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Harold Evans
The Times
May 1 1981

Dear Harold,

Thanks for your nice letter. You ask if I might be prepared to write anonymously in the leader field. Well, no writer likes having his name taken off the credits, but on the other hand I’ve been writing for Punch most of my life, which seems to be as near to writing anonymously as you can get. No disrespect to the old mag, but in the six months I’ve been doing a weekly TV crit for The Times, I’ve had more comments from people who have read me there than in six years at Punch. So, basically, no, I wouldn’t mind, I’m used to it.

But there again, I’ve looked at several of your Saturday third leaders and (dear God, I have to be tactful here) I think they need kicking around a bit yet. I was suddenly reminded of what Bill Davis used to say when he strode up and down the corridor at Punch, wishing he were in the departure lounge at Heathrow: “The trouble with Punch is that it’s a literary magazine!” At the time we used to think this was just the cry of the philistine who didn’t understand half the words Alan Coren used, but I see now he had sniffed out a good point, namely that most people in Punch tend without even realising it to adopt a kind of good-minor-writing style, a sort of leisurely raised eyebrow writing style which was peeking at itself in the mirror the whole while. And I think that when people try light-hearted leaders they seem to fall into a similar stance; a slightly arch, slightly Victorian attitude that to adopt a humorous pose is three quarters of the battle. It isn’t; it’s only the opening service. After that, you’ve to surprise them with as many shots as possible.

OK, Kington, I hear you cry. Let’s see you do better. I’d like to try. Shall I suggest a subject?

But it was your passing mention of the Way of the World/Beachcomber idea that really got me excited. Cards on the table. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. Never had the chance. It beats me why British papers have almost allowed that tradition to die, the tradition of a space in which a writer was allowed to create his own unpredictable world, peopled with odd characters, breaking out into parody, invaded by tangents from other worlds… Myles na Gopaleen made a great job of it. Timothy Shy (though I only know his stuff from one wartime Penguin) was damn near as good as Beachcomber – in fact, I think I am right in saying that Shy (Wyndham Lewis) was the bloke who first started Beachcomber, even before J.B.Morton. And in a curious sort of way, Private Eye still carries on the tradition. Forget their scurrilous gossip, malice, giggling vindictiveness, etc. What’s good in Private Eye is their comic inventiveness in such features as Dave Spart, Sylvie Krin, Ron Knee, Mr Thatcher. A Doctor Writes, E J Thribb, Bamber Gasket… cast of characters not so very far removed from Beachcomber’s faithfuls, or Peter Simple’s trendy awfuls. Sorry to mention P. Eye. They haven’t been very nice to you. But like Time Out reviews, I always believe the opposite of their so-called fact stories. It’s only when Private Eye states clearly that it is inventing something that I believe it.

Anyway, if you ever do find space for such a feature, that’s me on the pavement in Grays Inn Road with my sleeping bag and primus stove having queued overnight to be considered. I have all sorts of ideas buzzing round, waiting to be exercised. I’ll mention a few.

(Miles then goes on to detail a dozen ideas, before he concludes…)

I’ve broken Rule 3 of journalism, which is never bore the editor with long letters. But I had to ramble on a bit to give you a vague idea. Vagueness aside, I’d be happy to provide a few sample columns. That breaks Rule 4: Never do anything without being paid. But a humorous column shouldn’t obey any rules, anyway. It should make up its own.

yours

 

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