Not quite ready to laugh about Brexit? This 1960s comic classic brilliantly captures a sense of the undeniable farce the referendum vote has triggered
The comic novel is one of the hardest things in literature to get right. Indeed, when you consider that such chuckle-vacuums as Geoff Dyer, Ian McEwan and Howard Jacobson (twice) have won the Wodehouse Prize for comic literature it’s clear how low the giggle bar can be set.
For a genre that thrives on the impression of having been dashed off with breezy insouciance, the combination of setting, plot, pace, rhythm and timing needed to sustain a consistent level of humour that keeps the reader engaged and entertained can be an agonising creative process for the writer.
Even when they pull it off the plaudits are relatively muted. Despite being the most consistently funny writer we’ve ever produced, for example, P.G. Wodehouse is never mentioned among the pantheon of our greatest novelists. Whimsy is not worthy, despite the levels of intricate plotting, character, allegory, vocabulary, rhythm and tone Wodehouse maintained right up until his death, still writing, at the age of 93.
The best humorous fiction needs a pliable, plausible premise so you’d think the farcical nature of Brexit would be a gift for the comic author. It’s probably still too soon: a year on I am yet to see any hint of a funny side.
Brexit has, however, given me cause to return to one of the finest comic novels these islands have ever produced. It was written long before the referendum and longer still before even the most ardent Leaver twigged that Britain has a land border with the European Union. There may not be much to laugh about when it comes to Brexit but if anything sums up the squirty-buttonhole slapstick aspect of leaving the European Union it’s Spike Milligan’s Puckoon.
Published in 1963 this riotous tale of the eponymous village divided by the introduction of the Irish border arrived five years before the Troubles began and more than half a century before the EU referendum, yet reading Puckoon today hammers home exactly what Brexit may have in store for Britain, Ireland and the hard-won soft border we know today.
Grimly topical it may be, but Puckoon remains a very funny book indeed. It’s practically an extension of Milligan himself: surreal, flawed, sometimes offensive, riddled with genius, suffused with torment and achingly hilarious.
The village setting and cast of eccentric characters is reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood only with better jokes, even if some of the material veers uncomfortably close to paddywhackery (while he identified as Irish through his Sligo-born father Leo, when he wrote Puckoon Milligan had only visited Ireland once). It’s 1924 and Home Rule has come to most of Ireland. The island must be divided and in Milligan’s world the border is defined by the heads of all concerned factions placing their hands on a pen and drawing a line across the map, eyeing each other suspiciously and arguing among themselves. It’s an action reminiscent of government Brexit strategy and one that leaves little Puckoon, ‘seven and a half metric miles north-east of Sligo’, bisected by the new division.
There are two immediate logistical consequences. First, the new border separates the parish church from its own cemetery with a customs post in between. Second, the border passes through the Holy Drinker pub leaving prices at the Ulster end of the bar 30% cheaper than those at the Free State end.
The death of elderly villager Dan Doonan throws the situation into the sharpest focus. As the body is carried towards the freshly-dug grave the procession is halted by a customs officer named Barrington who emerges from his hut to learn the deceased will be residing permanently in his grave on the other side of the border. Barrington calmly informs the funeral party that in the light of this Donnelly will require, ‘an Irish passport stamped with a visa, to be renewed annually’. A trip to the village photographer ensues to acquire the dead man’s passport photo before he can finally proceed to his eternal rest.
Puckoon proceeds in chaotic vein, building to a climax with the IRA attempting to smuggle 280lbs of TNT in a coffin while villagers seek to transfer three residents the other way for reburial on the church side, all with predictably hilarious consequences.
While current events transform Puckoon from the obsolete to the prescient (‘Well, he thought, you can fool some of the people all the time and all the people some of the time, which is just long enough to become President of the United States’), its recurring topicality is not the only reason the book has never been out of print and sold more than six million copies worldwide.
Puckoon stands up as a great work of comic literature, combining brilliant writing (the book opens with one of the finest descriptions of a hot day you’ll ever read), Keystone slapstick, razor sharp political satire and a subtlety easy to miss among the mayhem (a British soldier greeting the parish priest with, ‘Ah, vicar’, for example).
It’s not perfect, especially when a modern light is thrown onto the book (Milligan’s Irish sympathies may excuse the stage ‘Oirish’ portrayal of some characters; the Chinese policeman Lee Ah Pong is wincingly stereotypical), yet Puckoon is a true work of genius.
Like many creative geniuses Milligan was afflicted by demons. ‘This damn book nearly drove me mad,’ he wrote in the foreword and the evidence is there.
Milligan worked on the book after divorcing his first wife and winning custody of their three children, something alluded to briefly in the text with jarring gruesomeness. One chapter begins with the phrase, ‘Life is a long illness only curable by death.’
‘The odd thing is,’ said Milligan later, ‘although I wrote it in torment I reckon it’s one of the funniest books in years.’
Some of the harder edges may also be explained by Milligan’s run-in over his nationality. Born in India, he moved to London with his parents in 1933 at the age of 15 and served in the British army during the Second World War. Wounded at Monte Cassino, Milligan was promptly demoted by a senior officer who told him he was a coward. In 1956 Britain’s residency rules changed and because his father had been born in Ireland before 1900 Milligan’s British nationality was summarily revoked despite his 23 year residence and military service.
‘I didn’t know anything about it until some fool rang up and told me my British passport was being withdrawn,’ he told the Irish Times shortly before Puckoon was published. ‘When I asked him what I could do about it he said it depended on what I wanted to be. I told him I wanted to be a human being and asked what I had to do to become one. I went around to his office and he handed me a sheaf of forms about three feet thick and told me to start filling them out.
‘This was too much so I rang up the Irish embassy, asked them if I could become an Irish citizen and they said, ‘God, yes’. I signed one or two forms and it was all over. Got a free drink too.’
It’s hard to know what mischief Spike Milligan might have created from Brexit, or where his voting sympathies might have lain. In Puckoon, he leaves us one of the most brilliant comic works in the English language that exposes the folly of dividing a nation for political ends written by a man who found himself not wanted by the country he regarded as home.