’s “Afore Ye Go” column. His opinions can become over-intrusive. He can allow satire to curdle into mean-spiritedness. He can become solemn or, more disastrously, facetious.
No one else has managed to avoid all of these traps for long. Now and then, other newspapers have hired someone to “do a Kington”; within weeks, the journalist would run out of steam and ideas.
What was Miles’s secret? A sharp journalistic curiosity had something to do with it. He had an excellent eye for a funny story but also had a great ear, presenting the column in a wide variety of registers and voices while retaining the particular personality of his writing. Above all, his prose (and poetry) in English (and in Franglais) had that elusive, inimitable quality that so many writers aim for and so few achieve: charm. There was also a surprising steeliness to Miles which was most in evidence during these past difficult few weeks. Other writers, facing their own mortality, are keen to share their pain. He did something altogether more heroic: he continued writing, with all his usual elegance and wit.
“‘So, what are you up to these days?’,” someone asked him in a column he wrote a few days ago.
“‘Same old thing,’ I said. ‘Scribble, scribble, scribble.’
‘And when do you propose to give up?’
‘Me?’ I said startled. ‘Never. It is my firm belief that writers never give up.'”
And he didn’t, writing to the end. Miles wrote to make himself feel alive and he brought that same essential gift to his readers.