SPIKE MILLIGAN was staying at Osners on the Esplanade, East London. He could see me only for 15 minutes, he said. I was still
with him an hour and a half later, though several times I had offered to leave, bearing in mind the time pressures on him
-- but, no, he wanted to talk.
The woman with him was Shelagh Sinclair, who was to become his third wife.
Her eyes filled with tears when he waved a hand at her and said: "I owe my sanity to this woman." She made him
some toasted sandwiches while we were talking.
In the background Delius was playing on a cassette. He loved classical music -- "it enters you". He was particularly
touched when a poster arrived, drawn by the East London artist Claire Baker, welcoming him to the city.
He was friendly, even solicitous. He asked what was I doing in East London, and when I said I was with the Daily Dispatch
he wanted to know if they were paying me enough money.
Spike Milligan upbraided me once when I said his friend and Goons colleague Harry Secombe was a Welshman. "How can
you say he's a Welshman?" he asked. I said he was Welsh because he was born in Swansea.
"No, no, no," he said. "No real Welshman would allow his daughter to get married in London on the day when
Wales were playing France at rugby and going for the grand slam, having beaten England, Ireland, and Scotland, and furthermore
persuade me to attend it.
"Mind you, it was one of the funniest wedding receptions I have even been to. We were in this swank reception room,
but off on the side was another room full of Welshman watching the game on a portable TV.
"Every so often a door would open quietly, and a little Welshman in a blue serge suit would poke his head through
the gap and whisper Wales 3 France 0.
"A few minutes later another Welshman appeared to give the latest score -- and so it went on all afternoon, but it
was always a different Welshman and they all wore blue serge suits."
Milligan was a great rugby fan and, being Irish, naturally supported the Old Country. "Mind you, they need support,"
he said. Munster, a rough, tough Irish provincial side had just beaten the All Blacks, when not many teams notched victories
Spike said: "All their forwards go in hard tackling and fiery, but bunched up. They don't hang back in case they
get lost. Some of the Munster forwards are good but when they get the ball you have to point them in the right direction."
He had another Welsh rugby story: "There was this Welsh scrumhalf shouting instructions to his forwards in a game
against the Alll Blacks. 'Hold the ball, hold the ball' he was saying, in Welsh. One of the All Blacks became exasperated
and shouted back at him -- 'Speak English, you pommy bastard'."
Milligan was 61 then but a good 61. He looked fit, his eyes a sparkling blue. He had found squash. "Lost a stone
and a half," he said (about 10 kilos). "Great exercise though it's not all that good for getting the tum down. I
wasn't getting any exercise at all and I was worried about it. In a busy life of show business squash is great because you
get to sharpen up in a short period of time."
Even when he was serious, humour lurked: "Squash sharpens the mind and reflexes -- and you don't have to walk a long
way to fetch the ball."
He loved animals, and fought for their protection. In one of his books, Open Heart University, he railed at vivisection,
particularly as practised on the BBC TV show Open University, where live rabbits were dissected -- rabbit after rabbit.
"The least they can do is use one rabbit for one complete filming, but my protests had no effect. Rabbits, cats and
dogs are, after all, our brothers and sisters."
The day after he died I listened to one of the Goon Shows -- very funny, even decades after it was written, the humour
sharp and eternal. But Milligan told me that the period of writing the shows and performing in them week after week was one
of the unhappiest in his life.
"There was just too much pressure," he said. "It put me into hospital and led to the break-up of my marriage."
But he said he was happy when he was making people laugh, though he preferred writing to performing on stage, where he
was often so nervous he felt sick. He talked too of his army years; he served through the world war.
He said they were happy times because there was freedom and no worries when they were not in action.
"If you were a good bluffer you could be happy," he said. "The greatest bluffer I knew was a man called
Chalky White who went everywhere with a can of Vim. He pretended it was the poison DDT and whenever questioned by an officer
he said he was delousing. No one ever found him out ..."
Spike Milligan came to South Africa again some time later for another short stay in East London. I tried to contact him
by phone in (what was then) Natal beforehand but his aide, Patrick O'Neill, kept on putting me off, telling me he had a virus.
The next day a Daily Dispatch assistant came into my office and asked me if I knew a Spike Milligan. It was the man himself,
on the phone.
"Patrick was just trying to protect me," he said. "I'm a manic-depressive. I get these terrible depressions
and when I get them, there's only one thing to do and that's to go to bed. I just had to phone you when I heard you were trying
to contact me -- never neglect to help a journalist earn his crust of bread."
We chatted of various matters and of his classic hat routine; it has obscured his vision and he is attempting to take
it off but cannot unscrew it as he is working against the thread.
"Quickest way to make an audience disappear," he said. "Jam the hat over your eyes."
He was a comic genius and a kindly, compassionate and lovely man.