If growing up is a form of awakening, then it came in two forms to me when I was about seven. One was the novels about the Saint by Leslie Charteris. Simon Templar was my instant urbane hero. He could dazzle Claude Eustace Teale (the police) and charm Patricia Holmes – without any of that yucky stuff. For the first time, I wondered what might be entailed by being an adult. The Saint was much smoother than Hop Harrigan, Biggles or Batman. The other source was the Goons at 7.30 on ABC radio – the electric wireless – every Sunday at 7.30 pm. I could not understand why I listened to it alone. It was instantly a source of wonder – and enlightenment – and it has remained so. Spike Milligan, Harry Seccombe and Peter Sellers put on this display of madness – hilarious, nearly hysterical madness – once a week from the BBC in London. They displayed characters like Major Bloodknock, Bluebottle and Eccles before an enraptured live post war audience. The Goons continually erupted as they sailed along on the stream of Spike Milligan’s consciousness.
Since the Grand Final, I have haunted YouTube. Then I stumbled on some recorded vision of the Goons caught live on camera (not necessarily from the first performances). What relics! Many of the gags are plays on words. ‘I was at Eton.’ ‘How long were you there?’ ‘Five foot four.’ But some go very deep into logic. The director Jonathan Miller loved a sequence about money as merely a token. ‘I will pay you with this photo of a five pound note.’ ‘Very well. I will give you change with a drawing of 3/6.’ Dennis Nordern thought that the funniest writing forever came in a sequence – that you can find on the net – between Bluebottle and Eccles headed ‘What time is it Eccles?’ I would dearly like to know what Wittgenstein thought of these games.
Hearing this now is like getting an infusion of sanity. We are at risk of drowning in bullshit and we need every lifeline we can get. Milligan shows by how little genius is separated from madness. Certainly, more light can enter a mind that is cracked than one that is whole. Think of our great novels about madness – like Don Quixote, Catch 22, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Some of the nonsense about vaccination reminds me of a gag Chris Wallace-Crabbe and I have in our book about how to write and how to think. A girlfriend of Charlie Chaplin told a story of a cop talking to a bum who was tearing up bits of paper and throwing them to the wind on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Broadway.
Cop: What are you doing that for?
Bum: I am frightening away the elephants.
Cop: There are no elephants here.
Bum: That just shows that my system works.
Well, a lot of humour plays with words and logic, and often it arrives at a kind of truth.