Monday, 30 September 2013

Frank Miles, and the English genius for turning irritation into comedy

As regular readers of this blog will be aware, the death of the legendary KCS Wimbledon English teacher Frank Miles earlier this year has resulted in a positive flood of reminiscences from pupils, friends and colleagues. The latest one to be posted on the excellent Facebook page, A Tribute to Frank Miles (here), provides a particularly rich illustration of the characteristically English habit of dealing with the the annoyances of daily life by turning them into crisp comedy. I’ve long suspected this is the reason England managed to get through the 19th Century without a revolution, and explains the country’s historically low murder rate.

Frank had retired from KCS but was still living in Gothic Lodge when he helped prepare Michael Barrett for his A-level English exam. These weekly coaching sessions only lasted for six months until Frank moved to Suffolk, but Michael subsequently helped with Frank’s work on the KCS archives, and they kept in regular touch for almost 20 years. Frank corresponded regularly with his former pupil, and the following comic nuggets are from those letters:

(On the postal service): “Many thanks for your letter, which managed to stagger its way here in a breathtakingly speedy five days. As I am an involuntary sojourner at numerous railway stations, I have the chance to observe the handling of Her Majesty’s mails. Quite frankly, I’m surprised that any of it ever arrives at its destination. Those responsible clearly regard the sacks of letters as irritating distractions from their real business in life – gossiping, sitting down and making tea. I have watched with amusement while the latest products of our state education system attempt, with furrowed brows and expressions of total incomprehension, to read the direction labels on the sacks”.

(Again, on the postal service): “Many thanks for your card, which arrived two days ago, having managed to stagger over the Atlantic in a mere fortnight. I think it must have followed Columbus’s original route.”

(On the Railways): “Incidentally, I’m genuinely beginning to believe that I am some sort of Jonah every time I board a train. Rails break; signals fail; trains catch fire; locomotives seize up etc. When I travelled into Cambridge from here by train the other day, we were hit at an unmanned level crossing by some inane bumpkin driving a tractor. Fortunately it was only a glancing blow, so the half-wit on the tractor was not injured – which is more than he deserved. But the hydraulic system on the train’s brakes was damaged. We spent half an hour stationery while, presumably, the bucolic clown on the tractor explained himself; then we crept into Cambridge at a speed equivalent to that of a somnolent centipede. It was just as well that the accident occurred fairly close to Cambridge”.

The whole of Michael Barrett’s memoir of Frank is a delight (I particularly enjoyed Frank’s description of a scene from the Marx Brothers’ “Night at The Opera” – he evidently adored comic films), and the selections from the letters made me wonder – not for the first time – what sort of comic novels he might have written had he been minded to. Still, literature’s loss was undoubtedly our gain.


  1. At some point when we were in the 6th form, I noticed that a music rag called Disc and Music Echo was running a competition for the best analysis of a typically rubbish drawing that John Lennon had done for them, essentially a self portrait with the word ART at the top of it. It must have taken him all of 30 seconds. I decided to enter with an FR Leavis style critical analysis beginning with the words "Ars est celare artem" and featuring various bits of FrM's favoured terminology. It was published under the pseudonym Smokey Bean with my address and a few days later I received a fan letter from a girl in Brighton asking to be my pen pal and offering the observation that she was "not to tall and not to small" sic. I then made the mistake of sharing my success with my friends and within a day Frank approached me asking me what I knew about an art critic called Smokey Bean. There followed what is best described as a 5 minute masterclass in taking the piss. Among the parts I remember was the suggestion that perhaps I ought in future to submit my essays under the same pseudonym as it was a possible explanation for the leap in quality compared with the material I produced under my own name; and the hope that I would pursue the acquaintance with girl from Brighton because we seemed well suited to each other. It was excruciatingly embarrassing, although occasionally I noticed that he seemed to be struggling to keep a straight face.

  2. Is Miles the one who described the phenomenon of [orderly] queing with the phrase "Get thee behind me" ? That still pops up in my head whenever I come across a queu of any length.