Fond memories of a
true virtuoso of the written word
I received something unusual and noteworthy this morning. A letter. An actual, handwritten, expressive letter. It came from a Colonel’s wife to thank me for a dinner I’d hosted, and I can’t tell you how pleased I was to receive it. Yes, the other guests had passed on their appreciation, but they’d done so over the phone, or by text or email. No-one else had taken the trouble to sit down and write, in their own hand, something meaningful and particular.
It made me realise what a rare and singular pleasure it is these days to receive a personalised missive of this sort. The delight of seeing one’s name, written in fountain pen, on the envelope, the thrill of opening it, not knowing what’s inside, and the simple satisfaction of receiving something real and consequential and tangible and lasting.
I write even fewer letters than I receive, and I was musing on the fact that, in a digital world, no-one leaves behind a body of correspondence when, from beyond the grave, arrives a collection of letters from a true virtuoso of the written word. Miles Kington wrote more than 30,000 newspaper columns in his lifetime, a good proportion of them for The Independent, where he contributed a 500-word piece every weekday from 1987 until his death in 2008.
The output was one thing, but the high standard he maintained over this body of work has never been matched in the annals of journalism.
Every day, the reader would be rewarded with a timely aperçu, or a witty observation and often with a proper belly laugh. I was his editor for 10 years, and even though he was a constant presence, I rarely talked to him, so metronomic was his delivery, so clean was his copy. I simply marvelled at the volume and quality of his writing. Little did I know at the time that, as well as supplying a daily newspaper column, he was an inveterate letter writer, an undertaking which he took as seriously as his journalism.
Over half a century, he wrote letters to the great and the good, to editors and colleagues, to friends and family, and he kept copies of every single one. Now, thanks to the efforts of his widow, Caroline, whose labour of love it was to sift through this archive, his correspondence has been edited and collected into a book, My Mother, The Bearded Lady (Unbound Books, £25). Over almost 400 pages, there are letters of every sort – thank-yous, apologies, requests, observations – and they include ones to notable cultural figures of the time, such as John Cleese, Melvyn Bragg, Philip Larkin and Joanna Lumley.
Each one is faithful to Miles’s insouciant writing style, light, but with a purpose, humorous but often pointed. His hilarious account of the day he visited the Independent offices (he did this only once in a decade) lampoons all who were present, and it was quintessential Kington, sardonic and affectionate, and funny. And his letter to Jonathan Dimbleby following the broadcaster’s 40th birthday party is one of the funniest things I’ve read this year.
What shines through is a rounded picture of the man himself, his character, his outlook on the world, his likes and dislikes. Letter writing is a particular art, which is heading towards obsolescence. Miles Kington was a master of this craft, and we should be grateful that, in death, he can still remind us of its enduring value.