Spike Milligan 2


What’s it like, to be mad ?
“I remember the first time it happened very vividly, 1956 it was. 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. It was like waking up in the middle of the night and finding yourself on a tightrope and you had to try and stay on it to survive. And I was very lucid, like a light bulb burning very bright before it snaps, that was the feeling.”

It comes out so simple and forlorn, in an innocent old man’s voice, his timid little eyes hiding inside his sad, comical face. There is a huge, fraught frown on his face, tears in his eyes, and a lump in my throat.

“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, ‘My Christ, how many years have I been here ?’ It was terrifying. Was I a lunatic ? Have I been locked away forever ? God, I was frightened… They showed me a newspaper but I didn’t believe them. I thought it was an old one. 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. I’d been lying down for so long – so weak 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 say all this becomes too much to bear, suddenly the crafty gleam, mad grin and wizened leprechaun cunning returns to Spike Milligan’s tender, trusting face, and that mad/not mad, happy/sad look of mischief and merriment is intact. He’s laughing again.

“One day, I remember, I tried to get all the lunatics to break the world record for getting people in a toilet, hee-hee-hee. We got about eighteen of us into one WC and they couldn’t get us out (the eyes are twinkling with delight). The local firemen came and opened the door and there we all were, crammed into this khazi, and one of them said, ‘If you come in, I’ll pull the chain.’ Hahahaha.”

His eyes now streaming with laughter, he finally calms down, and sighs.
“Ahh ! There’s a lot of insane people in the world, Jim.”

God yes, Spike. It was Beckett who observed, “We are all born mad, some of us remain so.” Maybe insanity is just a rational response to an insane world. At 70, ‘Spike’ Terence Alan Milligan is the same, and as sane, as he ever was.

‘Spine Norington’, as he calls himself, has not, the nation will be glad to know, moved to Australia, although he is homeless, currently living at his brother-in-law’s seldom-used house in Pevensey, East Sussex, where the hurricane has decimated the surrounding countryside.

“I was staying in another house nearby,” says Spike. “I counted about twenty tiles fall off and thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to die, I’ll die in my sleep.’ So I went back to sleep.”

He opens the door in a cream cardigan, blue shirt and trousers and, rather alarmingly, a pair of black bumper boots. When he’s happy, when he’s sparkling with stories, he looks wonderfully well for his age, but when he isn’t, the stale smell of loneliness is unavoidable. In this musty setting there is 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. A sort of fear.

He has been ill for some time and seems frail. He asks his third wife Shelagh for Horlicks in a little boy’s voice. With thin, grey hair, red chin and Steptoe stubble, he looks intensely vulnerable. But then, just as suddenly, the goonish grin and brilliant clowning voices return as he jokes about his nights with Peter O’Toole, the genius of Steven Wright and the latest pop gossip.

“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 realised 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 (the giggles). I thought, well there’s a perfectly good bus-service…”

Some people cannot stop thinking. Spike Milligan is one of them and his four recent books provide ample evidence that he still has bees in his brain.

Startling Verse, a collection of classic Milligan limericks, animal crackers and abstract nonsense, even includes a poem called ‘A B’: “A bee/A bee/Is after me/And that is why/I flee/I flee/This bee/This bee/Appears to be/Very very/Ang-er-ee.”

The others are the sixth and final part of his war memoirs, a book of serious poetry (The Mirror Running) and The Looney, his forty-third book and his second novel, an extraordinary charge of madcap, mad/happy thought and Irish wit somewhere between the brilliance of Flann O’Brien and the great Goon scripts.

The Looney is the story of Mick Looney, a thick Paddy labourer who travels to Drool 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’ ‘ead in’ and whose leaders were any that could count up to ten without sitting down.”

In a stream of brilliantly unconnected plots, other characters include a fortune-teller who can only read the past; an Irish racehorse called Sherbert stolen by the Prune Brothers; an ant called Norman; two Hindu refugees “whose last forwarding address was c/o The Gutter, Calcutta” and “a huge fat woman who had hairs on her fanny like a deserted crows nest.”

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

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

“The Irish Council have written saying it’s derogatory to the Irish and I had one rude letter from an Irishman saying, ‘Call yourself an Irishman’. I said, ‘Well, I chose to be Irish, you were an accident… If you don’t get it, you’re a boring fucking idiot,” he sums it up, adding “I signed two hundred Looney’s last week anyway.”
Or should that be ‘loonies’ ?

He wrote the book in four months “for the money. It came very easily to me. Mick Looney’s my father, basically. He was Irish and 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, yes, full of majestic stories. He told lies and believed them ! He said he’d ridden with Quantrille’s guerrillas (Quantrille being a Mexican rebel at the turn of the century) and that he knew Jesse James and that he’d had a drink with him in Bronsville, Texas ! (His eyes are now sparkling with affection). He was a wonderful father to have 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 back really, no. Getting worse, in fact.”

Milligan’s life seems to have been a fight to stay in this world, in his world, to remain in childhood, fighting to maintain his innocence against all the world’s assaults. He used to write fairy stories and hide them in the garden for his children and admits it gave him as much pleasure as it gave them.
“Adults don’t understand me. I always loved escaping into the kids’ world.”

His whole life has been about a sort of escapism. Born and raised in India, he remembers drawing racing cars and aeroplanes, reading comics (“Dan Meteor’s mustard-coloured racing car”), watching Chaplin and Tati when he was seven, reading Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson and listening to Fats Waller’s I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal.

“I was quite a serious little boy. I first went on stage when I was eight, in a school play. The nuns were notoriously bad at changing scenery, so they put me on and I had to just jump up and down, pulling faces, screaming. It was quite harrowing, yes. But people are cruel to children automatically. I had a very covetous mother, my father was always away with the army (Milligan’s family came from five generations of soldiers) so I was brought up with my mother, my grandmother and my auntie.”

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. I started to clown around when I was 12 but I wanted to be a musician.”

He once again becomes misty-eyed and morose when he talks about his family, clearly torn between staying with his mother in Australia or his children and his brother in England.
“I miss my parents. I miss having Christmas with them. We’re bound by invisible chains, always were. It is a good feeling, yes, but it’s also empty when they’re not there.”

His mother, now 92, writes to him three or four times a week and he is going out to Australia next year, but not to stay.
“I didn’t half feel silly,” he says about the recent confusion. “I was going to do a play there but I got ill and couldn’t go. I kept railing at the Home Office that I’d go somewhere they liked me because they wouldn’t give me a British passport, ended up becoming Irish.”

In The Mirror Running his most moving poems are all about childhood, children. Growing Up features the lines: “Grown you are, yet I only see the child in you/my todays ended.”

“I still have echoes of my childhood, ghostly moments. I don’t miss it. I miss my children not being children. I will miss them until the day I die. It’s magic having kids, another world ! One of them said to me one, ‘Dad, where does the dark go when you switch the light on ?’ Heeheehee. She’s probably most like me, the first, Laura. She’s just had a baby. My son’s a singer and Jane’s a sound director on Phantom Of The Opera. You see, my mother was a musician. I taught myself piano, jazz trumpet, cornet, guitar, drums… Clever bugger, really.”

It was music that gave him a happy war.
“When I wasn’t being shot at, yes. Playing in a dance band. I was the leader. I was a good-looking bugger, black hair, blue eyes, real Irish. Lots of officers’ wives were after me, but I was semi-celibate. I wasn’t exactly backward in coming forward, it was the Catholic upbringing, I think.”

His good mood now settled, his painfully kind face is lit up with impish giggles and merry madness. When our photographer rings up, he comes back and tells me, “He said, ‘Is the interview going ahead ?’ I said, ‘No, it’s going on foot. I’m going on ahead.’”

After the war, Harry Secombe introduced him to Peter Sellers, one of the few people in the world to carry the distinction of being thought ‘strange’ by Spike Milligan.
“I remember it to this day, at the bar of the Hackney Empire, he was wearing a huge trenchcoat, like a German Officer, carrying fur-lined gloves, a Trilby with a silk shirt and silk tie… Strange bugger he was. He did strange things.”

“He had an Austin 12 1929 Soft Top Tourer which I bought off him. Then he bought it back and I bought it back. Then he bought it back, spent £5,000 on it, and gave it to me as a present with a bottle of champagne… Then when I was in Australia, he towed it away and sold it. I did used to be a bit in awe of him, yes, 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 already done it in our heads and you’d never do it as good.’ I was as close to him as anyone, apart from his mother. We were friends to the end, yes, talked quite often. Being There was him, really.”

It was The Goon Show, he says without hesitation, and the pressure of having to write single-handedly twenty-six half-hour scripts that “broke up my marriage and put me in mental hospitals five times”, causing the manic depression that he now accepts will never leave him.
“To this day I get a war pension for the shellshock, but the BBC, bastards, don’t give me anything. It was the pressure that was killing me.”

Later, being photographed, he moans, “I’m having a nervous breakdown here.” He becomes painfully morose and maudlin as he tells, with tears in his eyes, of driving his daughter Laura home once, when she was six years old.
“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 line between what the world sees as comic genius and total madness can never have been thinner than with Spike Milligan.
“In this mental hospital, I started to get very serious, writing furiously – things like ‘The Story Of Jesus Christ’ with the Marx Brothers as the disciples and Marilyn Monroe as the Virgin Mary. Some of it’s in The Looney – when Jesus is on the cross and he says, ‘Pssst, get us down, mate. I said I was the King of the Jews. I lied, I’m not.’ The bloke says, ‘It’s too late. The carpenter’s shops’ shut.’ Hahaha. The psychiatrists read all this and asked things like, ‘Do you masturbate ?’ I said, ‘When times are bad, yes. What do you do ?’ They didn’t like that, so they gave me Sodium Amatol. ‘Try these.’ Try them! I did One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest several times in my life, Jim.”

He tells me he wrote most of his recent poetry “in a manic depressive state”, particularly the haunting imagery of poems like ‘Lo Specchio’ and ‘Pandora’, which includes the lines, “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. His condition also allows him to experience things “more intensely, like Brahms or a sunset. But I don’t fly too high now, so I don’t have so far to come down.”

All his TV work – Q, The Milligan Papers, The Last Laugh Before TVam – he says “had great bursts of originality, but I never had the performers like Secombe or Sellers. Q was madness. The BBC didn’t understand it at all. But arguing about The Goon Show had put me in a mental hospital, so I just said, ‘Fuck it, let them do it wrong.’ I’ve given up now. They all fuck it up, even Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall. I don’t have to work anymore, I sold my house in London to a Japanese, my way of letting him know the war’s over, hahaha. I do think I’m wasted, though. I’m doing In Sickness And In Health sometime. I could do domestic comedies and be funny, but people forget you, write you off.”

Like Saul Bellow’s Herzog and other mad/not mad outsiders, Milligan suffers from an inability to compromise and a compulsion for the truth. Also like Herzog, he’s renowned for his letter writing (two books of them have been published so far) – to newspapers, for money for his numerous conservational and environmental causes and to friends like Prince Charles or Paul Getty Jnr.

“I got this letter the other day from this game park asking for help because they used to have seven hundred rhino and now they only had two. I wrote back saying, ‘It’s a bit fucking late, isn’t it ?’ I send money to Greenpeace, Friends Of The Earth, the World Wildlife Fund…pissing in the wind, really. We did save twelve elephants at the Krueger Park, raising £1,500 to save each one, started a breeding herd.”

His anger beings to boil as he talks of those who don’t send money or those, like Lennon, who couldn’t be bothered until he wrote abusive letters. 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 fois gras by trying to stuff eight pounds of spaghetti down his throat. He doesn’t eat meat, cheese, eggs, milk or butter.
“Sometimes fish, though, so I’m not a vegan.”

They say the madman thinks the world is crazy, and that’s how Milligan sees the world.
“I can’t stand injustice. It hurts me, everything’s so intense for me. If you have a sense of justice, you feel so repressed and helpless.”
Clearly touchy, he has a child’s temper that grows almost into a tantrum as he rages against the idea of abortion. He’s obviously been shocked by events like the Manor House burning and the rise of child abuse, which genuinely pains him to think about, to the point of torment. The glare in his eyes as he talks about such people is bitter, fierce.

“I was always violently against hanging, but it’s getting savage now. These people who fuck their daughters, or burn people alive… Should we look after them ? Hang the fuckers ! Birch them ! I’ve changed completely, yes. I was born a Catholic. I’m not practising, I don’t need practice ! I think Jesus must have been a nice guy. He was an environmental idiot… I mean, ‘Go forth and multiply.’ I always thought the loaves and the fish was like Tommy Cooper (he does the voice), ‘Loaves, fish. Fish, loaves.’ Tricks on the Mount. Buddha was much greater, didn’t believe in eating animals.”

But there’s no humour left as, burning with rage, he says, “The human race is not a very nice species. As long as people have got a beer, a fuck and EastEnders they don’t care. The English are becoming barbarians – going to Calais, getting pissed, shitting over the side, hanging their willies out, mooning all over the place.”

Once the tirade starts, there’s a long list of targets: The Young Ones (“appalling”), Ben Elton (“he’s just a yakker. Tits, bums, bellies, yakyakyak”), soap operas, sex on television, Jeffrey Archer, Sean Penn, piped music, smokers, most of the new comedians: “The new attitude now is tell a joke and hang your willy out.”

Sir John Mills seems to be a spectre of the Establishment for him. He hates to be photographed, constantly threatening, “This is the last time I’ll ever be photographed”, but it’s the bureaucrats who have obviously hurt him the most. “Those cunts – nothing creative about them, it’s all destructive.”

In The Looney, The News Of The World poses the question: PRINCE PHILIP: IS HE A TRANSVESTITE ? But there’s nothing light-hearted about the way when he blazes, “He had fuckin’ nothing when he met her. His arse was hanging out of his trousers. He was just fucking lucky.”
He still likes Charles (he once wrote to him as ‘Prince Von Charles’) and says, “He should be King. He’s going bald, isn’t he ?” as the brilliant justification. “I wrote to him this morning telling him not to worry because not everyone believes what they read about this divorce rubbish.”

Finally, slagging off modern pop, he starts off by saying, “At least McCartney is a composer” before ranting about McCartney making “the most self-indulgent, shitty film of all time. Linda McCartney can’t fucking sing, can’t fucking play an instrument and she’s on every fucking record ! John Lennon debased himself by putting Yoko Ono on his records. Have you heard her sing ! Fucking diabolical. No wonder the bloke shot him !”

I laugh out loud at this, but he doesn’t. Only his description of the next book, which he’s currently dictating to his friend Jack Hobbs (making it up as he goes along), brings back the glee.
“It’s called William McGonagall Meets George Gershwin And What’s Left Of The Rolling Stones. McGonagall was the worst poet of all time. My favourite of his was: ‘A chicken is a noble beast/A cow is much forlorner/Standing in the pouring rain/A leg at every corner.’ Hahaha. He thought that had merit !”

Milligan rightly describes the book as “freefall comedy with no logic, no plot whatsoever. It’s like Finnegan’s Wake. I’ve fractured the English language”, before reciting me pages of mad, mad comedy in various mad voices at breakneck speed.

“McGonagall’s in the Arizona desert with George Gershwin and a collapsible piano. Don’t ask me why. On this cactus is a poster saying ‘WANTED FOR POETRY DEAD OR ALIVE, £1 O.N.O.’ So Billy The Kid, or Billy The Yid as we call him, says to McGonagall, ‘Do you know there’s a price on your head ?’ He says, ‘That’s not a price, that’s a hat.’ Then Billy The Kid says, ‘Go for your guns’, and McGonagall says, ‘They’re back at the hotel, do you want me to go there for them ?’ So Billy the Kid says, ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you’, so McGonagall didn’t do that if he were him.

“Nobody else is writing like this. There was this racehorse once which chemically created its own mescalin. I’m like that. The more I hear Jack laughing, the more comes out. I’ve done all the diagrams. They’re fucking terrible. One arm’s longer than the other, teeth all over the place, awful.”

He says it’ll be published “when the publisher’s understood it.”

Now in a state of mad, speeding happiness, for an hour the jokes, stories, impressions, anecdotes pour out of him, in the most erratic and endearing fashion. He can’t stop.

“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 supply her with the ingredients.”

His tombstone, he says, will say, “I told you I was ill”. He says, “I’m not a racialist but I love racial humour”, and we’re treated to them all, 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.”

He laughs like a child, like an idiot, eyes streaming with tears of laughter.

“Here’s another one. Why do Jews all have double-glazing ? So the kids won’t hear the ice-cream vans.”

So that’s Spike Milligan. The saddest/happiest man I’ve ever met.