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“The telephone works both ways you know”: a Goon’s guide to managing criticism.

Posted in Life & Love, and Relationships

The wonderful Spike Milligan

I like elegance. And I like witty comeback. When the two work together – you have the perfect insult. Winston Churchill had a droll turn of phrase. In response to Nancy Astor’s jibe: “Sir, if you were my husband, I would give you poison.”, he responded : “If I were your husband I would take it.”

I had a few perplexing moments this past week, where I wished I could have channelled WC. Each was with a friend, each an odd criticism, seemingly (but obviously not) out of nowhere. I’m not going to bore you with the details – but to say that I feel neither comment was deserved. And that I didn’t seek to discover the provenance of either, nor to defend myself. Instead I acknowledged, shrugged and let it go. A good ground gain on my part, I thought. Either I am finally growing up or I really don’t give a damn.

But, I did wish I had been pithy and funny, would have been so much more satisfying. 

I’ve been working my way through “Letters of Note”, and, after friend grumble number two – I came across this piece by the legendary Spike Milligan. Spike and the Goons were part of my childhood: sofadad used to listen to their records and The Goon Show was a Sunday morning staple on the heavily controlled government radio station. In retrospect, I am sure the censors had no idea what they were listening to. Probably thought it was ‘nog Engelse kak*’.

I knew all the words, pauses and speed up of “The Ying Tong Song”: a piece of two-chord nonsense featuring Milligan, Peter Sellars and Harry Secombe … voicing the various Goons. (Side note: Secombe had a record deal, and was not allowed to sing with the rest of the crew … so he spoke his words.) I still love the track.

(l-r) The original Goons: Milligan, Sellars, Seacombe.)
(l-r) The original Goons: Milligan, Sellars, Secombe

Spike wrote brilliant books about his adventures in the Second World War. As funny as they were – I could always sense his sadness and isolation (Milligan suffered from depression). And an all-pervading fear. Something a disgruntled fan called Stephen Gard seemed to have missed when he wrote to Milligan in 1977 – listing a number of complaints about the third volume of his memoirs: Monty, My Part in His Victory. Spike responded hilariously and with grace.

Wish I had seen this before I shrugged.

c465c27a02a0dfa5fa5b6110.L“28th February, 1977

Dear Stephen,
Questions, questions, questions. If you are disappointed in my book ‘MONTY’, so am I. I must be more disappointed than you because I spent a year collecting material for it, and it was a choice of having it made into a suit or a book.

There are lots of one liners in the book, but then when the German Army are throwing bloody great lumps of hot iron at you, one only has time for one liners. In fact, the book should really consist of the following:
“Oh fuck”
“Look out”
“Christ here’s another”
“Where did that fall?”
“My lorry’s on fire”
“Oh Christ, the cook is dead”
You realise a book just consisting of those would just be the end, so my one liners are extensions of these brevities.

Then you are worried because as yet I have not mentioned my meeting with Secombe and later Sellers. Well by the end of the Monty book I had as yet not met either Secombe or Sellers. I met Secombe in Italy, which will be in vol 4, and I am arranging to meet Peter Sellers on page 78 of vol 5 in London. I’m sorry I can’t put back the clock to meet Secombe in 1941, to alleviate your disappointment — hope springs anew with the information I have given you.

Another thing that bothers you is “cowardice in the face of the enemy”. Well, 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.

Any more questions from you and our friendship is at an end.

Spike Milligan

letters-of-note-lst126498(“Nog Engelse Kak = More English Crap.
If you haven’t read Spike Milligan’s War Memoirs – do. Every page is worth it.
And the same goes for Letters of Note.)

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  1. @winstonmoreton

    “Channeling WC” is at once witty and clever.

    March 12, 2014
  2. Harriette Smith
    Harriette Smith

    Oh, to have the wit of Winston Churchill.
    Comebacks are always satisfying, if you can think of them quickly enough. Harriette Smith

    March 11, 2014

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