The Tune That Spike Liked

26th May 2023

“I’m a jobbing clown”.

Spike Milligan’s self-described persona jumps to life in his conversation, riffing on double meanings and absurdities, as his po-faced radio host navigates from disc to disc.

The latter is Roy Plomley, possessor of a mid-century BBC accent so fruity that his name invites parody. But I cannot malign a man to whom I owe so much pleasure. After all, Mr Plomley created the finest radio procedural of all time, in a time of war.

As if to affirm the advertising axiom that an excellent creative brief is one with sharp constraints, Desert Island Discs requires its celebrity guests to choose eight pieces of music to accompany them on a deserted island upon which they have washed, for a period loosely defunded as indefinitely. Most of these famous castaways, in the weeks before recording, compile long lists followed by shorter long lists, until they arrive gasping to studio with the music they simply cannot live without.

Not Spike. He explains that he has given his list prodigiously little thought, because there’s so much damned good music about.

Beware the jester’s dissembling. Many truths are wrapped in banter and unpacked in the moth-hour of lavatorial reflection when, trousers unbuttoned, the penny finally drops.

‘I was delighted to think someone could write such an Irish tune as that in the 20th Century’, Milligan said, explaining the raison d’être of one of his Desert Island tracks – a composition by Seán O’Riada named ‘Women of Ireland’.

And so it played.

I had forgotten how well I knew the melody, performed plaintively by The Chieftains. Dominant minors, moments of major. It was a melody of my youth, long-since buried in the tsunami of erasing staves that followed.

‘Women of Ireland’ evoked the country that I inherited from my parents. One of hard graft, warm family and harsh luck. An Ireland possessed of natural beauty and talent, terribly in love with itself.

In O’Riada’s mournful air I heard it all. A land where men came from the fields, seeking food of their women and whisky of their publicans. A land where the mottled veins of dependency stalked parish halls and hid their face in a thousand bars. A land both young and old, vulnerable to demigods, to the felling of tall poppies and the telling of tall tales.

What was this ancient-sounding modern tune saying? Why was it set to a poem dedicated to women? Why did this melody catch me so?

The composer himself fell to the drink at the age of 41. He threw this tune into the world, and promptly evaporated.

But the jobbing clown was there to catch it, and bring it to his island home. Where eventually it might be saved, by being remembered.

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