Spike Milligan 1


“Is Madonna right in the head, Jim ? Can she sit down and have breakfast in the morning ? I read Elvis Presley’s life story and realized he wasn’t having a life at all ! He was having an appearance ! And the décor ! I couldn’t help laughing when I saw David Bowie coming on stage from a Glass Spider. I thought, well, there’s a perfectly good bus service…”

Spike Milligan is about as expertly informed and acutely perceptive as any critic I’ve read in the music press.
I offer him a job.
“Well, it’s funny you should say that, I always wanted to be a musician. My mother was a musician. I could play the ukulele quite well when I was just six. Taught myself the piano, jazz trumpet, cornet, guitar, drums… Clever bugger really.”

Nowadays he likes Arab Music, “because it’s pure”, Indian Music, and Schoenberg.
“Slade had their moments,” he muses. “I like Procol Harum because I could hear the words. I can’t hear a fucking word nowadays.”

A debate over The State of Pop continues with Spike summing up with the view “at least McCartney is a composer” before going on to rant about McCartney making “the most indulgent, shitty film of all time. Linda McCartney can’t fucking sing, can’t fucking play an instrument and yet she’s on every fucking record ! John Lennon debased himself by putting Yoko Ono on his records. Have you ever heard her sing ! Fucking diabolical !” He pauses. “No wonder the bloke shot
him !”

‘Spine Norrington’, as he calls himself, is temporarily homeless, staying at his brother-in-law’s seldom-used house in Pevensey, East Sussex. He opens the door in a cream cardigan, blue shirt and trousers and a rather alarming pair of black bumper-boots. 

A chronic manic-depressive, he looks wonderfully well for his 70 years when he’s happy, telling jokes and stories, eyes twinkling with his crafty leprechaun gleam, mad grin and impish giggles. But when he loses the mood, becomes maudlin or morbid, the air of a life spent in hospitals, spent one step ahead of becoming a down-and-out or being locked away for something he hadn’t done or said or been is unavoidable. In the musty setting, with his thin grey hair, red chin and Steptoe stubble, there is the stale smell of loneliness, failure, the stress of the fear of not being able to hang on.
“I did ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ several times in my life, Jim,” he says forlornly.

It was Samuel Beckett who observed: “We are all born mad. Some of us remain so.” For some of us, insanity is just a rational response to an irrational world. At 70, ‘Spike’ Terence Alan Milligan still has bees in his brain as his four recent books reveal. ‘Startling Verse’ is another collection of wonderful Milligan limericks, animal crackers and abstract nonsense, like an excitable, surreal Edward Lear. There’s the sixth and final part of the war memoirs, a book of serious poetry, ‘The Mirror Running’, notable particularly for its hauntingly bleak imagery, and ‘The Looney’, his 43rd book and his second novel.

‘The Looney’ is an extraordinary charge of madcap, mad-happy thought and Irish wit, somewhere between the brilliance of Flann O’Brien and the truly loony Great Goon scripts. 

Mick Looney is a thick Paddy labourer who travels to Drool in Ireland to search for his heritage after his father tells him on his deathbed that he’s descended from the Kings of Ireland. 

Looney, who has “a face like a dog’s bum with a hat on”, lives in Ethel Road, Kilburn, “a melting-pot occasionally stirred up by the National Front whose election manifesto was ‘I’ll punch yer fuckin’ head in’ and whose leaders were “any that could count up to ten without sitting down.” 

Other characters include a fortune-teller who can only read the past; an ant called Norman; two Hindu refugees whose last forwarding address was “c/o The Gutter, Calcutta”; “a huge fat woman who had hairs on her fanny like a deserted crow’s nest”, and an Irish racehorse called Sherbet, stolen by the Prune Brothers. “Like a vandalized toilet, there was nothing to go on,” he writes of this mystery theft.

Mrs Looney meanwhile “read The Sun and ate a porkpie. She would have been better-nourished and better-read had she done the opposite.” 

Looney’s quest begins when he swaps phantom-flasher Frank Chezenko’s green throne for his two dogs, one of which is dead and the other is called Prince – “after the pop star.”

“He’s so adulated,” chuckles Spike. “I thought it was time someone named a fucking crummy, flatulent dog after him.” 

The humour is personified by lines like: “ ‘Do you think this is the work of one man or a gang ?’ asked Sergeant Kelly. ‘Yes’, says Inspector McTruss, ‘I think it’s the work of one man or a gang.’”

“If you don’t get it, you’re a boring fucking idiot,” Spike sums it up, adding: “I signed two hundred loonies last week.” Or should that be ‘Looneys’ ?

“Mick Looney’s my father really,” he explains eagerly. “He was always telling me we were descended from the Kings of Ireland. I thought, well why are we so fucking broke. He was a total dreamer. He told lies and believed them.” He chuckles fondly. “He told me he knew Jesse James and that he’s had a drink with him in Bronsville, Texas ! He was a wonderful father but what happened was, he built up such a world of fantasy and imagination, it amplified my mind far beyond the conduits of everyday life. I’ve never got it back, getting worse, in fact.”

Milligan seems to have spent his life fighting to stay in this world, in childhood and maintain his innocence against all the world’s loud assaults. He used to write fairy stories and hide them in his garden for his kids and he admits it gave him as much pleasure as it gave them. His early youth in India was spent reading comics (“Dan Meteor’s mustard-coloured racing car”), watching Tati when he was seven, reading ‘Robinson Crusoe’, listening to Fats Waller’s ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal’. All escapes. 

“I was quite a serious little boy. I first went on stage when I was 8. The nuns were notoriously bad at changing scenery for the school play, so they put me on and I had to come on and jump up and down, pulling faces. It was quite harrowing, yes, but people are cruel to children automatically.”

He came to England when he was 14 “to a crummy, awful school in Lewisham. England was a gloomy bloody country. I was too sensitive by far, always being picked on.” 

His painfully kind face crumples up as he talks about his family. He is clearly torn between living with his parents in Australia and his children over here.
“We’re bound by invisible chains. It’s empty when they’re not there.”

In ‘The Mirror Running’, his most moving poems concern children and childhood, innocence.
“I don’t miss my childhood. I miss my children not being children. I will miss them until the day I die. It’s magic having kids, another world ! (His eyes begin to sparkle again). One of them said to me once, ‘Dad, where does the dark go when you put the light on’. I thought, my God, that’s blown my mind !”

Later his eyes moisten as he remembers driving his daughter, Laura, then aged six, home one day in the middle of one of his attacks.
“She said to me, ‘don’t worry, Daddy. When we get home I’ll look after you and give you a nice glass of water.’ I thought: there has never been anything more beautiful than that cup of water, that a child with no possessions offers you a cup of water. That was quite beautiful.”

The real reason for the manic depression he states bluntly was not the shellshock from the war but the pressure of writing 26 Goon scripts a year single-handedly.
“It broke up my marriage and put me in mental hospitals five times. To this day I get a war pension for the shellshock, but the BBC, bastards, don’t give me anything. To this day I can’t stand noise.”

He talks fondly about Peter Sellers, being introduced to him by Harry Secombe after the war, and it becomes clear Sellers is one of the few people in the world to win the distinction of being thought ‘strange’ by Spike Milligan.
“I remember it to this day, at the bar of the Hackney Empire. He was over-dressed. He was wearing a huge trench-coat, like a German officer’s, with a Trilby, silk shirt and tie and carrying fur-lined gloves… Strange bugger he was… I did used to be a bit in awe of him but we never competed. We’d have insane ideas and people would say ‘you must film it’ and we’d say: ‘too late. We’ve done it in our heads and you could never do it as good.’ We were friends to the end, talked quite often. ‘Being There’ was him really.” 

Certainly the line between what the world sees as comic genius and madness has never been thinner than with Spike Milligan.
“In this mental hospital, I started writing furiously, very seriously, things like ‘The Story of Jesus Christ’ with the Marx Brothers as the disciples and Marilyn Monroe as the Virgin Mary.”

He remembers these, the harshest, most traumatic times of his life, vividly.
“The first time it happened was in 1956. My head started to get very hot. I started to get giddy and I had to lay down all the time but I couldn’t sleep. The noise just got louder and louder. It was terribly traumatic. I was very lucid, like a light bulb burning very bright before it snaps. That was the feeling.”

The pain this memory causes him is obvious from the bewildered, forlorn look on his gentle face, the plaintive sound of his voice and the sight of his timid little eyes hiding inside his sad, comical face, as he says: “I had a terrible experience, Jim. They put me to sleep right away for two weeks. When I woke up I saw this grey beard. I thought, how long have I been here ? Was I a lunatic ? Have I been locked away forever ? God I was frightened… In the end, I discharged myself. I couldn’t stand it and I remember walking to Highgate Woods with my suitcase and I felt very weak from sleeping so much. I had to keep putting the case down and I thought: ‘Fuck, I could do with some loving and some sympathy…’”

And then, just as the emotional voyeurism of watching him recount and remember this pain becomes too much, the giggling mischief and glee return to his tender, trusting face.
“One day I remember, I tried to get all the lunatics to break the world record for getting people in a toilet, heeheehee. We got about 18 of us into one khazi and they couldn’t get us out ! (His eyes are streaming with laughter.) The local firemen came and opened the door and there we were, all crammed into this khazi and one of the lunatics said, ‘If you come any closer, I’ll pull the chain’, hahahahaha.”

At least his manic depression produces poems like ‘Lo Specchio’ and ‘Pandora’: “When I was five my dreams were endless/Now I have only one left/Dare I dream
it ?” – illustrated in ‘The Mirror Running’ by his brother’s surreal sketch of an upturned bottle of pills. 

He is concentrating on writing now, having given up on television’s inability to understand his ideas.
“‘Q’ had great bursts of originality but I never had the performers like Sellers or Secombe. I could still do domestic comedies and be funny but no-one asks. I’m wasted.”

Like other excitable mad-not-mad outsiders like Pound or Van Gogh, TE Lawrence, Nijinsky, Milligan cannot stop thinking and suffers from an inability to compromise, together with a compulsion for the truth. 

Like Bellow’s ‘Herzog’, this results in a tide of letters – to newspapers, to friends like Prince Charles or to people for money for his numerous conservation/ environmental causes:
“I send money to Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the World Wildlife Fund…pissing in the wind really.” 

His old house featured the warning: “No Smoking Please. We are trying to give up cancer.” He is virtually vegan and last year he was ejected from Harrods (“’Harrabs’ as we call it”) for trying to show the manager of the Food Hall how it felt to be a goose force-fed for pate de foie gras by trying to stuff 8lbs of spaghetti down his throat.

They say the madman thinks the world crazy and Milligan certainly thinks it so.
“I can’t stand injustice, it hurts me, everything’s so intense for me.”
He is violently opposed to abortion: “I say to these people who want abortion: ‘you wouldn’t be here if your mother had aborted you. You were just fucking lucky !’ 

After the Manor House burnings and the rise of child abuse, which genuinely pains him to think about, he’s now a supporter of Capital Punishment.
“It’s getting savage now. These people who fuck their daughters, or burn people alive… Should we look after those fuckers. Hang them ! Birch them !”

The glare in his eyes is now one of rabid anger and once the bile boils up there’s a long list of targets: The Young Ones (“appalling”), Ben Elton (“a pain in the arse. Tits, bums, bellies, a yakker, yakyakyak”), soap operas, Sean Penn, Jeffrey Archer, most of the new comics.
“The new attitude is tell a joke and hang your willy out.”

Only Steven Wright and abstract European comedy impresses him. It’s the bureaucrats though who have obviously hurt him most.
“Those cunts – nothing creative about them, it’s all destructive.”

Although he remains friends with Charles, despite his hunting and the fact he once wrote to him as ‘Prince Von Charles’, Prince Phillip is another target.
“He had fucking nothing when he met the Queen. His arse was hanging out of his trousers ! He was just fucking lucky !”

His next book meanwhile will be ‘William McGonagall Meets George Gershwin and What’s Left Of The Rolling Stones’ which Milligan rightly describes as “totally freefall comedy, with no logic or plot whatsoever, like ‘Finnegan’s Wake’. McGonagall is a hero of mine, the worst poet of all time. My favourite one of his is: ‘A chicken is a noble beast/A cow is much forlorner/ Standing in the pouring rain/A leg at every corner.’ He thought he had merit ! I’ve done all the diagrams too, fucking terrible they are, one arm longer than the other, teeth all over the place…”

In the space of a few moments, his mood changes totally again and now, in a state of mad, speeding happiness, jokes, impressions, stories pour out of him in the most erratic, endearing manner. He recalls anarchic court appearances, taking his trumpet on army manoeuvres instead of his gun, having dinner with Peter O’Toole. “Does your mother want to come for a curry dear ?” he asks his wife, innocently. “Ask her. If she’d like the shits tomorrow, we’ll provide the ingredients tonight.”

“I’m not a racialist but I love racial humour,” he tells me and out they pour, even the one about the bloke in a Chinese eating a chicken that tastes like an old tyre. “’This chicken is rubbery’, says the bloke. ‘Ahhh, thank you very much,’ says the Chinaman…hahaha. Two Jews on The Titanic as it goes down, one of them is crying. The other one says to him, ‘What are you crying for ? It’s not your ship is it ?’”

He laughs like a child, like an idiot, tears streaming down his face.
“’Ere, Jim, why do Jews all have double glazing ? So the kids can’t hear the ice-cream vans.”

And so that’s ‘Spine’ – the saddest-happiest man I’ve ever met.