"Mummy, why this daddy lion got glasses on?"
"'Why is this lion wearing glasses.' What lion?"
"Yes, that's what I said! [Eyes roll heavenward] This one."
"Ooh, Spike Milligan! Shall we read it then?"
"Yay! Yes! But why that daddy lion got glasses on?"
Do you know what the Gofongo is? Or why his visits to the vet are so frequent? ("He has toes that whistle tunes, And explode! Like toy balloons"). Do you know what the Wiggle Woggle is? Or what he said? ("When I'm standing on my head, I can see the coast of China, And it's very, very, red.") Do you know the difference between the African and the Arctic Elephant? ("- they're colder. Feel one.") Have you ever seen the rare back view of the Three-Legged Hippo? And, most importantly of all, do you know the story of the Bald Twit Lion? No? Well, you should. I do, and now, so do Conor and Kieran. It's a Children's Treasury of Spike Milligan and it's an anthology of most of that great man's writing for children all bundled up together in a very sexy-looking book.
We started with the rhymes and cartoons. I liked the Three-Legged Hippo best, although when I was little it was always the Silly Old Baboon who tried to fly, but never succeeded in taking off that made me laugh most. Conor liked the pig with long, curly eyelashes and puckered-up lips who meets a rather sad end. He liked that one because he giggled and said, "Pigs don't wear make up Mummy, do they? They're like you." Then he realised his joke, pretended it was intentional, and has repeated it at regular intervals ever since. Kids, eh? Kieran likes it all, he's got a different favourite every time we read, but the picture of the lion with glasses on, the lion that so caught his eye, is the bit he likes to look at most.
Oh, it's just nonsense verse, daft stories and silly captions on silly cartoons, all about animals, real or imaginary. But it's Spike Milligan. He wrote it. He drew it. And it's funny. You know. It's bright stuff, it's smiling stuff. Lots of the book is filled with little drawings, poems, and observations. The best bit though, in the humble opinion of l'il ol' me, is the story of the Bald Twit Lion. "The sad happy ending story of The Bald Twit Lion. A story for very all ages." Mr Gronk the lion lives in the most successful, best organised, "really good" jungle around. Beautiful plants abound and all the animals live in harmony together without interference from Man or Science. One day, Mr Gronk the lion has "an attack of strongness". He's feeling particularly good because it's his twenty first birthday and he's just been given the key to the jungle. So he roars. It's such a strong roar that his mane falls out, all two hundred thousand hairs of it. Poor Mr Gronk, he doesn't feel so strong any more, especially when a passing hippo calls him a Bald Twit Lion. What is he to do?
"Lion was heart-broken. 'Sad growls,' he said and then did what no lion had ever done before, not even in the Ark, he laid himself down on the World and cried. 'Boohoo, boo-hairless-hoo.' The animals, having no television, gathered around him to look and feel sad. 'He must have an upset tummy,' said a monkey's stomach. 'I would say he's had bad news,' said a teenage coconut. All the animals shook their heads and some fell off. It wasn't a good day for the jungle, or the animals."
Aww, but heehee, eh? Poor lion, but it is funny, eh? I stopped reading for a moment to giggle, but it was a solitary giggle. I looked up and Conor and Kieran, who'd been laughing away all through the poems and the story, were looking at me in that way that generally means I've got it wrong (again).
"Isn't that funny then?"
They didn't even bother to answer. So I carried on reading and next time I laughed, so did they. And the next time they laughed so did I. It didn't strike me until later exactly why it was they hadn't laughed at that particular part. Children would do exactly what the animals did, that's why. When they're all playing together and one falls over, grazing a knee or an elbow, what do the others do? They gather round and remark to themselves, don't they? They point out the blood, or the bits of gravel that have stuck to the graze and they might even have a prod or poke. So Conor and Kieran didn't think that part was particularly funny and I bet ol' Spike Milligan knew that, even if I didn't. Anyway, Mr Gronk the Bald Twit Lion does eventually get his mane back, but only after a lot more silly laughs, if you want to know you'll have to buy the book, so there.
A Children's Treasury of Spike Milligan is packed and dense, just as the best jokes are, and it's also so gloriously free and unfettered, just as the best nonsense should be. There is just so much mileage in it, it's endlessly funny. Read it aloud, you must. And when you read try some different voices - read it as Milligan himself, punchy and staccato, or as Peter Sellers, slow and lugubrious. Read it in a squeaky Michael Bentine way and, if you have his marvellous timing, read it with some Harry Secombe phrasing. Try some of the silly Goon voices, try all the accents you can - the jokes will come out slightly differently each time. That's how my father read this wonderful stuff to me, years ago when I was small, and now that's what Conor, Kieran and I are doing. You can't really read it sitting down, either, you need to be up and about, inventing some "appropriate" actions.
There is dark and light in all good comedians, and the light is often a childish light, particularly so with Spike Milligan. Somehow they can reach a child and know what a child will like, laugh at or understand, much better than even their parents do. It would be nice to think that Spike could know how many children still laugh at the things he wrote for them, don't you think? Buy this book, do.
Virgin Books; ISBN: 0753504545
Amazon's current rate is £9.99, thebookplace.co.uk has it for £8.99 and if you keep an eye out at thebookpeople.co.uk you might even find it cheaper still.