Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 17 May 2010



Beckett with a different personality disorder – Greg, Goodreads reviewer

There are geniuses and there are geniuses. And Spike Milligan may have been one or the other. Spike wrote other novels but none betters this. It took him four years and he swore he'd never write another:

This damn book nearly drove me mad. I started it in 1958 and doodled with it for 4 years. I don’t think I could go through it all again...

There is, it is said, a fine line between madness and genius and Spike Milligan has slipped off it many times in his career on both sides. Mostly he has straddled it which does sound painful.

Puckoon is a work of genius and a work of madness, about three-quarters genius to one-quarter madness. The more the book progresses the more jumbled it gets and eventually it crumbles to pieces in our hands, the main protagonist literally left hanging but it works in exactly the same way that Spike’s many TV sketches work where the characters are left mumbling, “What are we gonna do now?” whilst shuffling off camera.

Dr-Strangelove Puckoon is a satire in exactly the same way that Dr. Strangelove is a satire and there are surprising similarities. Both deal with significant (and very serious) political events: with Puckoon it was the partitioning of Ireland; with Dr. Strangelove it was the threat of nuclear war. Both involve two warring nations: Russia vs. America and Britain vs. Ireland and therefore different ideologies: communism vs. democracy and Roman Catholicism vs. Protestantism. Both end in pandemonium. Actually they don’t but they could have if Kubrick had stuck with his original idea of a cream pie fight in the war room; Puckoon climaxes with a brawl in an old folks’ home. They were both written at the same time: Puckoon was published in 1963, Dr. Strangelove was released in 1964. They both involve ex-Goons: Milligan was chief writer but Peter Sellers’ ability to play multiple characters – as he does in Dr. Strangelove – went a long way to making the show a success.

The events in Puckoon take place over a few weeks in 1924 when the Boundary Commission has just about agreed on where the border between Northern and Southern Ireland will lie. The only thing that stands between them and getting to the pub before closing time is “the microcephalic community of Puckoon” a fictitious village which Spike locates “[s]everal and a half metric miles North East of Sligo”. When an accident destroys the surveyor’s equipment they decide to get the matter over with by all putting “one hand on the red pencil and draw[ing] a line that falls naturally and peacefully into place:”

In what was meant to be a solemn moment, all hands held the pencil and pulled slowly across the map. All was silent, the room filled with suspicion. Occasionally a gasp rent the silence as they all strained for the advantage.

‘Steady, someone’s pulling to the benefits of Ulster.’

‘Lies, all lies.’

‘Who gave that jerk?’

‘Ah! I felt that.’


Finally the pencil reached its destination. Faces broke into relieved smiles and a series of rapid unplanned handshakes ensued.

Boundary Commission

The problem is that the border cuts right through the heart of Puckoon separating houses from outhouses, the church from its graveyard and annexing a corner of the pub where the locals crowd because the drink is thirty percent cheaper there. Here is a good example of the chaos this causes:

Mr Murtagh, stinking town clerk and amnesic, arose with a sheaf of closely typed quarto papers, removed his reading glasses and began to read.

‘Ahem! Report of an accident on the Ballyshag Bridge over the River Puckoon. As we all know this bridge has been divided in two by an unthoughtful boundary commission.’

There were three cries of ‘Shame!’ and one of ‘Bastards!’

Last week, a motor car containing a driver and a charabanc of old pensioners were in collision. The car finished on the Ulster side of the border and the charabanc on ours. As a result the case was being held in two countries at once. Witnesses were rushed by high-powered car from court to court to give evidence and they weren’t getting any younger. The driver of the charabanc, a Mr Norrington, a retired English actor, had been thrown from his driving seat, his body laying athwart the border; now his legs were being sued by the passengers of the charabanc, and his top half was claiming damages from the car driver.

The solicitors predicted that the case would last three years because of the travel involved.

It’s farcical. It’s supposed to be farcical, though no more farcical than building a wall through the middle of Berlin. The Berlin Wall, which began its constriction in 1961, wasn’t the only wall apparently and more than 20 German villages encountered a similar fate. One was Mödlareuth:

While the 166km-long Berlin Wall turned West Berlin into a capitalist island in communist East Germany, Mödlareuth was divided by the other wall, the 1,400km inner-German border of concrete, minefields and watchtowers.

After the second World War the Bavarian side, including the village church, was suddenly part of the American, later Allied sector, while the school and the pub was in the Soviet zone.


A 700m-long concrete wall, three metres 30cm high, was eventually constructed through the centre of the village in 1966, surrounded by a death-strip with automatic machine guns and a separate run for guard dogs. – "United" German village remains divided, The Irish Times, Oct 4, 2005
Moedlareuth wall

I have no idea whether these events were known to Spike when he wrote this book but clearly the arbitrariness of borders was.

When an attempt is made to bury one of the locals across the border in what had now become “British territory”, Barrington, the customs officer in charge of the Border Customs Post, has a few preconditions:

‘I presume the deceased will be staying this side permanently?’ ‘Unless someone invents a remarkable drug – yes,’ answered the priest. ‘Then,’ went on Barrington, ‘he will require the following: an Irish passport stamped with a visa, to be renewed annually for the rest of his – ‘ Barrington almost said ‘life’ – ‘stay’, he concluded.

Well, that was that. While the deceased is off having his passport photo taken it’s decided that all corpses on the Unionist side of the border be exhumed, repatriated and reinterred on Irish soil. A plan is concocted involving the church’s newly appointed gardener, “Dan Milligan, son of a famous paternity order”.

Milligan is the reluctant hero of the book. We meet him right at the start. He is the personification of idleness:

With a roof over his head he had ceased to work, living off his [war] pension and his wits, both hopelessly inadequate.

For a while it feels as if the book is going to be Milligan-centric but as more and more characters are added to the mix he does tend to get lost in the fray – both the metaphorical and the literal one. In many respects this feels like a book of cameos because many people – Milligan’s wife, for example – only appear for a few lines and then vanish again. In the film adaptation Milligan’s wife is played by one of Spike’s daughters and she’s barely onscreen for a minute.

What makes Milligan such a fascinating character is the fact that he’s self-aware; he realises that he’s a character in a work of fiction. There are several interchanges with the writer. At one point in the novel, he stops and “looks” at the bottom of that page of the book (the one we're reading) to see which page he's on and in another he says:

I’m gettin’ out of dis chapter, it’s too bloody unlucky for me.

There are occasions too when the author addresses us directly. It’s fun to see the fourth wall treated like this especially when Milligan begins to lean on his relationship with the author getting him to change the plot to suit him. At one point finding himself about to be shot by the sentry guard...

Milligan looked imploringly out of the page.

‘For God’s sake don’t let him shoot me, Mister.’

at which point the author has the soldier about-turn and march away. Of course Milligan can’t resist pressing his luck:

‘God, you got all the power in this book.’ He stroked the stubble on his chin. ‘You havin’ all the power of de author, can I have a request?’


‘Dat dirty soldier that nearly pissed on us, make him do something that will get him into trouble.’

The soldier returned to his post, sloped arms, fired three rounds in the air, dropped his trousers and sang Ave Maria. The Sgt of the Guard came hurrying from his tent.

‘Private Worms?’ he shouted, ‘You’re under arrest.’

A powerhouse raspberry was the reply.

Needless to say the author doesn’t always jump when Milligan snaps his fingers. Oh, no. And Milligan gets his comeuppance by the end of the book.

Apart from the many asides – Spike loves to digress – there is an actual honest-to-goodness subplot involving a considerable amount of explosives which the I.R.A. decide should be smuggled though the checkout in a coffin. The I.R.A. for the purpose of this book consists of “[t]wo little men with the arse out of their trousers”, Shamus Ford and Lenny Braddock, thereafter referred to simply as “two ragged-arse men” who never have more than one cigarette between the two of them. Two hundred and eighty pounds of T.N.T. masquerading as the late Mrs Eileen Ford passes through the border crossing with all the requisite paperwork and is buried on the English side. Needless to say when Milligan and his cohorts sneak over to dig up their coffins they return with one filled with explosives and the bombers head off with the body of the late Dan Doonan.

There is also a sub-subplot concerning an escaped black panther which no doubt to keep costs down never made it into the film and I doubt it appears in the stage play either.

It’s easy to read Puckoon superficially as a very silly book. It is a very silly book. Milligan’s taste in humour is silly. All you have to do is listen to five minutes of any Goon Show to realise what makes him laugh. It’s the flexibility of language. With the Goons he had the option to include silly noises and with his Q series there were many visual gags but the core of his humour has always been the subversion of the Queen’s English and indeed the British establishment:

"Spike's humour was all about irreverence, and I like that," says [Richard] Attenborough. "I know I'm regarded as an establishment figure, but I was crucified by the establishment for Oh! What a Lovely War, Gandhi and Cry Freedom. So I relate to Spike. Irreverence is an essential part of our culture. I admire that enormously." – Bob Flynn, 'It's fantastical, magical stuff', The Guardian, 23 July 2002

Humour has changed over the years. Things you could get away with in the 1960s are verboten now. There will be SouthPark those who look at Puckoon and regard it as sexist and racist and it is. It has also sold over six million copies and never been out of print. In the same way that South Park will have a go at anyone Milligan was the same. The book has been filmed as I’ve said (with mixed success) and also adapted for the stage. Theatre director Zoë Seaton was well aware of the flaws in the original text but felt that today’s audiences were sophisticated enough to take Milligan’s politically incorrect flourishes in their stride:

It was written in the 1960s and you’ve got a Jewish character with a big nose, and a panto-style Chinese policeman. That’s something we’re not used to nowadays. But we wanted to be true to the book, and we also remember what Spike said: “I’m not racist, I hate everybody.”

The simple fact is that no one comes out of this book smelling of roses, especially the Irish who are caricatured to within an inch of their lives; the Paddywhackery is laid on with a trowel. Spike did not hate everyone by the way. He was a great humanitarian and in some of the more serious moments in the book, all two or three of them, that comes through like the conversation in Holy Drinker between Dr. Goldstein and the village grocer O’Brien on the subject of abortion in which Goldstein has this to say:

It’s a bloody cosy little argument that, for the likes of get-rich-quick- abortionists. It’s not a child, it’s just formed, it’s just – it’s just – just anything they want to call it to ease their bloody consciences! A mother sees her child born deformed due to some drug she took during pregnancy and has the child put to sleep! What right have we? When a man is mutilated in the war we don’t kill him! We are the cowards. We can’t stand seeing a deformed child. That child could grow up and enjoy life. Happiness is a state of mind, not body.

I’m not sure how well these asides fit in with the general tone of the book – he certainly didn’t preach during his Goon Shows – but they are good points and often overlooked when people talk about the book. The fact is they really get lost, buried in the onslaught of gags and wordplay which is what people love about him. A lot of the time you’ll read things and not always realise he’s being funny like this malapropism:

It was only the rubber tyres on me bike save me from being electrified.

or referring to himself as “an unsuspecting’ human bean”. It’s an old joke. It doesn’t matter. A younger, better one will be along in a minute. But probably what stands out is the Irish “logic”. Milligan asks Murphy why he’s wearing a “terrible lookin’ trilby” to which Murphy replies:

We sold der hat stand, an’ dere’s no place ter hang it.

Or take this interchange:

‘I heered a crash,’ said Murphy. ‘I examined meself, and I knew it wasn’t me.’

‘It was me,’ said Milligan, ‘I felled off me bi-cycle. Tank heavens the ground broke me fall.’

‘Oh yes, it’s very handy like dat,’ said Murphy.

I’ve read this book three times now. It still confuses me even after watching the film twice but mainly because the film takes liberties with the text. It doesn’t matter. If you treat the book like a collection of loosely connected sketches then you’ll cope just fine. As a great novel it has a long way to go but as a great comic novel it stands alone in exactly the way that Spike Milligan did in real life. He had a completely unique approach to humour.

Spike Milligan If you’ve never heard of him then this is as good as any place to start. If only because you’ll be able to pick up one of those six million copies for pennies. My own copy is a 23rd reprint from 1982. It’s beginning to show signs of wear (as is its owner) but I wouldn’t part with it. And you won’t want to yours. And even if you’re flush and want a shiny new copy you’ll still be pleased to note that the original illustration by Spike himself still graces the cover.

For more about Spike Milligan see my two-part post, here and here.


Kass said...

What was Beckett's personality disorder?

I like looking at much of what goes on in Puckoon metaphorically. The idea of borders and boundaries - how haphazardly crossing them creates chaos,sometimes hilarity; how we wall ourselves off and create distinctions that isolate us from our humanity - it's rich stuff. The irreverence with which he approaches language and meaning. Gags and wordplays make more sense than fulfilling regimented expectations. I'll take his disorder any day.

"Happiness is a state of mind, not body."
Great review.

Unknown said...

Aye Spike is one of my favorite comic heroes. Without him and the Goons I doubt we would've ever seen Monty Python.

Jim Murdoch said...

Methinks sometimes that simply all personalities are a bit disordered, Kass. In clinical terms I’m not sure that either of the men had a classic personality disorder but then neither was right in the head. Spike was bipolar, Beckett was not, although his mother was; he did have long periods of depression and issues of self-worth. Many of his physical problems he believed were psychosomatic and his mother clearly had a powerful effect on his emotional development. I’m sure Greg was being facetious when he made his comment. But, as they say, many a true word is said in jest. If there is common ground to be found between the two it has to be in their love of language. Their solutions to the problem of communication were different but they both did it with humour.

And, pcd2k, agreed. Of course like all my generation I came to Spike through Python. It was quite a revelation when I realised just how his work on the Goons changed everything. When you look at humour before then it was so unsophisticated. Not that I imagine Spike considered himself anything like sophisticated or his humour even considered because what he did came naturally and yet it was on both counts.

Rachel Fenton said...

Ha, I was rereading some of his poems only recently! I like his prose and his humour better, though!

Funny Kass mentioned Becket because he does invariably spring to mind when I think of Milligan. I don't think Milligan was a genius or mad, but close to both.

Dave King said...

I claim to be a founder memb er of the Goons Fan Club - but then, I claim a lot of things that are only half true!

I read this book at college and I think didn't really get hold of it. Thanks to a brilliant review I am thinking I'll have another go at it. Spike came through exactly as Spike ever was. I could imagine myself rereading the book as I read your post.

Jim Murdoch said...

I feel much the same about his poetry, Rachel, a lot of it is fun but it’s amateurish stuff. But then everything he does has the feel of the amateur. Like a guy having fun and enjoying what he was doing whether he was doing it for his kids or in front of an audience of millions.

And, Dave, yes, it’s about time you dusted off a copy and just wallowed in its silliness. The world could do with a bit of Milligan right now.

Dave King said...

I certainly agree with that last statement. Wholeheartedly.

Anonymous said...

It had me laughing so much the teacher kept telling me to be quiet (I was in the library when in 6th form). Now 45 years later I still enjoy Spikes humour in this book.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the comment, Chris, and you're right - Spike's humour is timeless.

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