Pam Ayres comments on the comic genius of Spike Milligan and describes how her own poetry collection changed her life forever when it somehow sold 7,000 copies.
Puckoon by Spike Milligan
I’d just joined the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) and was feeling homesick when a man, to whom I’d become briefly engaged, lent me this book. He and his friends raved about Puckoon and it had us all convulsed with laughter. The comic descriptions, such as the man in the pub singing with “harp strings of saliva” stretched between his jaws, have stayed with me. I also loved how Spike linked disparate things—the piano player who had “amber beads and a dropped womb”—because the writing constantly took me by surprise. Puckoon taught me how great it was to fall about laughing.
This book changed my life beyond recognition. It was really more of a pamphlet that I’d printed in Oxford to sell after my performances in the folk clubs in the early Seventies. I’d borrowed £60, had 100 printed and sold them for 60p, but when Radio Oxford gave me a weekly spot I ended up selling 7,000! This was in the days before Opportunity Knocks made me famous—after that I was able to buy a little house of my own. I remember moving in, shutting the door and thinking, How did this all happen to me? The answer lay within the pages of that modest pamphlet.
After four years in the WRAF, I did a creative writing course as part of its programme of resettlement. A kind teacher told me I had a good writing style and should read as much as I possibly could. This was one of the books I stumbled upon and I was knocked out by the power of Orwell’s prose. The overweight lady who lay on the sofa in the boarding house, tearing off bits of newspaper and using them to wipe her mouth before dropping them on the carpet, and the “wreck of a monstrous meat pie” she kept in a cupboard, were such vivid pictures. They really gave me something to strive for in my own work.
Pam Ayres has been a writer, broadcaster and entertainer for nearly 40 years. Her latest collection of more than 50 new poems You Made Me Late Again! is out now.
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