Spike Milligan was born on this day in 1918. He wrote countless letters during his 83 years, many of them “of note,” and Spike is connected to more than a couple of my favourite anecdotes about correspondence. Such as the time he asked his manager and dear friend Norma Farnes to send a telegram on his behalf to paranoid friend and fellow Goon Peter Sellers. It read, “IGNORE FIRST TELEGRAM.” Or the time he wrote to Tetley and asked them what they did with all the “spare corners” when switching from square to round teabags. Or the time Spike’s dad was informed by letter that his son had “been hospitalised” during WWII, only for Spike’s dad—in true Milligan style—to reply with, “How DARE you turn my son into a hospital.” Or the time Spike placed a small ad in Private Eye to which 48 people replied by letter. The ad read: “Spike Milligan seeks rich, well-insured widow. Intention: murder.” The stories are endless, and many can be found in the numerous published collections of his letters, and of course his memoirs, all of which I recommend.
It was in February of 1977 that a well-meaning teacher named Stephen Gard wrote to Spike after reading Monty, the third installment of Spike’s memoirs which focused on his life as a soldier in WWII, and asked some questions about the book. A few years ago, Stephen told me:
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?
Below is Spike’s reply. It can be found in the first volume of Letters of Note.
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:
“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.