So farewell then, Miles Kington.
Go over the fold for what I think is my favourite Kington column (though I only ever read a fraction of the oeuvre), published, appropriately enough for the inventor of franglais on the occasion of the bicentenaire [Independent, 14 July 1989].
Elegy on a country traffic light
MOST written instructions are pretty prosaic bits of language, like OPEN THIS END and THIS WAY UP, but from time to time my eye has been caught by definite overtones of something more.
‘Best before end see lid’ has a certain compressed quality which poets would not sneeze at. And there’s something evocative about ‘For new changed times see blackboard’. BR is the author of this one, which keeps making me think of a song called Four and Twenty Blackboards. And in Stourhead Gardens I collected this great line: ‘Temple of Apollo Impossible by Wheelchair’.
I thought that perhaps all these lines were separate elements of a forgotten poem, and that if I collected enough fragments I could slot them together to reconstruct it.
So I consulted The Independent’s computer. Usually this mighty machine is busy working on the identity of the author of Shakespeare’s plays, but last weekend it was idle so I fed it one of my favourite lines, ‘Wait here if red light shows’, and asked the computer if it were part of a longer poem. After a pause, this is what it came up with:
Oh, somewhere down a country lane
I saw a fragrant rose,
Right on the corner, where it said
WAIT HERE IF RED LIGHT SHOWS.
I stopped and wound my window down
To smell that country air
And swiftly wound it up again;
Muck-spreaders had been there.
I waited as the light stayed red,
And nothing came or went
Except a stream along the lane
Of country effluent.
And still, for aught I know or care,
That traffic light stays red,
For after half an hour or so
I jumped the light and fled.
Definitely on to something here, I thought. I tried it with another line, picked up in the Great Salon of a stately home in Wiltshire: ‘Keep Behind The Velvet Cordon.’ After 10 minutes the computer responded:
Keep behind the velvet cordon
Do not touch one single thing
If you cross the holy barrier
Magic bells will start to ring
Chaps in uniform will seize you
Take you down the local nick
Charge you with attempted robbery -
They can make the charges stick!
Every room displays a portrait
Of a forebear, stern and squat,
Staring down as if to tell you:
‘We are family, you are not!’
We once plundered Greece for relics,
Brought the finest lace from Bruges;
Now we’re dead dogs in a manger -
Keep behind that cordon rouge!’
Once on form, there was no stopping the computer. His next one, based on a park notice, took barely three minutes.
A NOTE TO LATE NIGHT JOGGERS -
THESE GATES ARE SHUT AT DUSK.
The night is filled with palm leaves
And the subtle scent of musk.
The daytime noise has faded.
Now hunting sounds are heard;
The rasping of a jawbone,
The crying of a bird.
Inside, I see strange creatures
Criss-crossing in the dark
And one of them’s a jogger,
Abandoned in the park.
Run fast, you little jogger,
And keep ahead of them!
Just tell yourself, while running,
GATES OPEN 6 AM.
All this verse was a bit jiggety-joggety, so I finally fed the computer a more challenging line. It was one I noticed in the Radio Times a month or so ago: ‘Times may change if snooker overruns’. At the time I had thought there was something very T S Eliotish about this, and to my delight the computer seemed to think so too:
Times may change if snooker overruns.
All snooker past is, perhaps,
Contained in snooker future
And the bow-tie, bent over the pink,
Is the same bow-tie we have always worn.
The red ball, potted, never comes again
But is gone for ever in the top pocket
Along with the spotted hanky, the buttonhole
And the spare pink bow-tie we always bring.
The black ball comes back again, yes,
Back to the same bald spot each time,
But only as a message of death.
Life may end if snooker overruns
Round the final corner to the final frame.
Beneath the green cloth lies the great slate slab
And the player bent motionless over the table
Is mourning for those lost in the last round.
The click of cue balls is the sound of distant guns.
And times may change if snooker overruns
Creepy, eh? Hoping for a more jaunty encore, I fed him a lyrical line culled a few weeks back from this very paper: ‘Auberon Waugh is in China’. He didn’t let me down . . .
Auberon Waugh’s in China
Maggie’s gone to Spain,
Gorbachev is everywhere
But they’ll be back again.