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July 14, 2009

Miles Kington's Final Musings

Posted by webmaster
Every once in a while a book comes along that gives me pause and makes me appreciate the little --- and big --- things in life a whole lot more. How Shall I Tell the Dog?: And Other Final Musings by Miles Kington did that as I spent an afternoon in late May reading an advance copy. After Kington, a humor columnist for a London newspaper, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he began writing down the thoughts that came to him as he mused on his exit from this world. The book is funny, witty and thought-provoking. It certainly gave me a lot to think about, especially how important it is to make every day count.

How Shall I Tell the Dog? is written as a series of letters to Kington's literary agent and friend, Gill Coleridge. I had the pleasure of meeting Gill last month when she (I confess I thought Gill was a he; it's pronounced Jill) came to New York. For about an hour she shared the back story of Miles' work and when she was finished I knew I wanted her to write a piece for us that would introduce Miles to you, which we could bring you on the day the book hit bookstores. Thus in today's guest blog, Gill tells us about Miles and what his hopes were for his final literary work. I envy her; I would have enjoyed meeting Miles. Enjoy.

It's strange to think it was just about two years ago, on a very hot sunny day, that Miles first indicated to me that he had some strange and indefinable illness. He hadn't been feeling well, said he was turning yellow, and had been in and out of hospital. Of course, I immediately feared the worst, and, sadly, I was right.... I guess it was early August that he told me he had the dreaded cancer.... But, said he, in his characteristically cheerful voice, "Don't worry, Gill, I've been thinking about this and reckon I can make something out of it; perhaps rather crudely I can make cancer work for its living." Gulps from me on the end of the phone in my office, unable to take in the enormity of what he was telling me. "They can't do anything about it," he said, "nor will they tell me how long I've got, so what I'm going to do is write you some letters about it all and then maybe, Gill, you can sell these and make a bestselling book for me. After all, others who had cancer have done that, haven't they?"

I met Miles back in the mid-eighties, at a lunch hosted by Private Eye (the British satirical magazine). As we left, we walked together through Soho, he pushing his bike (he went everywhere by bike), and he said to me, "Hmm.... Literary agent? Well, just how literary do I have to be to have a literary agent?" "Not very," was my reply. "Though it helps if you write books." "I do write books," he said. "I've written all those Franglais books. Though I suppose funny books about how to speak French don't count." "Yes, they do," I replied. "But if you could think of an idea for a British book that would be perfect." So then, he said, "Well, I've always wanted to do a book about jokes around the world, i.e., what each nation thinks of each other, which I'd thought could be called A World Atlas of Prejudice. Do you think that's a good idea? Might it be a bestseller?"

Well, of course, I said it would be, and he was delighted. So off I went and got him a huge deal for many thousands of pounds. But as it happened, though he took years researching it, he eventually abandoned it, saying, rather regretfully, that he'd come to realise that all the jokes were pretty much the same. But from then on we did many books together, some more successful than others, and each one provoked the same initial conversation: "Will this one be a bestseller?" He was practically my first client, and we became close friends for the rest of his life.

Although he wrote a column every day of the working week, first for The London Times and then for The Independent (a total of nearly thirty years), and was read by thousands and thousands of people, he always longed to have a book that would sell really well and, importantly to Miles, would sell in America.

Two years ago, knowing he had little time left, he sat down and wrote me all these wonderful letters. Of course, they were written with the express intention of publishing them, but nonetheless they are so true to Miles' voice, I can hear him talking to me through all of them; they are funny, witty, and so poignant. He was incredibly brave throughout his illness. He told few people, mostly just close family and friends, and never told The Independent, to whom he continued to deliver a sharp and brilliant piece every day. Even during the very last three days of his life, when he was just a bit late getting his copy in for the first time, he told them he'd had a bout of flu. That was a Monday, and then on the Wednesday, he delivered his last piece and died, at home, on his bed with his devoted wife, Caroline, and his son, Adam, in the house. It fell to me to tell The Independent, who were aghast that they had never known or suspected he was so ill.

He died more quickly than any of us had expected, and immediately after his death Caroline got going finding many of the letters, because although he'd sent some, many were still unsent, in draft, some on his computer, some on bits of paper under his bed, all over the place. Caroline was always his first editor and read everything he ever wrote, so she brilliantly managed to get all these letters together. Then I went to Andrew Franklin at Profile Books, who I believed would be the perfect publisher, and badgered him till he'd read them and agreed he wanted to publish them. Together with Caroline, he and his editor Paul Forty assembled the collection and got the letters in the right order. And, of course, it was Caroline who knew what Miles and she had always wanted to call it, such a fabulous and moving title, How Shall I Tell the Dog?.

So it's ironic as well as rewarding that How Shall I Tell the Dog? should be not only a bestseller in Britain, but also the first book of his to be published in America. Over here in the UK, we sit with fingers crossed, hoping it will reach the audience there that it deserves, hoping Miles somewhere knows how much this book has become loved and cherished.

---Gill Coleridge