the book is "an overflowing variety show"

‘Having been accused ... of being an eccentric, I am puzzled as to why they didn’t give me my correct title, i.e. a mechanical contrivance for converting circular into reciprocating rectilinear motion, etc. etc. etc.’ From Spike’s memoirs, poetry, scripts and photos, Norma Farnes has collaged ‘an autobiography of sorts’ of a man who grinned his way from the wings to the core of British comedic history.

I still have my hardback of The Children’s Treasury of Milligan, its kingdom of animal absurdity, the mad pen sketches that prefigure any David Shrigley. There’s something gloriously and irrepressibly child-like about his humour. Or, better still, Spike had what a special few adults share with small people, the sense that words can always be a part of play. His writing has an ability to expose oddity just by taking words literally, refusing to observe the rules that usually smooth out meaning. It must have driven people to love or desperation in his army years:

‘You can’t swim in army boots.’
‘You’re right, there’s not enough room.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘I’m talking about ten words to the minute.’

I knew Spike had lived with depression, a binary persona like many comic greats from Lear to Fry. What this book reminds me, with its shrapnel of war poems, is that Milligan’s selves weren’t merely split between the public and personal. Here too is a meditative and human voice sounding clear, the same that lurks within the ‘nonsense’. Farnes’s editing is deft: a page-turn between the death at dawn of a lieutenant on ‘Longstop Hill’ and a limerick, ‘One morning at one/ They fired the gun/ And Edser, in bed sir, was dead sir.’

The comedy that would become broadcast classics like The Goons had its origins, too, in the margins. Spike would clown between the songs he played with early jazz trios, ad-libbing on nothing in particular; eventually this would become the central act of the figure we’ve come to know. Like his life, the book is an overflowing variety show. Buy a copy, tumble into it, lest we forget.