The news that a previously unknown treasure trove of Spike Milligan’s material has been unearthed and will be explored on television on Wednesday will be greeted by Milligan fans with all the enthusiasm of parched wanderers in the desert realising that the oasis they have reached is real and not a mirage (Spike Milligan: The Unseen Archive will air on December 7th on Sky Arts).
In 1963, when Milligan’s comic Irish novel Puckoon, was published, I was working in London for the Catholic Herald.
My editor there was Desmond Fisher, who had moved to that position from his previous job as London editor of the Irish Press.
Des introduced me to Donal Foley, from Ring in the Waterford Gaeltacht, who had first come to London to work on the railways (as an Irishman he was subject neither to conscription nor to National Service) and had found his way into journalism where he flourished like the bay tree, finally landing in The Irish Times London office.
Donal suggested that I apply for a job on The Irish Times, and I was interviewed by the then editor, Alan Montgomery, over tea and cakes in a small restaurant in Charing Cross. I was appointed, but by the time I later arrived in Dublin, Alan had departed to become press officer for Guinness.
He had been on the interview panel for the job and, when none of the candidates had impressed the panel, decided to take the job himself. He later became justly renowned for his willingness to supply an “iron lung” (the steel keg holding 54 pints of the precious liquid, replacing the original cooperage) to any of his former companions in journalism who were having a house party.
Donal seemed to know everybody. Occasionally, when short of material for the London Letter, which appeared on the editorial page and was regarded by Dublin alickadoos as the real inside story of British politics and society, he would ring up Sean O’Casey in Devon and garner a few highly publishable quotations to embellish this daily chore.
His superior, the London Editor, was Sir John Arnott, a scion of the family which had founded the newspaper in 1859, and who had a tendency to “go on admin”, leaving the job of writing the London Letter to Donal and myself.
As served my apprenticeship to Donal, I became aware that Milligan – of whom I had been a devotee since my UCD days – was just about to publish a book called Puckoon, a riotous piece of make-believe which combined a unique take on Irish rural fiction and massive dollops of Goonery, and it occurred to me that The Irish Times might be prepared to serialise part of it as a homage to the great man. So I invited him to lunch to explore this possibility.
En route to the Chinese restaurant designated by him I stopped off – unwisely – at a press conference in the Haymarket showrooms of a Scotch whisky distillery where a new brand was being launched.
On this particular day it was baking hot and, mistaking what was in the glasses at the Haymarket offices for refreshment, I was already in good form when Spike arrived.
He was in even better form.
“Is that green Rolls Royce parked outside yours?” he asked merrily.
Over lunch, he revealed with great pride that, having been subjected to all sorts of British official obtuseness when he tried to acquire an English passport (he had been born in India to a colonial family), he decided to try the Irish embassy in London instead.
There he was given a drink and – a surprisingly short space of time later – a genuine Irish passport, based on his parentage.
In short order he gave me a proof copy of Puckoon to see whether The Irish Times would be interested in serialising it.
Set in 1924, its plot revolved around a village of that name which had been bisected by the new Border, with unpredictable, but brilliantly comic, consequences.
Its fictional protagonist, Dan Milligan, bore a more than passing resemblance to one of the characters in At Swim Two Birds, by Myles na gCopaleen, in that he occasionally engages in direct communication with the author who created him.
Later adaptations for various media included a galaxy of Irish talent including Milo O’Shea, David Kelly, Ed Byrne and Pauline McLynn. The most recent was broadcast on the BBC ‘s Radio 4 as recently as December 2019. In 1963 this newspaper might have had a scoop.