Melvyn Bragg Apr 15 1994
My false eyelashes fell into my soup with surprise when I heard my case come up for discussion on Start the Week. No, I don’t take soup early on Monday mornings- I had, as I often do, taped the programme for later listening, and so I didn’t hear me being talked about till Tuesday or Wednesday. After getting over the initial shock of joy and horror at realising that anyone up there reads me, I buckled down to the job of working out the question someone posed on the programme: Is Miles Kington sad at not having a bigger public profile and not being born fifteen years later? After falling asleep several times at the enormity of the idea, I concluded I wasn’t sad at all.
Actually, I faced this problem years ago. In the early 1960s, after leaving Oxford, I wrote with Terry Jones for a while, and just as we were starting to get somewhere he said he’d rather go off and write with someone called Michael Palin. That was fine by me, as I would rather write printed humour, and he and Palin were performers as I never would be. So even then I saw my friends wave good-bye and go off and become Monty Python, while I went to join Punch in its declining years. I suppose this means that if I wanted a bigger public pose, I didn’t have to be born later –Palin and Jones were already doing it in my generation. And there have been times when I deliberately turned down the chance to go public – I was offered the Barry Norman Film ‘82 slot, and I was even offered the chance to go round the world in 80 days before Michael was, but both times I said no because I actually prefer to write and not be recognised.
The more serious question is why I have never got down to the job of being a serious artist, with novels, plays, etc. This was answered satisfactorily for me years ago by SJ Perelman in a wonderful interview in the Paris Review (there was another equally good one in the same issue by Evelyn Waugh) when the interviewer asked if he was ever going to write a proper book. Perelman replied, as near as I can remember in these words:-
“It may surprise you to know that for several decades now I have been approached by studious interviewees with foreheads as big as canteloupe melons who want to know when I am going to knock off this frivolous stuff I’m doing and get down to the big novel I am longing to write, and that I have always told them the same thing, viz that I am quite happy working on the tiny scale which I enjoy, and that although in America, where size is all, and where the muralist is prized every time above the miniaturist, my work is given scant regard, I think it has its own value.”
I feel exactly the same. The only flaw in the argument is that as I reread Perelman, he doesn’t seem to stand up to revisiting. So I would rather substitute the names of Myles na Gopaleen or Alphonse Allais, both writers of short pieces who seem terrific years later.
Mark you, I only have thoughts like this every ten years. Most of the time I just enjoy having ideas and seeing if they work. One of John Dankworth’s arrangers, a man called Lindop, said that a classical composer had once said to him: ”I envy you deeply. You write a piece one day and hear it played the same week. I write a piece and hear it maybe in a year, when I have forgotten about it.” I’d rather be with Lindop on the whole…
Yours from the sticks