The last time I spoke to Miles Kington was three days before he died.
It was 6pm, the Comment pages were due off in an hour and he still hadn’t filed.
For Miles, this was unheard of. His stuff was usually in by early afternoon. Day in, day out, for more than 20 years, he was 100 per cent reliable and 100 per cent brilliant. An editor’s dream, in other words.
‘Nearly there, so sorry, been a bit delayed.’He sounded terrible – bad flu, I thought – and I told him he mustn’t worry about filing the next day. ‘Oh no, you’ll get the piece, it’ll be fine.’
Fifteen minutes later, Miles’s copy arrived. And it did so the next day and the day after that. Then it stopped. Miles was dead – from pancreatic cancer, about which he had kept everyone at The Independent completely in the dark. Talk about working to the end.
Of course, if Miles had been in the habit of coming into the office, he wouldn’t have been able to hide the truth from us.
But he lived in north Somerset and London was anathema to him, as regular readers of his column will have gathered.
As for the idea of writing about dying, as other columnists have done, well, forget it. Though if he’d wanted, I daresay Miles could have been as funny about that as he was about anything else.
His last column, composed 36 hours before his death, was a typically Milesian piece of nonsense in which he managed jokes about, among other things, Didier Drogba, the spelling of Gstaad and not wearing a blue shirt.
Miles joined The Independent in March 1987, six months after the paper launched, bringing to us the column that he had been writing for some years for The Times.
He was one of dozens of Times people who made the switch – a reaction to the Murdoch title’s move to Wapping in early 1986 and the undoubted prospects enjoyed by the fledgling Independent.
From then until his death, at a rough calculation, he wrote some 5,000 columns.
As with the very best in any sphere of endeavour, Miles’s trick was to make it look easy.
His lightness of touch amounted to a kind of genius. But behind the conversational prose lay craftsmanship of the highest order. His standards never wavered.
The care Miles took over his pieces was matched only by the geniality of his dealings with the desk. No writer was more important to the paper – yet none showed less inclination to self-importance.
The little notes Miles wrote at the top of his copy were a delight in themselves. On Boxing Day last year, not knowing who was chief-subbing, he wrote: ‘Dear recipient – congratulations! It’s a bonny bouncing braw article, born on 26 December, weighing in at about 736 words. All yours to name and launch.’
Here’s a note from early January: ‘Today’s talking point is StÃ©phane Grappelli and the piano. I am wagering that nobody else in the paper has bothered to tackle this burning topic.’
Years ago, when I was sports editor of The Independent on Sunday, I commissioned Miles to write a piece about Wrexham FC – the team he had supported as a boy and which he retained an abiding affection for. To my horror, when the piece went in, we managed to byline him Miles Kingston. I wrote to him and apologised, and received a letter back that was so funny I decided the cock-up had been worth it.
Whoever said that nobody’s irreplaceable had clearly never come across Miles Kington.
Simon O’Hagan is deputy Comment editor at The Independent