If this blog is anything, it is at heart a reading diary, a record of the books I read and my thoughts about them. What I read is not always going to be improving or classic literature – far from it – and it follows that from time to time I will review books that would not normally feature in a book blog. But having said all that I am not in the slightest embarrassed to be re-reading Spike Milligan’s inspired Adolf Hitler, my part in his downfall once again. It seems the perfect book for these times, a quiet voice of sanity amongst the madness that is the world of today.
My Part is the first volume of Spike’s war memoirs, spanning the period from the declaration of war to when he landed in Algeria as a part of the Allied invasion of Africa. It is the first of what was eventually to be seven volumes of reminiscences covering his war service and the years immediately after when he was trying to resume his life and break into showbiz. The diary format used captures the immediacy of the experience of being called up to fight for one’s country, the strange combination of dread and adventure that many young people must have felt. The memories of ridiculous, outrageous adventures – Milligan obviously retained a strong sense of silliness throughout his life – and tragedy (“There were the deaths of some of my friends, and therefore, no matter how funny I tried to make this book, that will always be at the back of my mind”) combine to give the novel its unique, immensely touching tone.
The novel opens with Spike receiving a “cunningly worded invitation to partake in World War II“. Given “a train ticket and a picture of Hitler reading “This is your enemy”‘ he sets off for war – or more specifically Bexhill-on-Sea, where he begins what seems an extraordinarily long period of training in the artillery. Training largely serves as a background to his musical interests – playing in a jazz band, and chasing girls. After more than two years of training, drinking, music and girls, all overlaid with large amounts of silliness as Spike hones his comedic skills in preparation for the career that was to follow, the inevitable order to travel overseas arrives. In January 1943 the regiment finally embarked for North Africa. Milligan describes the sunrise:
...there is no light so full of hope as the dawn; amber, resin, copper lake, brass green. One by one, they shed themselves until the sun rose golden in a white sky…I closed my eyes and turned my face to the sun. I fell down a hatchway. (p 140)
There are several moments of poetic writing such as this, always undercut by the punchline. It is here, as the reality of war begins to dawn on the very young men in Spike’s regiment, that he ends the volume,
I would hazard a guess that Milligan partly wrote these memoirs as a trip down memory lane, a way of capturing the memories before they faded too much, and partly as a convenient source of revenue – the books have always sold well, and this one was also turned into a film. It’s a curious mix of seriousness and silliness, but it works, and Milligan’s wit and humanity shines through. He’s certainly not made the hero of his own book – there are far too many confessions for that – but the reader can understand why Milligan got off so lightly so often for his misbehaviour and insubordination.