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Spike's memoirs

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

Bloodnok: Waiter! One brandy, and pronto! Spriggs: One brandy and pronto coming up! Greenslade: Those were the last words said at peace. At that moment Germany declared war in all directions. German: Bang! Bloodnok: Bang? War! I must write my memoirs.

(from ‘Tales of Men’s Shirts’, Series 10 Episode 2, broadcast 31 December 1959)

War was a recurrent theme throughout the Goon Show’s run. The decade its broadcasts covered was one in which Britain was recovering from a devastating seven-year period in which nearly half a million people had been killed, both soldiers and civilians.

Comedy was used by many of the Goons’ peers as a way of recovering from, dealing with, or escaping from the horrors they had experienced. For Spike Milligan, writing about it was almost a compulsion – which leads us neatly on to his septet of memoirs.

The movie poster

Milligan’s first war memoir, Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall, was published in 1971. It was hugely successful and was made into a film two years later, starring Jim Dale (of Carry On… fame) as Spike, Arthur Lowe of Dad’s Army, and Spike as his own dad.

This was followed by six more books, published over the course of the next 20 years, detailing his life as a soldier from training in Bexhill in Sussex, to deployment first to North Africa and then to Italy as the Allied forces pushed the Nazi army back through Europe. Later books detail his life as a performer within the Combined Services Entertainment groups that travelled Europe entertaining troops after the war was over.

They are incredibly funny books, but laced with poignancy. He does not shy away from the horrors he witnessed: one of his regiment’s heavy guns misfired and killed several of his comrades, an experience that was clearly burned into his memory.

There were the deaths of some of my friends, and therefore, no matter how funny I tried to make this book, that will always be at the back of my mind: but, were they alive today, they would have been the first to join in the laughter, and that laughter was, I'm sure, the key to victory.

(from the preface to Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall, by Spike Milligan, published by Michael Joseph Ltd, 1971)

We drive through Sparanise, badly shelled and bombed, some buildings still smouldering. The inhabitants are in a state of shock, women and children are crying, men are searching among the ruins for their belongings or worse, their relatives. It was the little children that depressed me the most, that such innocence should be put to such suffering. The adult world should forever hang its head in shame at the terrible, unforgivable things done to the young.

(from the preface to Mussolini: His Part In My Downfall, by Spike Milligan, published by Michael Joseph Ltd/Penguin Books, 1978)

‘An unreliable history of war’

The critic Clive James accused Spike of recounting “an unreliable history of war” in a review of one of the earlier books. Milligan was obviously not pleased – as demonstrated in the foreword to Mussolini: His Part In My Downfall:

… I admit the way I present [the story] may seem as though my type of war was impossible… But all that I wrote did happen, it happened on the days I mention, the people I mention are real people and the places are real…. I even got down to actually finding out what the weather was like, for every day of the campaign. I’ve spent a fortune on beer and dinners interviewing my old Battery mates, and phone calls to those members overseas ran into over a hundred pounds.

(from the preface to Mussolini: His Part In My Downfall, by Spike Milligan, published by Michael Joseph Ltd/Penguin Books, 1978)

He won’t thank me for taking this view, but I think it’s fair to say some of the details of conversations were likely invented or at least embellished – particularly the ones that echo Goon Show dialogue. It’s also worth noting that, in his preface to Where Have All The Bullets Gone? (book five), Spike admits that “some of those mentioned” in the previous book “took offence at some of the references” and so he decided to anonymise people. He didn’t exactly apologise, though…

The thing is… from a personal point of view, these things don’t spoil the books. What these books demonstrate is how good a writer Milligan is. Goodbye Soldier (book six) has many examples of wonderful descriptive writing detailing his travels around Italy and romance with ballerina Maria Antoinette Pontani. Although written more than 30 years after the events it describes, it is clear Milligan was in love with her, and he openly wonders whether he should have married her.

‘Thank you, fellow cowards’

Writing was an imperative for Spike – he had to keep doing it. For these memoirs, however, I think there was more at stake. He had to get out of his head some of the horrific experiences he had endured and put it on paper, perhaps as some sort of therapy. This meant that he tended to react quite strongly to people who questioned him. Aside from the above, aimed at a literary critic, he once received – and responded to – a piece of fan mail asking him many questions about the third book, Monty: His Part In My Victory.

The fan in question, Stephen Gard, recounted the incident to Shaun Usher, creator of the excellent Letters of Note project:

My letter was written as a fan, but it did ask a lot of questions; questions that a lifetime of Goon-show listening had raised in my mind. The one that obviously annoyed Spike was, "Why do so many Goon Shows, e.g. Tales of Men’s Shirts, harp on the theme of military cowardice? After the line ‘The prison camp was filled with British Officers who’d sworn to DIE rather than be captured,’ [audience laughter] why did you come to the mike and say ‘Thank you, fellow cowards!’* Is it because you yourself were accused of this?"

(Stephen Gard, quoted in Letters of Note, compiled by Shaun Usher, published by Unbound, 2013)

Milligan’s response is glorious, and can be read in its entirety here. Alternatively, buy Letters of Note here – you won’t be disappointed.

… The point is I suffered from cowardice in the face of the enemy throughout the war — in the face of the enemy, also in the legs, the elbows, and the wrists; in fact, after two years in the front line a mortar bomb exploded by my head (or was it my head exploded by a mortar bomb), and it so frightened me, I put on a tremendous act of stammering, stuttering, and shivering. This mixed with cries of “mother” and a free flow of dysentery enabled me to be taken out of the line and down-graded to B2. But for that brilliant performance, this letter would be coming to you from a grave in Italy.

(from Spike Milligan’s letter to Stephen Gard, 28 February 1977)

All the books are available for Kindle and other e-readers. If you prefer physical copies, check out the Bibliography page for links to non-Amazon websites. Delivery takes a little longer, but you can rest assured that you’re supporting actual booksellers rather than a multi-billionaire’s spaceship hobby.

Seagoon: Quiet. We're taking off in ten seconds from now… Nine, eight, seven, six.... um, seven, six. Let's have a look at that list. Alright - seven, six, five, four, three, two, one - NOW!

(from ‘The First Albert Memorial to the Moon’, Vintage Goons Episode 14, recorded 23 March 1958)

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fans may recall that the instalment titled Mostly Harmless, published in 1992, was billed as “the fifth book in the increasingly inaccurately named trilogy”. Wikipedia’s entry on Spike (which indicates at the top that it has multiple accuracy issues) states, without a source, that Mussolini: His Part In My Downfall was announced as the fourth part of the “increasingly misnamed” trilogy.

I’ve been unable to verify this claim, although it’s perfectly likely that he (or his publicist) made a joke like this. Anyone who is able to shed any light on this, please contact me.

* This is another line from ‘Tales of Men’s Shirts’ (Series 10 Episode 2).

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