Byron Rogers

More funny peculiar than ha-ha

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Spike Milligan

Humphrey Carpenter

Hodder & Stoughton, pp. 435, £

A shilling life will give you all the facts, or at least a £20 one will. And in the case of Humphrey Carpenter it comes with a guarantee of research, honesty and fair play. Nothing flash, no tricks of style and perhaps not too much humour, but at the end a feeling that what you have read has been as close a likeness as you will get. Auden and Pound, Tolkien and Benjamin Britten, all subjects of Carpenter biographies, not one of them has much of a case for appeal.

But his biography of Spike Milligan is different. It has a tension, for, while the author seems to have set out to write a celebration of a man whose Goon Show scripts had made him laugh as a boy, it ended up as not that at all: in the process he began to dislike him.

Part of the trouble is that Carpenter, unlike Milligan, is quite a serious man. On page 12 there is the story of how the young Spike, wandering off from school one day, was on his return hauled up by the Mother Superior in front of the whole school. In old age, recalling the incident, Milligan said, ‘I hope somebody sets fire to the hairs on her fanny.’

This is Carpenter’s comment: ‘Did he seriously wish such a fate had overtaken the poor nun? It would be nice to say no; but this was a characteristic Spike reaction to being put in the wrong: he was almost incapable of taking any blame, and would respond to criticism by lashing out (or retreating into depression).’ Eh?

Carpenter will, in the course of his 400- odd pages, give some damning examples of such reactions, but to do so here, in what is virtually his opening speech, does tend to ruin the case for the prosecution. The jury, hearing this, would be laughing, as Milligan intended. He made jokes about anything: when an intruder in the Queen’s bedroom asked her for a cigarette he wrote to the papers, ‘Isn’t it amazing the lengths some people will go to for a fag?’ and was duly squashed by the Duke of Edinburgh who asked, ‘Isn’t it amazing the lengths some people will go to for a cheap laugh?’ The trouble is, this exchange, which I quote from memory as Humphrey Carpenter doesn’t use it, I find funny.

Just as I find his comment on the Mother Superior funny, almost as funny as Humphrey Carpenter’s gloss on it. All right, Milligan once used an airgun on a teenager who was vandalising his garden; he also threatened to ram 28 pounds of spaghetti down the throat of the manager of Harrods’ Food Hall to bring home to the man the horror of p