Michael Palin talks about his peripatetic career and being a grandfather
Michael Palin, wandering star and grandfather
Michael Palin always expected to get himself a "proper job", a regular nine-to-five in an office with a salary paid into his bank account every month and a pension to look forward to. Happily for the rest of us, things didn't quite work out the way the Monty Python star and traveller supreme had planned.
He has done so many things, all extremely well, that it is not easy to categorise him.
First he was a scriptwriter, then a pop show host; he's often called a comedian, sometimes tagged "actor"; occasionally he's described as an author or novelist but more often in the past decade or so he's been known as a traveller, explorer and the man who retraced the route followed by the fictitious Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days.
It's the reason he has chosen "Forty Years Without a Proper Job" as the topic for his one-man gala evening performance on March 8 at this year's Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, confidently expected to be a complete sell-out.
"It should actually be 45 years but 40 years sounds a bit more mellifluous," he says. "I've done all sorts of different things. That's why Forty Years Without a Proper Job has a sort of significance. I've never taken a salary. I've always gone from one thing to another. The title really reflects my father's view.
"The generation before believed that you had to have a proper job and that meant having a salary, working for some company that will give you a pension and will be socially respectable, and that's what I expected to do when I was young and growing up.
“I knew that at a certain time, probably about 21 or 22, I would become an adult, take on these responsibilities and the days of sitting in your room sucking a pencil and writing a story would gradually disappear.”
It just didn’t happen like that, he says: “I sort of fell off the end of the earth and went spinning through the air and suddenly found myself compèring a television pop show in Bristol for a local TV station. I just don’t think I was temperamentally right for an office job and I knew various people, like Terry Jones, who were writing comedy for television.
“We ended up working together, writing but not making any money from it. I wanted to keep all my options open in the hope that I could become a successful writer but I was quite good at acting and that’s what made the initial breakthrough, so I ended up in front of the camera compèring this pop show called Now! for about six months.”
His collaboration with Jones, John Cleese, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam, of course resulted in the show that made stars of all of them – Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It was all entirely unplanned, Palin admits.
Sitting in his airy, book-lined study at the top of the corner home he and his wife Helen bought in the north London district of Gospel Oak 42 years ago (which has grown over the years as their fortunes improved and they were able to buy the house next door as well), Palin remembers the early days.
“By 1968, when we bought this little corner house, I was working with Terry Jones and Eric Idle, David Jason and Denise Coffey on a show called Do Not Adjust Your Set, which went out at children’s television time. The Bonzo Dog Band was our musical interlude. It gave us a regular income.
“I was writing for everybody I could write for and I suddenly found myself a TV writer and then Python happened and we went on that particular course.”
His later career as a traveller wasn’t planned either. He says he tends to respond to ideas from whomever he is with at the time.
“One thing was that I was not particularly good at long interviews with politicians. I found them generally evasive and a waste of time. So I like being out on the road in markets and on trains and talking to people who have an utterly different way of life from mine and suddenly finding out that we have something in common, a joke or something about our wives.”
With no ability with languages and no great anthropological skills, he says, it was a matter of finding some way of relating to people. "Sitting around a fire with the Touareg and trying to learn their language, laughing away together, was just a great moment. There’s not a recipe that you can write down. It’s just going there and unlocking a few doors. A two-hour talk with a politician about his country’s status does not reveal to me much more than a meal with somebody on the street, because during that meal, you may not share a language but you can tell by the way they look and talk and get excited about things, what daily life is like there, whereas the politician may well be out of power in two years’ time.”
Palin, who was honoured as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to television in 2000, says he feels privileged to have had the chance to travel the world and visit places he would not have seen had it not been for the success of his travel documentaries.
“The North and the South Poles are rather grim places, but to know you are standing at the top and the bottom of the world is amazing. I always feel I have to pinch myself and say ‘did I really go there?’ I’m very appreciative and enormously lucky.”
Of all the beautiful and remote places that he has visited, Ponge de Manique, near Machu Picchu in Peru, is one of his favourites.
“I remember that as probably the most extraordinary sensory experience. We came down through rapids on a quite tricky ride in long boats, no one was strapped in and we didn’t have safety jackets on and we were bouncing down this white water. I was quite nervous, not to mention terrified, and suddenly you get to the end of the rapids and there was this beautiful, quiet gorge and the walls were this beautiful, glistening black with water coming out of the jungle and the trees are hanging down low over them and these extraordinary big black butterflies everywhere and we just moored up there and it was the peace after the turbulence of the ride. Strangely enough, one of us managed to find a radio station that was broadcasting England v Spain in the 1996 World Cup, so it was quite bizarre.”
Another of his most memorable voyages was his journey by dhow from Dubai to Bombay, as Mumbai was called then, in the 1988 Around the World in 80 Days series. The book of the series has recently been updated and Palin and crew visited the Indian village and made contact with some of the 17-strong Gujarati crew who had sailed the dhow. It was a very different world when they made the original trip, without sophisticated communications such as mobile phones.
“When we first started the journey it was very difficult to keep in touch,” he says. “I don’t think we even had satellite phones. We were out of touch with the land, which added to the excitement of the journey and made it seem like a real piece of travel rather than a technical feat.
“The dhow wasn’t the one we were supposed to go on, but we had so many misadventures that we were days behind and the dhow in Dubai saved our life, because the rules were we had to travel on the surface, and it’s surprising how difficult it is to find ships to take you round the world, especially with dhows, which are not equipped for foreigners at all.”
He muses: “People still seem to love the idea of Around the World in 80 Days, although in an odd way we saw less of the world than on some of the other journeys because there were long voyages at sea.”
Sometimes described as “the nicest man in the world” or “the thinking woman’s crumpet”, Palin is happier with another moniker these days, that of doting grandfather. The births of his first grandson Archie, now four, and more recently one-year-old Wilbur, have caused him to remain closer to home. He and Helen have been married since 1966 and have three grown-up children.
“Our first grandchild gave me a reason to stay at home more, although I have to say that very carefully because my wife might object to the fact that she’s always been here. The series New Europe coincided with the birth of Archie. I didn’t quite expect how fond I would be of him and how much time I wanted to spend with him, and how much I resented any big gap in watching him grow up. I was intolerable with my first grandson and would take hundreds of photos and insist that people look at them.” His friends were very tolerant about it, he says: “Looking back, he was just another baby but he was my grandson. I didn’t want to be away for long periods. I’m no less fond of Wilbur but he doesn’t get quite the same attention.”
He adds: “I also felt that we had reached the end of the road, having touched every continent, and this was a natural place to stop and take stock of what we had done.”
At 67 he’s wealthy enough not to have to work, so he has the luxury of being able to do what he likes, something that’s never as easy as it sounds, he says, because he is such a perfectionist. “Whatever I do I like it to be good.”
The past year has been spent writing his second novel, now in the first draft stage. It is a contemporary story about a middle-aged writer for whom life has not been very successful and who is suddenly given what seems like a choice job to write a biography of somebody.
“There’s a bit of travel. Some of it is set in India and some in Scotland. Whether it will see the light of day I don’t know. I want everything I do to be good and I’m not sure if it is good. I will know more in a week or two. I wanted to write it because I did one in 1991 and thought I couldn’t do just one. So I knew I could write a novel and I had the story, so the only way to do it is to write it and see what characters come out of it, see if the plot works, see what you have to say and is it well said, all these various elements.”
Part of his research involved travelling to a remote village in the Nyamgiri Hills in Orissa, India, where a tribe of people called the Dongria Kondh were in danger of losing their sacred mountain to a mining company.
“I wanted there to be somewhere in the world that I could write about where there was some confrontation between the forces of progress and ancient tribes and I read about this case where a big aluminium company wanted to set up a bauxite mine. And yet there is this small group of people who don’t use aluminium at all and have hardly changed their way of life for 2,000 years and they are being asked to sacrifice their sacred mountain for our appetite for aluminium.
“In this particular case, the Indian government has banned the mining and has ordered the company off the land. It was a victory for people’s rights to live their own lives and not have to be dictated to by big world economies and I think that’s very important.”
His other major commitment is the presidency of the Royal Geographical Society, which he took on in the midst of controversy about its future direction.
Some prominent members, including the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and the actress Joanna Lumley, favoured mounting major new expeditions and others wanted to concentrate on getting more involved with education. Palin steered through that one with deft diplomacy.
“It’s very hard to distinguish how people really felt about changes,” he says. “When people said they wanted to do more big expeditions, Ran and Joanna thought that’s not a bad idea, but they are also huge supporters of the society and there’s certainly no likelihood of them starting a splinter group. It’s a huge organisation – there are 15,000 members now – so we have to try to please everybody.”
Palin says he wants to see the society grow as the central supporter for geography in the UK, “making sure that people at school are taught geography well and that it doesn’t slip down the curriculum to become a subject that only people who can’t do anything else do”.
It’s the most fascinating subject, he adds: “It’s to do with everything that’s in the news from volcanoes to Haitian earthquakes. Why do these things happen? A geographer will be able to tell you.”
He is looking forward to revisiting Dubai and feels that it’s important to support literary festivals. “Dubai is a huge financial economic hub but you’ve got to have other things with that and I think it’s important that in areas where a lot of business is done, that the arts and culture are represented as well.
“What’s important also about literature is that it comes out of your own head. It’s not a committee job where you sit down and say the stock market is doing this or that. It’s imaginative and an expression of what you feel.”
He’s still not sure if he will ever get that “proper job” or what he will do next. “Underneath, I still feel deeply insecure. I enjoy my life but I’m not ambitious in the sense that I want to conquer this or conquer that. I’ve given it my best and I’ve fortunately been able to do that in everything I’ve done.”
• For more information on the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature featuring a gala programme at the Al Mamzar Theatre, Dubai Festival City, on March 8 with Michael Palin, go to www.emirateslitfest.com