Miles Beresford Kington, writer, humorist and musician, was born in Northern Ireland in 1941, grew up in North Wales and sent away to school in Scotland. He saw himself very much as an Englishman, although, to complicate matters still further, he was actually half American, his mother being a US citizen.‘
'From an early age,’ he wrote, ’perhaps confused by my shifting geography, I knew I wanted to be a humorous writer and a jazz musician, and even at school I had already started my own jazz band and set up a humorous magazine in opposition to the official school magazine. When I went to Oxford University (1960-63) I spent most of the time playing the double bass in jazz groups and writing undergraduate humour. Thus, when I left university, I was almost entirely unfitted for life, and consequently went to London to try my luck as a free-lance humorous writer, where I nearly starved to death.
He spent his first year in London, writing scripts with Terry Jones. Their output was prolific, but not very successful and Terry finally dissolved the partnership, going to work with Michael Palin. Miles found a job as a part-time gardener.
Music, or, more specifically, Jazz, about which he was passionate, provided him with his first professional writing break. In 1965, “The Times” (Miles having lobbied the Arts Editor for months with sample reviews) employed him as their jazz reviewer. He then set about realising a long-held ambition – to join the staff of Punch, the humorous magazine famed for its cartoons and the quality of its writing. He bombarded them with articles, till they finally gave in and allowed him to join the staff. In 1970 he became the literary editor.
“At Punch, Kington was one of the most reliably funny columnists, reaching his zenith with "Let's Parler Franglais", a macaronic jeu d'esprit in which he dissected the vagaries of the British from behind the screen of a crazed bilingualism. His London cabby is exemplary, complaining that Marble Arch is "un peu dodgy aujourd'hui. Le traffic est absolument solide. C'est tout à fait murder. . . Personellement, je blâme le one-way system. Et la police . . .” Michael Bywater
The Franglais columns, with the exception of the cartoons, were arguably Punch’s most enduring bequest. Miles described the four volumes subsequently published as ‘probably the most popular bilingual lavatory books of the 1980s’.
In 1980, Punch (then under the editorship of Alan Coren) and he parted company. He wrote to Harold Evans, editor at The Times, offering himself as a humorous columnist. When Evans did not reply, Miles sent him copy daily until Evans ‘caved in’. His daily column, “Moreover” appeared until 1987 when he switched to “The Independent” where he continued to write on a daily basis, the last copy appearing the day he died.
In 1977 he translated the work of Alphonse Allais, a nineteenth century French humorist. The publication “The World of Alphonse Allais” led to a broadcast on Radio 3 and was the beginning of a lifelong association with the BBC as a broadcaster and writer. By the 1980s, he was making regular appearances on British television and radio. TV programmes included “Three Miles High” about a railway journey in Peru; “The Burma Road” and “In Search of the Holy Foreskin”; the series “Steaming Through Britain”; (steam trains were a particular passion of his) “Fine Families”; “Jazz At The Albert,” HTV, and “Lets Parler Franglais” for C4, as well as numerous guest appearances on “Call My Bluff” and other shows.
But he eschewed a potentially glittering television career, turning down amongst other things, the offer to present “Around the World In Eighty Days”. Television, he said, got in the way of writing. Radio, however, gave him the opportunity to exercise his considerable broadcasting skills. His light witty touch, his ability to look at life’s experiences in a different, tangential and oblique way meant he was much in demand.
He presented many different series including In The Archives, Double Vision, Reading Music, The Miles Kington Interviews, It’s A Funny Old World. He was a regular guest on a whole variety of programmes such as The Write Stuff, Quote, Unquote, A Good Read, The News Quiz, etc. And he made over sixty documentaries on subjects as diverse as General de Gaulle, Jean Paul Sartre, Brezhnev, Franco, Django Reinhardt, Ronnie Scotts, The Saxophone, Kansas City Jazz, TEFL, John Betjeman etc etc.
Miles’s love of music cannot be overstated. He was well known for his enthusiasm for Jazz, but he had a deep passion for most classical music, which he played on the piano for his own pleasure. The double bass he played as a jazz instrument in public.
In 1970 he joined Instant Sunshine, a popular cabaret group featuring three doctors. ‘I always travel with three physicians in tow…’ MK Their adventures on the performing circuit provided a fabulously fertile ground for his writing. As well as playing bass, he wrote most of the introductions to their songs as well as wry, witty monologues. This gave him a taste for audiences and was a good training ground for developing his skills as an accomplished public speaker.
He was a regular at the Edinburgh Fringe and wrote his only full-length play, “Waiting for Stoppard,” to premiere there. He co-wrote and acted in “The Death of Tchaikovsky", a Sherlock Holmes Mystery,” and “Bizarre” with actor/musician Simon Gilman, and performed a one-man show “A Rough Guide to the Fringe”.
He was a remarkable man, whose written output – sixteen books, innumerable articles and over 4,500 humorous columns marked him as a colossus in British journalism (described as such by Simon Kelner – editor of “The Independent”).
In West London he was a familiar site on his bike - in fact he cycled everywhere in London (until he got knocked over by a taxi). Similarly when he moved to the West Country, he was regularly spotted on his bike in Bath, and the country lanes around his home. Biking was his principal form of exercise, and he loved it because he said it enabled him to think more clearly about whatever he was writing, and if stuck for a subject, he would come back brimming with ideas.
He wrote because he found words endlessly fascinating. He was a humorist because he loved playing with them, making language stand on its head to look at life’s experiences in a different, tangential and oblique way. His writing provided a different perspective, one that made one smile, laugh and see things afresh. But although he was well known in Britain for Franglais and his columns he wanted to leave something more substantial behind for posterity.
For years his friends and his agent, Gill Coleridge, tried to persuade him to write his autobiography. He’d met so many interesting people, through Punch, through broadcasting and as part of the Jazz scene; and, as a permanently curious person, he had so much information tucked away in that enormous brain of his. He never entirely dismissed the idea, but thought that that might be something he would do when he retired…
Some years ago, he succumbed to pressure and sat down ostensibly to write his autobiography. The book, published as “Someone Like Me” was a masterpiece of humorous fiction from beginning to end.
He had just started writing the sequel “Here We Go Again” when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Time was running out. He abandoned the book and started writing a series of fictitious letters, ostensibly to Gill, proposing ways in which he could turn his battle with cancer into a best-seller. As he had intended, these letters were the book and ‘How Shall I Tell the Dog’ became his last project.
Writing the book as a series of letters suited his style of writing. He was not a long haul writer and the idea of undertaking a conventional novel appalled him. No, he was a brilliant short story writer, because that’s what his columns, by and large, are. The Gods, The Pub Conversations, Nature Rambles with Uncle Geoffrey, One Minute Detective, to name but a few of his regular favorites, are all stories, characters created within seconds with wonderfully easy dialogue.
Miles lived to write and it was entirely apt his last column appeared on the day he died.
His fellow hacks regarded his output with awe, and to date, no-one has taken his place.
Miles has left a huge archive. Letters, scripts, articles, incomplete novels, copies of columns reaching back into the mists of time. So far posthumously published: “How Shall I tell The Dog”
“The Best By Miles’
And “Le Bumper Book of Franglais” -101 columns written after the famous four Franglais books.
Books published in his lifetime: The World of Alphonse Allais; Let’s Parler Franglais 1979; Let’s Parler Franglais Again! 1982; Parlez-Vous Franglais? 1981; Let’s Parler Franglais One More Time 1982; Moreover, 1982; Miles and Miles 1982; Moreover, Too…1985; Vicarage Allsorts 1985; Welcome To Kington, 1989. Nature Made Ridiculously Simple 1983; The Franglais Lieutenant’s Woman 1986; Steaming Through Britain 1990; Jazz, An Anthology (ed) 1992; Motorway Madness 1998; The Pick of Punch(ed) 1998;
Someone Like Me, 2005.