The Columnist

Book Review
by Simon Kelner

Barry Took
  Jan Morris
  Simon Kelner
  Ken Crawford
  Caroline Highcock
Charles Douglas-Home
  Ralph Freeman
  Peter Jamieson
  Jazz for Juniors
  Bearded Lady
  Letter to Agent
  Joanna Lumley
  Lady Margaret Oswick
  Katharine Whitehorn
  Melvyn Bragg
  Margaret Forster
  Richard Ingrams
  Gavyn Davies






The Editor
The Times                                                                                       June 21 1982

Dear Charlie,
                        I had lunch today with John Grant, an event we first planned some time last July, and among other things he mentioned your plans for rejigging the middle of the paper. He stressed that nothing was concrete yet, but told me that you were thinking of taking my piece off the Court and Social page, putting it on the Op Ed page, putting the Diary on the Court page, perhaps bringing me down to three times a week… This all sounds quite interesting, not to say very interesting, but when I mentioned to John that I had one or two reservations – or at least points I’d like to put to you before you went over the top guns blazing – he agreed that you’d have no objection to my writing them down in a letter to you.
            First, I would be reluctant but not muscularly so to leave the Obituary page. This is partly because I am conservative by nature, partly because a quirky thing like my column tends to look more colourful surrounded by very regular, not so colourful features, partly because I know that even on a bad day I have a good chance of being funnier than the obituaries.
            Second, I would be reluctant but not hysterically so to reappear opposite letters. It’s a damn good page to be on, and an honour to be there, but there’s just a chance that my stuff might look odd among the normal features.
            Third (and all the way down to ninety-ninth), I think it would be a terrible mistake to write my piece just three or even just four times a week. There are lots of reasons for this, of which money is the least.
            The most trivial and selfish reason is that I like writing every day and would miss writing on a blank day.
            A better reason is that would leave less margin for error. At the end of my first week of doing Moreover, Michael Frayn wrote an extremely nice letter to Harry Evans saying he liked my stuff but that Harry should always remember that humorists have off days, maybe 3 in 5. I aim to score higher than that, but it’s also true that not every piece a humorist writes, even if good, can appeal to everyone. Well, if I was writing three times a week and one or even two of those didn’t strike home, the scoring rate would feel much lower.
            John Grant assumed – and most other people do as well – that it would be a relief to write less often. Amazingly, I think it would be harder. I find it easier doing five shorter pieces a week for The Times than I did doing one longish a week for Punch. It’s something to do with keeping the muscles warm and ticking over, or the juices flowing, or the production line going, depending on whether you prefer an athletic, digestive or industrial metaphor. Believe it or not, I really look forward every morning to filling that space in The Times, like a jazz soloist itching for the moment to step forward and do his sixty-four bars. I always have two or three ideas turning over in my mind for the next few pieces. And I wouldn’t like to wait too long for fear of them going cold.
            As a concomitant of this, I think readers feel the same way – that a humorous column has to appear regularly and on consecutive days to establish and maintain a rapport with the invisible audience. This is something to do with the margin of error I mentioned, something to do with being able to vary the approach day by day, but most of all to do with the feeling that a humorous column is a bit like a tiny repertory theatre which presents a different play every day. There may be plays that the reader doesn’t feel quite in tune with, but better that than to see the theatre dark on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
            So I feel very strongly that a column like mine, whoever writes it, should appear at least five days a week, Monday to Friday. It sounds arrogant, but I think it is just common sense. The best argument against it is that the reader will tire of the tone of voice of one writer, but I think that is swamped by all the arguments in favour, and in any case I think I vary the tone of voice long enough to avoid that danger. One might just as well argue that leaders should only come out three times a week because readers tire of a newspaper’s opinions.
            I hope you don’t mind me saying all this. It’s just that I feel it’s working well at the moment, that I’m enjoying it, and that I wouldn’t want to change the magic formula.

            Yours                                                            Miles Kington

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