Article published on March 2, 2012.
Spike Milligan is an undisputed genius, of sorts. And as noted by his agent in the introduction to this eclectic collection it is an auto-biography of sorts. Milligan’s Meaning of Life is a compilation of Spike’s published works from a vast span of his career. The reader is treated to extracts from his war memoirs, his poetry, scripts and more personal autobiographical works.
This reviewer always thought I knew a little about Spike. Familiar with the Goon Shows, and having read the first volume of his war memoirs, I felt I was suitably prepared. Yet having read this hefty 320 page tome there is a sense that the man now lost to us was even more astoundingly talented than first thought.
The majority of the book is Spike’s own prose, punctuated with poetry and the occasional insight from Norma, his long-standing agent. An exchange from “Mussolini, his part in my downfall” typifies the content:
Kidgell looks pensively out towards Italy.
“I was wondering about the landing.”
“Don’t worry about the landing, I’ll hoover it in the morning.”
He ignored me, but then everybody did. “I’ve been thinking.”
“Thinking? This could mean promotion,” I said.
“I was thinking, supposing they land us in six foot of water.”
“Then everyone five foot eleven and three quarters will drown.”
“That’s the end of me, then.”
“I thought you were a champion swimmer!”
“You can’t swim in Army Boots.”
“You’re right, there is not enough room.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about ten words to the minute.”
The brilliance of Milligan shines through with every passing chapter. Yet Milligan’s Meaning of Life is not merely a collection of pieces from the king of surreal comedy. There are various poignant excerpts in the collection, frequently referring to his breakdowns and almost life-long depression. This adds a depth that is often missing from the public image of Spike, a man who brought us superb comedy, often at the cost of his own personal life and happiness. The work refers to the breakdown of his first marriage, as well as Spike’s relationship with his children.
But the review of Milligan’s Meaning of Life can not merely be restricted to heaping praise on Milligan’s fascinating life. For aficionados of all things Spike this will merely be a well-drawn collection. For those less aware it is an eye-opener, but one that can be periodically jarring. The sheer breadth of his career can hardly be covered in one volume, as a result of which the collection leaps between periods with little continuity. This might have been exactly the kind of erratic leaping that the man himself was capable of, but this is not to say it makes for an easy read.
Though this in no way saying that Milligan’s Meaning of Life should be avoided. This reviewer thoroughly enjoyed the volume from start to finish, but is conscious that its nature might prejudice those that were expecting a flowing life story.
But for Spike Milligan, how could that possibly be fitting? Like many of the finest comedians Spike was a complex character of great highs and terrible soul-crushing lows. This volume does manage to communicate this, and if anything will lead many readers back to his earlier works. Exactly as it has done with me.
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