Tuesday, 9 January 2018


Spike Milligan Puckoon (1963)
I was struggling with Lord of Light, and Zelazny's novel was proving more demanding than I can cope with during the ten o'clock slot prior to turning off the light and going to sleep. It was fine for the seven o'clock slot when I've just woken up and I'm eating toast, and my powers of concentration are up to the task, but the evening session was a waste of time; so I decided to switch to something lighter, less demanding just for the hour at bedtime, and there was this which I recall as having been side-splitting when I was fourteen.

Time hasn't been kind to Milligan, not in the sense of the decades passing having revealed him as not particularly funny, but some of this no longer packs quite the same punch as it once did, or seemed to do. The obvious objection would, I suppose, be the seemingly endless sublimation of chuckles from the laziest of racial stereotypes, but I'm not sure it's even that. Milligan's Irish are routinely stupid, comic alcoholics with barely a brain cell between them, even before we get to Ah Pong, the implausible Chinese policeman whose grasp of English is about as good as that of any Chinese character in a seventies sitcom. The racism is boring, mainly because it's so bleeding obvious, although it's probably significant that Milligan's fools tend to be underdogs who come out on top through agency of their own screwy wits. They are grotesques, the inhabitants of satire pushed to the limits of cliché for the sake of Dadaist absurdity, and so whilst the racism may seem a bit predictable, it isn't applied to the denigration of the characters or even to any particularly racist theme; which I suppose is why we don't view Milligan with quite the same disdain as Bernard Manning, aside from Milligan having been funnier, obviously.

Apparently it took him a couple of years to write Puckoon, and it shows. The premise is an idea which may well have reduced everyone to tears in the pub about fifteen minutes before chucking out time, but it needs more than it has here to make it work as a novel - something about the Irish border redrawn around the village of Puckoon, with the IRA smuggling bombs into the north by burying them in a coffin prior to the aforementioned reconfiguration. This is padded out to novel length by means of every other sentence being some kind of joke or pun playing on its predecessor, including passages in which our main character breaks the fourth wall and complains to the author about the quality of the legs which have been written for him. After a while it becomes exhausting, and you begin to wish he'd just tell the fucking story, whatever it was.

Milligan wrote better for radio, television, and as autobiography, or at least that's how I remember it, and although there's some wonderful turns of absurdist comic phrase here, it's not anything like as much fun as it wants to be.

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