This article was published in the Union Recorder, v75 no 5. The Union Recorder is published by the University of Sydney Union. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The article is reproduced by permission of the authors.
There are a series of adjectives that came into popular use after World War II, usually applied to absurdist comedy. They may only be used with impunity in their ironic sense, bound by inverted comas: "wacky", "zany", "madcap", "oddball". Unless, of course, they are applied to Spike Milligan. Then they stand in their literal sense. For Spike Milligan is the last of the great British eccentrics. If, as Milligan suggests in It Ends with Magic (1991), "word of mouth stories ... can often be more authentic than written records", then the tales of his antics during visits to Australia stand as testament to this: there's the one where he appears from an antique shop with an expensive painting, only to put his hand through the canvas, utterly destroying it, since he only bought it for the frame in the first place. Or the one where the little old lady is buying fruit and vegies in small amounts: "half an ounce of peas, a potato, a carrot ...". Spike edges up to her and declares "Madam, you are a glutton!"
Spike Milligan is currently in Australia, visiting family. "I came out for a holiday and my publisher got wind of it and said `you'll have to do some book signings out there'. So, I'm doing some book signings, Out there. I just wait for them to come in a taxi and pick me up and take me somewhere, and do something, get back in the taxi and come home. That's the whole essence of it, you know."
But Spike's signings are not just in honour of his recently published books, the rewritten classics Lady Chatterley's Lover, Wuthering Heights and The Old Testament. "If I start reading from Lady Chatterley's Lover, I'll get into a chapter and afterwards they'll want to read it themselves but it will all be too familiar with them, having heard me read it. So I thought I might read some of my serious poetry."
Many people don't acknowledge Spike's serious poetry. "I don't get recognised because they can't understand - Spike Milligan, being a serious poet? They won't have it." But he offers an example of his work, composed "from an incident that happened in my bedroom. He recites: Last night in the twilight gloom A butterfly flew into my room. Oh what beauty! Oh what grace! Who needs visitors from outer space?
"I always have a turn in my poem; a little turn, a screw, at the end."
Milligan felt it necessary to rewrite the classics because of their "exquisites"; those parts of the text that are "beyond us; they are, like, `off the moon'." He explains: "I was reading Lady Chatterley's Lover. I came across a chapter where Lady Chatterley is naked, lying on an army blanket in a chicken house, with this gamekeeper rogering her. I thought `How can they do it with all those fucking chickens?' This is what the aristocrats are like; Fergie, having her toes sucked, that sort of thing. And the next thing she says, `it's no good, I must run naked in the rain'. So it's freezing and she runs around with this yokel: `Aaaarrgh'; he's after her with his trousers down, and they start to do it on a bed of nettles with his dog circling them, barking at them. I thought 'this can't be a classic; I must have a go at this one'. So I did."
As Spike begins talking about Wuthering Heights, the author's surname eludes him. A dignified pause is left for him to find it, but as it is not forthcoming, I eventually fall in with "Bronte".
"Bronte. Thank you", Spike says. "I thought you wouldn't get here. In Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Bronte only described Heathcliffe as being of dark visage; she wouldn't give him a nationality. So I made him a Pakistani. And then this woman, 'Cathy', always wants to run through the wind and the rain across moors barefoot; she must step in it sometime."
With the The Bible According to Spike Milligan, Milligan admits "I just wanted to make fun of The Old Testament." He opens with "The Creation According To The Trade Unions" which states that God said, Let there be light; and there was light, but the Eastern Electricity Board said He would have to wait until Thursday to be connected.
Twisted parody is something Milligan has been indulging in since his days writing The Goon Show (first broadcast by the BBC in the 50's, still heard on Radio National every Saturday at midday). Six Charlies in Search of an Author and 1985 (taking off Pirandello's Six Characters ... and Orwell's 1984, respectively), are two such episodes. His current project is Frankenstein, in which the monster "comes alive, stands up, but his trousers fall down. Then he starts to go amok through the land, and they keep chasing him, trying to get these trousers up. They've done that and now he's spoken his first words: 'have you got a cigarette? Have you got a fag? I'm gasping for a fag'. That's all he ever says. He goes around murdering people asking if they've got a fag. That's as far as I've gotten.
Spike Milligan has produced a mammoth body of work: 50-odd books, 200-odd Goon Show episodes, the Q series. All this after being in the army and attempting a musical career. "Not bad for someone who started at 33 years old; quite late in life", he acknowledges. I suggest that he has, by now, caught up. "Did I? Did I?" he responds. "That's a nice title for a book: 'I Think I Caught Up'. A lovely title."
Puckoon, Spike's first novel, was published in 1963 with an introduction that insisted it would also be the last. But Milligan began publishing memoirs in 1971. Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall was designed to begin a trilogy; the seventh volume, Peace Work, was published in 1991. It seems high time for the next instalment, but Spike claims that he couldn't remember anymore. A pity, since we were just getting up to the bit about the Goon Show ... "Yes", he agrees, but with reservation: "I ... I can't ... That's when I had a nervous breakdown, and, ah, kept having them, and I can't remember anything except being unconscious in hospital under drugs. And that wouldn't make much reading."
However, he did recommend The Goon Show Companion (1992) as a suitable substitute. "It's a very good textbook! I read it, and I didn't know we'd done so much in such a time." And his opinion of the Goon Show is that it hasn't aged. "There's something built in without an age quotient" he says. "They still play it on Saturdays here, don't they? It's only because it's free."
When I told him that a whole lot of episodes had just been released on CD, Spike's only reaction was to ask "How do you operate a CD? I find the technology of a doorknob beyond me. I know you do this or that <motioning the turning of a door knob> but as to how it works, I'm just baffled, really ....".
I offered the most perfunctory of explanations - light beam reflecting from pits in foil but to no avail: "I don't believe you could write a thesis on that and be believed. You might as well say there's a beetle inside a CD. The Arabs who sold watches to soldiers in the Eighth Army were going around saying there's a beetle walking on this cog-wheel'. that's a story they told; I don't know if it's true or not."
Remember Spike Milligan's series, Q, on the ABC? My earliest recollection of the show was the sketch in which someone plays the 'jewish piano', a cash register. Spike: "That's right, yes. And we had so many letters; a letter from the Chief Rabbi. I said, `Look, please, I'm not antisemitic, I couldn't be, I wouldn't have fought in the war if I was'. `It's very disturbing to Jewish people'. `I'm so sorry; what can I say?'" But at least Milligan used other religions for a springboard into surrealism: "Two vicars, with suits, knock on this door, the door opens. They say `we are Jehovah Burglars'. `Oh yes'. `Yes, we are being persecuted by the police, for our beliefs'. `Oh? What are your beliefs?' `We believe you've got a lot of money'. "This sort of sketch was the essence of the show: "There were no jokes, just situations all the time."
While no longer desiring to wring television comedy, Spike readily admits his desire to "appear in a comedy episode, like One Foot In The Grave, or Waiting for God. I could play one of those men."
I admit my own fondness for his cameo in Monty Python's Life of Brian. "Do you know what they never told me?" he begins. "They said, 'we want you to make up a speech to the followers of the slipper, a Biblical little speech to these people, with your back to them. And so I said.
`Surely they that goeth away do not seek the sun, they that cometh unto us do wee the serpent, and the apple of eel. We that go, therefore, wherefore, and though shall see, therefore, and thou shall cometh again. Surely as the day is red ...'.
I went on talking this shit, all the while, they're being told to move away. So when I turned, there was nobody there. They hadn't told me. That's why I walked sideways off the screen."
On the topic of contemporary music, Milligan proved a little shakey. Was he familiar with the band Ned's Atomic Dustbin, named after that episode of the Goon Show first broadcast 5/1/1959? "No. I believe that there are 250 000 rock and roll bands in the world, each with a different name, called `Cement', `Horse's Droppings' - they go mad to get a different name." He continues "And what are the Rolling Stones doing touring? What do they need 35 million for? That's 60 000 people. I don't understand. I understood Bunny Berrigan and people like him. I used to play the trumpet; I used to try and play like Bunny Berrigan."
Spike can no longer play the trumpet. "My lip's gone. I must have blown myself out; I used to blow very loud." Spike was also a crooner in his day, and, although claims that he can still sing, insists that he won't. "I listen to Benny Goodman. I listen to people like that who swing. That's something rock 'n' roll can't do: swing."
Finally, it is time to ask this 76 year-old if there is anything that he wished he'd done. "I'd like to be an archaeologist", he admits. "In fact, I discovered aboriginal cave carvings on a shelf that nobody else had reported to the authorities, and I reported it to John Clegg, Professor at Sydney University. He went up there and they recorded it all." This discovery is important because it contains a pictogram of "men in a long- boat, rowing. Captain Philip came that way in 1798". Unfortunately, upon Spike's recent return to the site, he found that it had been vandalised.
A keen ecologist, Milligan sees the population is posing a problem for the planet. "Population has to be stabilised", he says, "because the world is finite. What do we do when it is full? What's going to happen in the year 4000 or 5000, when we're crawling on the earth?" And the solution? "You can not have children." That's a hard choice to make, I insist. "But that's just ego, isn't it?" says Spike. "Me; I want. And children are a tender trap; once you have them, they are divine. They overwhelm your logic; but then they are another creature to feed off the world's products. They're going to defecate once a day and it's going to go into the sea. Mind you, I've got four children; I was blind, I didn't know about it, otherwise I would only have had two. I used to complain about the traffic on the road in England. Now all of my four children have got motor cars: I made my own traffic jam, what am I complaining about?"
"Spike Milligan's in Australia, and staying at his brother Patrick's house", said Jase, clutching the Herald. But his brother's name is Desmond, according to Spike's memoirs, I said. "Says 'Patrick' here", Jase insisted. Desmond Patrick Milligan was easy to track down, and "Excuse me Mr Milligan, are you Spike's brother?" was remarkably easy to say, too, provided you didn't think about it much. Mr D.P. Milligan put me onto Mr S. Milligan, and an interview was arranged, but not before I'd said something particularly erudite like "How are you?", to which Spike was bound to reply "Are you a doctor? Well then, who do you want to know how I am?"
When I turned up to the interview with the companion who had driven me there, Spike was not impressed. "Oh, he's brought someone to look at me. I should have known: It's Australia; they bring people to look at you. We had someone over for dinner and she brought four people."
I was nervous. "There's no need to be", assured Spike. "I'm just a person; religion: Roman Catholic, blood type: rhesus negative, inner-leg 21 inches ...."
Things really only became unstuck when I produced my hard-cover copy of It Ends with Magic and said "may I ask you for an autograph?" "Please, don't ask me; I fucken autographed three this morning, you can be the person whose book wasn't signed by Spike Milligan." And after I'd gone to all the rouble of erasing the cheap price from the inside cover, too. There was nothing left to do but thank the man for his time. "That will be $3.20" he said. "And promise you'll never bring a woman to our interviews again. You may bring a cheetah, or a rhinoceros, but not a woman." I thanked him for his tolerance, to which he replied, "yes, I am tolerant, now bugger off!"