Everyone needs a hero, but the concept of a personal “hero” is a strange concept. What are they? They can’t be someone who you simply want to emulate. They shouldn’t simply be someone you want to be, rather someone you admire, someone who lived a life that you feel exemplifies attributes and goals you believe in. And they have to be flawed. An important part of having a hero is recognising that they were human and had the same flaws as the rest of us.
That’s why my hero is Spike Milligan.
If you don’t know who Spike Milligan, well firstly you need to know that you know nothing about comedy. Secondly, and more helpfully, he was a writer, comedian, musician and manic depressive. Oh, and he’s the grandfather of all modern of British Comedy.
He is most famously remembered for being the main driving force of The Goon Show, the radio comedy series that ran throughout most of the 1950s and changed the face of British comedy forever. This was a show that had 6 month runs. 26 episodes a season, one season a year. He wrote almost all of them, only missing them on the occasions when his mental health collapsed. His own description of that workload was “If you to want to torture someone, sentence them to have to write 26 funny half hour [scripts]”
This was a truly ground breaking show, using surrealism and sound effects and music (both groundbreaking for the time) to create a nonsense world that nevertheless always had a vein of logic running through it. He then went on to create the Q Series, which is best described as Monty Python before Monty Python came along
He was also a talented jazz musician (his first love, his career as a singer and trumpet player had been interrupted by the outbreak of the war) and an amazing writer and poet. For those who know him only for his comedy, discovering his more serious writing is a bit of a surprise. Like the clichés would have you believe, this clown was crying on the inside. His poetry is beautifully mournful, born from the sadness of a man shellshocked out of the war and who suffered with manic depression the whole of his life.
The best way to experience the full gamut of Spike Milligan’s style is his war memoirs. Telling the story of him time between conscription into the Army in 1940 to being demobbed in 1945, it’s a perfect blend of the zany and the moving.
Starting as a lighthearted reminiscence of the days of basic training, meeting people who became his lifelong friends and seemingly getting up to more trouble than anything else, the seven book series moves through the “gentleman’s war” Milligan experienced in Africa, then on to the battles for Italy where he was shellshocked out of active service. After a time living the almost pointless life of a invalid soldier he eventually moves into the Central Pool of Artists, where we get to experience the story of his first true love, before being demobbed and moving back to England.
What’s wonderful about these books is they give a wonderful soldiers eye view of the war, without the poe-faced seriousness of so many other accounts. Milligan doesn’t shy away from the horror and the awful experiences of these years of his life, but he doesn’t take everything too seriously either. The books highlight the contrary fact that for this generation the war corresponded with the best years of their lives. For all they were engaged in a global act of industrialised killing, you can’t ignore that fact that these were a bunch of men in the prime of their lives and determined to make the best of it. They are human beings going through one of the most powerful experiences of their lives.
There are flaws. As a product of the ’30s and ’40s there is an amount of casual racism threaded throughout his work. For all I can argue that it was all meant as harmless fun, it’s still a little uncomfortable from a modern viewpoint. You can see the colonial viewpoint that people of the time subscribed to throughout the work. But that, in a way, only makes it more fascinating. There’s no whitewashing. It’s a view into how this generation thought. They weren’t bad people, they just grew up in a time where is was okay to think in a way we’ve since recognised is unacceptable.
As I mentioned above, recognising these flaws is a vital part of having a personal hero. I would never argue that Spike Milligan was a perfect person. In many respects he was deeply flawed. But this just makes him more fascinating. I don’t want to be him. I admire him and his work. What he went through and what he did.
So if you haven’t experienced Spike Milligan’s work I cannot recommend more highly that you do so. Find some episodes of The Goon Show and give it a listen. Look up the Q Series (A bunch of it is on YouTube). Read his poetry, his …according to Spike Milligan series (where he rewrites classic literature in his own style) and his other collections. I guarantee that you will find something both funny and fascinating.
And he’s my hero. A man who faced horrific events, had his mind broken by shell-shock, suffered a lifetime of the dizzying highs and crippling lows of bi-polar disorder, created mould-breaking comedy and beautiful poetry. A man who was unique and wonderful, contradictory and combative. Who felt a deep anger at the injustices of the world yet suffered from the same flaws as every other human being.
(And if you’re interested in the most honest appraisal of Spike Milligan as a man I recommend Spike: An Intimate Memoir by Norma Farnes, his manager from the 1960s until his death. It’s a brutally honest story of the life of the person who probably knew Spike better than anyone in the world, warts and all.)