When I heard that ES Turner had died (still writing sparkling free-lance journalism in his mid-nineties!) I was impelled to turn to the shelf behind me where I keep odd journalistic anthologies and collections, and take down one of his books. It was one of his last ones, called “Unholy Pressures”, subtitled “The Wayward Parsons of Grub Street”, the sort of book that Ernest liked writing best – a chance to take a sardonic look at an apparently respectable but actually quite louche corner of life. (I rather like the sound of the clergyman who published texts of sermons in facsimile handwriting which country vicars could therefore pass off as their own – where DID Ernest dig up this kind of information from?)
But as I opened the book I saw with a small shock of pleasure that it had a letter from him to me inside, and an inscription reading: “Miles – in appreciation of those kind words in the London Review of Books 15.10.98 and remembering the good days at Punch. Ernest, Oct 9 1998.”
For a moment I was baffled. Then I remembered that I had been rung up by novelist Andrew O’Hagan who was doing a sort of profile of Ernest; I had chatted to him on the phone about my memories of Ernest at Punch, and some of these wisps of memory had found their way into his piece. As a token of thanks, Ernest had sent me a new copy of his book on maverick clergymen which, now I look at it, I think Ernest had had published at his own expense – The Book Guild Ltd of Lewes is not a publisher whose name I recognise and it has the smell of self-publishing about it. How sad if at the end of his life publishers no longer trusted Ernest to write a saleable book.
Scattered round my house there are other autographed copies. I do not know where they are or which ones, but occasionally I open a book and find that the author has autographed it for me, and it always gives me a slightly childish thrill. Somewhere, for instance, I have got a JL Carr novel signed by him on the one occasion he came to our house, and I rather think I have got a book signed by Kingsley Amis, though God knows where the book is, or which one. This happened because I once shared a literary lunch with Amis in Reading, and we both made speeches, and bought each other’s books and signed them, though all I can remember clearly about the occasion is that when it came to his turn to speak, Kingsley stood up, said: “I haven’t actually got a speech prepared, but you might be interested in a piece I’ve done for next week’s New Statesman, of which I’ve got the galley proofs here,” and then read it out to the bemused audience. I wish I’d got him to sign the galley proofs as well, and taken them from him…
Having been at Punch all those years, I did also manage to buy or scrounge a few cartoon originals from artists I admired, but the only one which has my name on it was a cartoon by ffolkes. I have never been able to draw, but I kidded myself that I could think up good ideas for cartoons and used to suggest them to all the cartoonists. ffolkes was the only guy who ever thought one was good enough to take. The resultant drawing showed a couple of Biblical characters watching the Blessed Virgin Mary being taken up into the sky by angels. ‘It seems a reasonable Assumption’, one of them is saying…
‘Well, it’s not exactly a visual idea,’ said ffolkes. ‘It’s a writer’s joke, but I’ll try it on our editor. After all, he is a writer too.’ And our editor, being writer Alan Coren, liked the writer’s joke and didn’t know it was mine and it was published, and I still have the lovely drawing of the moderate joke with thanks from ffolkes scrawled on it…
What I don’t know is whether these inscriptions make the book, or drawing, more or less valuable. I had always thought that a message from the progenitor would send the value of it zooming up, but I had doubt cast on this when I recently did a talk and signing for my book, “Someone Like Me”, and a woman asked me to sign a copy. I asked, as one politely does, whether she had a special name she would like me to inscribe it to.
‘Oh, just your name, please,’ she said. ‘PLEASE don’t put anything else. It’s not so valuable if the author puts anything else.’
She did then say sorry for the implication that she was about to rush out and sell it (a foolish commercial step, I would have said) but I wonder how much truth there is in her firmly expressed belief. I hope she is wrong. I would have thought that a plain signature would be so impersonal as to be uninteresting, and that a message, however banal, would at least make it different from all the other signed copies, and upgrade it a bit.
When second-hand books appear in catalogues, the bookseller always spells out any message inscribed by the author, as if it might enhance the value, even if it is only “for Jack, from John Betjeman”. I have often wondered if I signed one of my books “For John Betjeman, in gratitude, from Miles Kington” or “To TS Eliot, in memory of so many lovely dinners, from his old friend Miles” or “For Salman – sorry the visit was so hasty – lovely to see how well you are bearing up in your enforced solitude” – well, whether anyone would be able to disprove the dedication…
When I was with the group Instant Sunshine, we actually had a book published under our name, “The Instant Sunshine Book”, subtitled “Hints for Struggling Supergroups”, ha ha. We were doing radio broadcasts at the time. Our BBC radio producer was called Danny Greenstone. He was an amiable bloke. We gave him a copy of the book. Years later I saw a second-hand book catalogue which listed a copy of our book for sale “signed by all four members of the group and inscribed ‘to Danny, our favourite radio producer’ “. Oh, Danny, you never thought we would find out that you had flogged our presentation copy on the side, did you, you ratbag...?
Which reminds me that a long time ago Instant Sunshine was on the same bill on a Radio 2 programme (“Friday Night is Music Night”) as Sacha Distel, the then much-loved French songster. I didn’t think much of his singing, but I loved his guitar playing – he was good enough a jazz guitarist to make a whole LP with the Modern Jazz Quartet – and I had an old LP of French jazz which features him heavily, so I brought it to the programme for him to autograph. He winced heavily when he saw it, I don’t know why (perhaps he didn’t want his fans to know he was a proper musician), but he signed it and somewhere I have Sacha Distel’s moniker on a jazz LP, and I just know that when I am on my deathbed, going through my bequests, and telling my children that one of them can have the Sacha Distel LP and another can have the Kingsley Amis dedication, if they can find it, there is going to be a lot of disappointment going around that deathbed.
To sum up: it was always said that Bernard Shaw liked to settle his bills by cheque, hoping that people would prefer to keep his signature on the cheque rather than cash it and lose it. Nice idea. But when did you last hear of a Bernard Shaw cheque coming up for auction?
August 2nd 2006