English schoolchildren for generations were expected to learn certain “classic” poems and be able to recite them from memory. This was believed to teach us all culture and make us all jolly nice people.
By the time I was at school in the 1990s this was not as important a requirement - but I still have a few poems that I remember. It’s not my teachers that I have to thank for that though… it’s my mum, for introducing me to Spike Milligan.
Today I saw a little worm Wriggling on his belly. Perhaps he’d like to come inside And see what’s on the telly?
When checking my memory of these words, I spotted on Twitter a primary school in Northumberland with an excellent curriculum and equally excellent young poets. I would like to think Spike would be delighted by the results.
Milligan’s poetry and children’s writing emerged from his desire to entertain his own children. He split from his first wife, June Marlow, in 1960, and received custody of their children Laura, Seán and Síle. In several interviews I’ve seen, Spike tells how anxious he was to show his love for his children, and his writing was a big part of that.
Silly Verse For Kids was published in 1959 and was Spike’s first book. It collected the poems he had written for his children - including the famous ‘On The Ning Nang Nong’. Nearly 40 years after its publication, this poem was voted the UK’s favourite comic verse in a BBC poll.
I have an important announcement to make - I believe my poem has been voted the favourite poem of children and adults - and I want to thank you very much for doing it. And that's about it!
(Spike Milligan’s response to the result of the 1998 poll, quoted by the BBC)
He wrote many more poetry books, including my personal favourites Unspun Socks from a Chicken's Laundry and The Book of Milliganimals. I’d also recommend The Bald Twit Lion, a short story for kids:
Once, twice and thrice upon a time there lived a Jungle. It started at the bottom and went upwards till it reached the monkeys, who had been waiting years for the trees to reach them, and as soon as they did the monkeys invented climbing down.
(from The Bald Twit Lion, by Spike Milligan, published by Dennis Dobson, 1968)