Milligan’s Autograph

Some people collect autographs as a passion. Others casually get autographs from famous people they meet (athletes leaving the field, an actor in a coffee shop, that kind of thing), keep them for a while, then throw them away. From a fairly early age I realised that autographs meant nothing to me. I just didn’t “get” it – and I still don’t. What’s the big deal about getting someone famous to sign a piece of paper? Perhaps my contempt of autographs was just part of my contempt for fame. I’ve rarely been “awed” by seeing a famous person. But there is an exception. One day I did ask someone for their autograph: Spike Milligan.

Today the memories came flooding back. I was a teenager living in Perth, Western Australia, and I was in awe of Milligan. You see, I had mental lists of people I admired, and the lists would change as my tastes changed. I had a long list of comedians that could make me laugh. A smaller list of novelists that I enjoyed reading. A tiny list of poets that could move me. But Spike Milligan was on all three lists, and he was usually at or near the top. Unique.

I was a member of a local Goon Show fan club called the Goon Appreciation Society of Perth (GASP), led by Brian Allanson. Milligan was in town for one of his eclectic shows, and twelve of us got to meet him one afternoon. And for the first time in my life I asked someone for an autograph – I admired him so much I broke my own “rule” and actually asked for an autograph (as did everyone else I think). He signed my GASP newsletter with his name, and he wrote it in that precise, ornate, unique handwriting I had become familiar with from reading the margin scribblings of Goon Show script reproductions. I still remember being amazed at the slow deliberate way he wrote his name, creating the letters in that unmistakable Milligan style.

While signing our autographs, Spike commented that he always found autographs to be strange, pointless things, and he was especially surprised that Goon Show fans would ask for them, as he always thought they would be less likely to want them – as anyone who liked the Goons would surely be less likely to want something so mundane. I was amazed that he and I shared this view on autographs, but I didn’t say anything did I, since I’d just asked him to give me his autograph…

And now he’s dead.

The last of The Goons is dead, killed by kidney failure. I knew it was coming, in fact Milligan seems to have been ill for so long, and at death’s door so often, that I’m surprised at how shocked and saddened I am by his passing. It’s odd that someone who I met only once has had such an impact on me. But he played a large part in the formation of my mind – The Goons, his war novels, the novel Puckoon, his stance on cruelty to animals and noise, his poetry, and the Q TV series.

I’ve always seen Milligan as the creator and heart of the Goons. As the writer (often co-writer) of the Goons he changed comedy forever, but others have already said this better than I can. I used to harbour a deep wish that one day I would get to work with Milligan on a project, perhaps a documentary or something. That fantasy has to be shelved now.

Thanks to the internet, Spike will be with us forever. But it’s not the same.

On a side note, you know you’re getting old when the death of someone you don’t actually know affects you so deeply. Helen Darville (yes, she of the Helen Demidenko infamy) expressed it well in an article she wrote after the death of Douglas Adams:

News of Douglas Adams’s death on May 12 convinced me of two things. I do have a favourite author, and I am now old enough to experience nostalgia.

A great article. Go read it. I’m off to listen to some Goon Shows and mourn Spike’s passing. Fine fine fine