Monday, November 05, 2012

Spike Milligan's Grave

Spike Milligan (1918-2002) was born in India but spent many of his formative years in South East London from the age of 12 in 1931. As mentioned here before, he went to Brownhill Road School and then to St Saviours School in Lewisham High Road. In 1933 his family rented part of a house at 22 Gabriel Street, Honor Oak Park, later moving to 50 Riseldine Road nearby.

In 1934 Milligan got a job at Stones' Engineering in Deptford (Arklow Road) and later worked at Chislehurst Laundry. After being sacked from a tobacconist for stealing cigarettes he worked as a labourer at Woolwich Arsenal.  Meanwhile he had won a crooning contest at the Lady Florence Institute in Deptford, come second in a talent show at Lewisham Hippodrome and sung at St Cyprians Church Hall in Brockley and Ladywell swimming baths. He taught himself the ukulele, bass and trumpet and guitar ("My mother bought my first guitar for eighteen shillings from Len Stiles’ shop in Lewisham High Street") and took music classes at Goldsmiths in New Cross. He played with local dance bands including the New Era Rhythm Boys and Tommy Brettell's New Ritz Revels in South London dance halls.

In a 1970 interview he recalled 'we used to go to the jazz sessions at the rhythm clubs. Do you remember the rhythm clubs? The Number One Rhythm Club—and the local one, at the Tiger’s Head at Lee?'.

In 1940 he joined the army, after a period of out-patient treatment at Lewisham Hospial for back pain apparently caused by overdoing weightlifting at Ladywell Recreation Track in an effort to impress the women working at Catford Labour Exchange ('Spike Milligan' by Humphrey Carpenter). Returning after World War Two, Milligan moved in with his parents for a while at 3 Leathwell Road, Deptford, before leaving South London and finding fame through the Goon Show on radio.

Spike Milligan gave a less than romantic view of 1930s South London working class life in his poem 'Catford 1933':

The light creaks and escalates to rusty dawn
The iron stove ignites the freezing room.
Last night's dinner cast off popples in the embers.
My mother lives in a steaming sink. Boiled haddock condenses on my plate
Its body cries for the sea
My father is shouldering his braces like a rifle,
and brushes the crumbling surface of his suit.
The Daily Herald lies jaundiced on the table.
'Jimmy Maxton speaks in Hyde Park',
My father places his unemployment cards in his wallet - there's plenty of room for them.
In greaseproof paper, my mother wraps my banana sandwiches
It's 5.40. Ten minutes to catch that last workman train.
Who's the last workman? Is it me? I might be famous.
My father and I walk out are eaten alive by yellow freezing fog.
Somewhere, the Prince of Wales and Mrs Simpson are having morning tea in bed.
God Save the King.
But God help the rest of us.

Last week on a day trip to Dungeness and Rye in East Sussex I came across Spike Milligan's gravestone in the churchyard of St Thomas' Church in Winchelsea, where he is buried along with his wife Shelagh. Milligan spent his later years  at Udimore, a village near Rye. The grave reads 'love, light, peace - Terence Alan (Spike) Milligan CBE KBE, 1918-2002... writer, artist, musician, humanitarian, comedian' and famously includes the line in Irish Gaelic  'Duirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite' - 'I told you I was ill'.


Dansk said...

aplogies for being pendantic but it was Riseldine Rd,with an L. I only know cos i grew up one of the streets parallel to him.

Would like to think we led parallel lives too but he was one of kind really...

Transpontine said...

Thanks Dansk, have corrected that spelling mistake.

Dave said...

Once, to get over jet lag after a flight from Sydney, I took the train out to Honor Oak Park and made a pilgrimage to Spike's old house.