Miles Kington, humourist-at-large from the moment he was born, which he remembers because a shadowy figure had snapped at him that he’s pressed for time, what does he want to be, girl or boy? He arrives to find himself surrounded by an unusually colourful family. Father, a very short man who is made all the shorter by the thinness of his wartime socks, had recently failed to get into midget submarines. Hasn’t he noticed there hasn’t been a pantomime production of Snow White since 1937? The navy has recruited all the dwarfs they needed. Instead he’d got a job pretending to be a spy to test the alertness of the British public. Speaking in a heavy foreign accent, occasionally breaking into a little German, reading an old German newspaper, peering through binoculars and obsessively clicking his camera with no film in it and still nobody took a blind bit of notice.
The mother is fairly sane but for her habit of retiring to her bedroom to prepare for death: ‘Oh, Lord, not gone to meet her Maker again, has she?’ When his elder brother, Ralph, lands the part of a corpse in an Agatha Christie play and starts rehearsing she complains that with her considerable experience of dying she should have been consulted.
But it’s father with his terror of the backs of wardrobes, leaving it to others to search there for missing umbrellas and the like, his obsession with convincing the police that he’s sober by practising walking in a straight line and saying ‘The Leith police dismisseth us’ unslurred, and his unhinged conversational style who dominates the household. Suddenly he would say, ‘No man is an island though some are cut off at a high tide’ or ‘Memory is a one-way street.’ He also has a mania for inventing gadgets. Take the need for a new kind of bicycle saddle. The present ones are rough on the genitalia, particularly, of course, on those of women, but you can’t put a side-saddle on a bicycle like you can on a horse so why not replace it with a tractor seat? This unusual concern for the plight of women seems to be the moment to give young Miles the talk about sex he’s planned and a book, The Basis of a Happy Marriage, a daunting combination that might have turned him into permanent bachelordom. His mother is more helpful. ‘The only real secret is to try to give pleasure to the other person. Then you’ll get it back.’
Ralph says flutter your eyelashes, act camp, and talk about clothes and hairdos. But when the great day dawns Miles wins the girl over by reducing her to fits of laughter telling her about his father and the tractor seat. Many more stories follow to keep the girl by his side such as father’s gadget to remove a cold hot-water bottle from the bed while he’s asleep that wakes him screaming to find it’s his leg and not the bottle that’s being yanked out. His first attempt to get rid of unwanted books by inserting them into a bookseller’s shelves ends in him installing a book he needed and buying one he already had. But semaphore for the deaf and dumb is coming along and so is a gadget to put corks back into wine bottles.
There are 48 chapters in this most engaging book. Instead of a Wodehousian plot to keep the pages turning Kington creates a family who circle amazed around a father who never does less than surprise and shock them and possibly infect them with the same virus. I suggest you ration yourself to three or four chapters a sitting. The fare is on the rich side.