Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Puckoon by Spike Milligan

Spike Milligan was a staple of my childhood. Dad was a big fan of The Goons, and used to play cassette's of their old shows on his stereo, and the script books hung around the house forever as part of the children's library of infinitely rereadable classics, alongside Asterix and Tin Tin. In the seventies and eighties he seemed to be forever popping up in old films and TV shows.

Mostly in New Zealand these were crusty old episodes of Parkinson and the like, but I remember watching the Q show in New Zealand on Sunday nights at about nine o'clock on the spare TV, a little fifteen inch black & white number with a telescoping aerial sticking out of the top, while my family watched some big-budget ITV drama on the colour set.

Badjelly the Witch, Silly Verses for Kids, Milliganimals and – a little later – Goblins, from which I can still recall the following little verse (which is after the jump...).

My name is Fred Fernackerpan, I walk about the town,
Sometimes with my trousers up and sometimes with them down.
When they were up, they were up,
When they were down, they were down
And when they were only half way up,
I was arrested.

Later on, I read his war memoirs, starting with Hitler, My Part in His Downfall, which are great, too, and then at some stage shortly thereafter after I finally got around to Puckoon. These were important books for me in my teens, and I remember thinking at the time that Puckoon was one of the funniest things I had ever read, so it's interesting to come back to this twenty years later.

It's still brilliantly funny and made me laugh out loud lots of times. It's Milligan at his best, wild and inventive but managing to stay in a reasonably tight focus on one – admittedly absurd and circuitous – plot line. It concerns shenanigans in rural Ireland around the time of the establishment of the Republic of Ireland.

The thin plot is there to string together a bunch of Milligan routines, and he's terrific of ladling comic effects on to his characters, like the description of an assistant in the room planning the border between republican and Northern Ireland as:
Immediately, Mr Neville Thwick, a thin veiny eel-like man with acne, deftly replaced the flags. He had volunteered for the job. Insignificant since birth, sticking pins in maps gave him the secret power he craved.
Thereafter follows a detailed account of Mr Neville Thwick and his life and hobbies, before we finally get back to the crucial plot element ofg the division of Ireland (which sees the graveyeard in Puckoon cut in half and triggers the plot, such as it is).

Some may question the depiction of Ireland here. Milligan's family was Irish, although he was born in India and grew up in South London, so I guess that gives him some dibs on the territory. It has an authentic sound, and Dan Milligan, the put-upon Fool who is intermittently the main character, and who enjoys a dialogue with the author at critical points, is a kind of self-deprecating clown figure.

As for the church, he has the kind of irreverent but somehow affectionate view of the Catholic Church that is familiar from Father Ted. Father Rudden is the same kind of put upon character as Ted Crilly.
Money! That was the trouble. Money! The parish was spiritually solvent but financially bankrupt. Money! The Lord will provide but He was behind with His payments!
He likes a drink and constantly worries about money and how to get it, but despite this, he's committed to his parish in and his parishioners still look to him for guidance. I guess that's how all good guys in comedies are – they are flawed as any one else except perhaps they realise it.

The bad, though, are appalling, and the world itself is absurd and probably malign. As is so often the case in the most cynical satire, it usually all boils down to arse holes:
As they packed, the tops of the red buses passed asnd repassed the windows with their never ending pageant of adverts. 'Beechams worth a guinea a box', 'Take Andrews Little liver...' 'Gynon Salts for the regular...' 'Exlax'

The motive seemed to be “Make people shit and get rich”. Strange, people won't believe in God, yet will swear by some blue pill that guarantees to rid them of baldness, bedwetting, distended kidneys, pox and varicose veins. Piles! A man with piles will believe any promise of a cure. Sitting on clusters of sore and distended veins, his mind goes awry and his judgement uncertain. Judge Jeffreys suffered from piles, and look at the havoc he wrought on the unfortunate followers of Monmouth. If it hadn't been for piles, Monmouth would have been alive alive today! Unaware of this historical truth, Barrington and Webster packed their cases.
As we always expected, the whole history of the world depends on arse holes and there's nothing we can do about it.


  1. I'm a big fan of Milligan's unique brand of silly and savage humour. I did enjoy his 'Frankenstein' book, and always meant to track down some others in his 'according to...' series, but never got around it.

    Spike's offbeat satire was an influence on FAX 21, of course!

  2. I sometimes wonder if there's a generational thing going on - he was everywhere when you and I were young, Tony (wheeze!). The amazing thing was that the Q series was as ground-breaking and mad as The Goons was, and he was in his fifties and sixties when he made it. Other comedians might rest on their laurels, but he was still pushing the boat out. For all his silliness and whimsy he was a an incredibly ambitious and conscious artist.

    Vic Reeves & Bob Mortimer at their peak immediately spring to mind as somewhat equivalent (I'd definitely be interested in humorous novels by eiter of them), and you can definitely hear Spike's influence in Steve Aylett.

    If you haven't read the war memoirs, you really really should - they are hilarious and upsetting in equal measure. I think you'd enjoy them a lot!


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