The third instalment in Duncan Jones’ #BowieBookClub is Spike Milligan’s irreverent comedy caper Puckoon.  Jones, also known as David Bowie’s film-maker son, launched the Twitter book club in homage to his father. Club members are retracing and retweeting Bowie’s literary steps through a select number of his top 100 books.

Puckoon, published in 1963, is full of wry and witty one-liners, as well as, extended anecdotes to introduce the colourful, sometimes stereotypical, characters in the ‘microcephalic community’ of the fictional Irish town of Puckoon.[1]  This is a political satire including strong absurdist elements about the futility of borders and bureaucracy.  In regards to Puckoon’s frequent stereotypes, Milligan has stated: ‘I am not a racist. I just hate everyone’.[2]  Indeed, it is pertinent to question whether absolutely politically correct humour is actually funny anyway, as all quality comedy has to be somewhat offensive.  Milligan ended the foreword thanking ‘the human race for being the butt of all my jokes’.[3]  This is Milligan’s humour in a nutshell, everyone is a target, no-one is immune, and he universally mocks us all in this antidote to Brexit and border control.  The 2002 trailer for the film adaptation by Terence Ryan features the strapline: the only way to ‘fight the stupidity of bureaucracy is with stupidity’ and in summation, this is exactly what we witness.

 

Milligan wrote Puckoon in the slapstick style of The Goon Show, his infamous British radio comedy show that was broadcast from 1951 – 1960 on the BBC Home Service.  This popular political decisiveness was a common theme in Milligan’s writing: check out Rommel’s Treasure below.  Puckoon contains Milligan’s inimitable topical firecracker wit but is also punctuated with great literary fluency and flair: ‘bone-dreaming dogs steamed on the pavements and pussy cats lay, bellies upwards, drinking the gold effulgent warmth through their fur; leather-faced fishcatchers puzzled at the coarse Atlantic now flat and stunned by its own salt hot inertia’.[4]   

Puckoon also makes the reader aware of a character’s fictionality in repeatedly breaking the fourth wall with Puckoon’s main protagonist, Dan Milligan, frequently speaking to the narrator about pressing matters, such as why his legs are described as ‘a pair of dirty old pipe cleaners’.[5] The narrator tells him that his ‘legs would develop with the plot’ something we are left to establish for ourselves.[6]  Dan Milligan’s legs are an ongoing joke throughout the novel because when his wife is introduced to us, he comments to the narrator: ‘First me legs, and now this great hairy creature!’.[7] This adds an interesting dimension to the readers’ romp through the mythical Puckoon.

Milligan spent his early life in India, as his father served in the British Indian Army, moving to London when he was twelve.  Milligan was later conscripted to the 56th Heavy Regiment Royal Artillery, where he served as a signaller in WWII.  This is where he honed his irreverent sense of humour and kept morale up amongst his fellow servicemen, which should have held sway with his commanding officer, but it seemed to have quite the opposite effect.  Milligan suffered shell shock and received a mortar wound to his right leg and was hospitalised in Italy.  He explores his wartime experiences through Dan Milligan, who also served in WWII, but was charged with cowardice: ‘I’m a hero with coward’s legs, I’m a hero from the waist up’.[8]  He also makes an astute observation: ‘One man retreating is called running away, but a whole Regiment running away is called a retreat?  I demand to be tried by cowards!’.[9]

Based in Ireland in 1922, Puckoon’s premise is about the Ulster Border Control dividing the town into two by drawing a line down a map: ‘all hands held the pencil and pulled slowly across the map […]“someone’s pulling to the benefit of Ulster”’.[10]  The division sees a church separated from its cemetery, a corner in the Holy Drinker where drinks are 30% cheaper and the townsfolk have to cross the border to get access to their own outhouse lavatories.

‘That two square feet is in Ulster, where the price of drinks is thirty percent cheaper.  Now, every night, me pub is empty, save for a crowd of bloody skinflints all huddled in that corner like Scrooges’.[11]

Milligan was clearly mocking the 3rd May 1921 partition of Ireland, where Southern Ireland became the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland remained part of the UK.  This even has topical significance now that Britain has opted to leave the European Union.  England voted for Brexit by 53.4% to 46.6 % remain.  The percentage nudge in favour of Brexit speaks volumes about the prevailing attitude towards immigrants in Britain.  It hints at a xenophobic attitude simmering under the surface about border control to keep immigrants out, a significant number of which are, in fact, asylum seekers fleeing war zones.  Charlie Connelly has said: ‘if anything sums up the squirty-buttonhole slapstick aspect of leaving the European Union it’s Spike Milligan’s Puckoon’.[12]  The division of the church from its cemetery makes it difficult for the Irish residents to bury their own, so the ensuing farce sums up this kind of ludicrous bureaucracy up:  ‘You intend to bury an Irish citizen in what is now British territory? [H]e will require the following: an Irish passport stamped with a visa, to be renewed annually for the rest of his […]stay’.[13]  The corpse of Dan Doonan is taken to a photographer’s to get his picture taken, as part of the formalities of getting his passport renewed.  The Big Telly Theatre Company produced their adaptation of Puckoon in 2016. This also resonates with Milligan himself because just before Puckoon’s publication, the UK tried to revoke Milligan’s passport claiming he was ineligible, he told the Irish Times: ‘some fool rang up and told me my British passport was being withdrawn’.  At which point, he became an Irish citizen and remained so until his death.

There is a strong seam of absurdism running through Puckoon in the absence of character development and the fact that it ‘focuses on the experiences of characters in situations where they cannot find any inherent purpose in life, most often represented by ultimately meaningless actions’.  Puckoon’s two-dimensional characters are merely comedy vessels, which is to be expected in a chaotic caper of this ilk.  I would argue that the characters are thrown into chaos by the senseless border bureaucracy and do not find any meaning in it, which was Milligan’s point entirely:

            ‘a motor car containing a driver and a charabanc of old pensioners were in collision.  The car finished on the Ulster side of the border and the charabanc on ours.  As a result the case was being held in two countries at once […] The driver of the charabanc […] had been thrown from his driving seat, his body laying athwart the border; now his legs were being sued by the passengers of the charabanc, and his top half was claiming damages from the car driver’.

Absurdist works rarely follow a clear plot, something Milligan is keen to exploit in the work. Puckoon features some of the common elements of absurdist fiction, including satire, dark humour, incongruity and abasement of reason.  These elements accentuate Puckoon, which remains a scathing political satire; a modernist vignette of anecdotes and punchy one-liners with delicious moments of absurdism.

 

[1] Spike Milligan, Puckoon (Penguin Books, 1963): 7

[2] “The Phrase Finder” [https://www.phrases.org.uk/quotes/last-words/spike-milligan.html]

[3] Spike Milligan, Puckoon (Penguin Books, 1963): 5

[4] Spike Milligan, Puckoon (Penguin Books, 1963): 7

[5] Spike Milligan, Puckoon (Penguin Books, 1963): 74

[6] Spike Milligan, Puckoon (Penguin Books, 1963): 9

[7] Spike Milligan, Puckoon (Penguin Books, 1963): 12

[8] Spike Milligan, Puckoon (Penguin Books, 1963): 18

[9] Spike Milligan, Puckoon (Penguin Books, 1963): 19

[10] Spike Milligan, Puckoon (Penguin Books, 1963): 51

[11] Spike Milligan, Puckoon (Penguin Books, 1963): 87

[12] Charlie Connelly “Spike Milligan’s Puckoon: the slapstick classic that captures the absurdities of Brexit” 23 July 2017 [https://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/culture/spike-milligan-s-puckoon-the-slapstick-classic-that-captures-the-absurdities-of-Brexit]

[13] Spike Milligan, Puckoon (Penguin Books, 1963): 82

 

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