Michael Palin performs at The Royal Free, Hampstead
- Credit: Archant
The former Python joins Robert Powell and Lee Montague to mark the centenary of the WWI armistice with poems, readings and songs
Michael Palin clearly doesn’t believe in retirement.
Whenever I catch up with the genial ex Python he always has several plates spinning; There are diaries to write, travelogues to present and acting jobs calling.
This autumn is no exception. In September alone the globetrotting Gospel Oak resident was popping up every Sunday as William Makepeace Thackery in Vanity Fair, while over on Channel 5 he was guiding us on a rare glimpse inside North Korea, and on Radio 4 they were serialising his book Erebus: The Story of a Ship.
“It is very busy,” he agrees. “But I never make snap decisions I like to make sure it’s something I really want to do. Ultimately it’s all made for an audience and it’s whether they like it that matters.”
Erebus was a personal passion which saw him devote a year to researching and writing the history book about a “stocky, modest little ship” with an intriguing tale of polar adventure.
“I really got my teeth stuck in, I was determined it’s not just going to be a hobby, I will do it properly.
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“I didn’t want to tie it to one person but to see it through the eyes of the ship, which becames an almost spiritual entity. It was a gamble: ‘Come with me on Erebus and I will take you somewhere you never wanted to go,’ but it seems to have turned out well.”
After an illustrious four year voyage captained by polar explorer captain James Clark Ross to the magnetic South pole, Erebus later vanished three years into an Arctic voyage in 1848.
“It’s disappearance was a terrific mystery no-one really knew what happened,” says Palin. “There were a few clues and testimony from the Inuit until 2014 when the wreck was discovered. That was the final push I needed to write about this journey that I first heard about while researching a documentary about Joseph Hooker.”
The botanist and explorer had signed up in 1839 for the Antarctic voyage which discovered the Ross ice shelf.
“They sent such a frail ship for such an extraordinary tough and arduous adventure but it survived successfully,” says Palin.
“It had quite the opposite result in the Arctic it disappeared off the face of the earth until the wreck was discovered.”
Numerous search parties returned with gruesome reports of surviving crew trekking across land and resorting to cannibalism.
“This stocky little ship united these voyages, took them so far and through so much. It was made of oak from the Forest of Dean and, it survived most of the ice. Now it’s settled on its keel under the water those planks are still there preserved.”
Palin had gamely hoped to touch those boards on a trip to the wreck site but his own boat was turned back by the ice.
“In my foolishness I wanted to scuba dive to the wreck but weather conditions weren’t right and I now realise the Canadian Park Park department didn’t want a useless Brit flapping around down there. Just to be able to touch the ship would have been a total joy for me but I did get on a ship going through the North West passage to where they were wrecked.”
Hampstead residents can catch Palin on November 11 marking the 100th anniversary of the WWI Armistice at The Royal Free Hospital.
“There will be material from the Wipers Times, classic bits of writing and songs,” he says. “It’s not meant to be glum..if you can celebrate the ending of the war.”
Palin has researched his uncle Harry who served in WWI.
“I am rather fascinated by him he’s a bit of a black sheep who never kept a job for long and ended up in New Zealand as a sheep farmer. Almost as soon as he got there, war broke out, he volunteered and was brought back to Europe straight away. He survived the Dardanelles and most of the Somme - two of the fiercest battles ever fought in war - and died at the end of the battle of the Somme. I have this rather affecting testimony written in ink by the person who was standing next to him when he was shot.”
Palin’s blend of gentle curiosity, empathy and wry observation has enlivened many a travel documentary. There was little of the globe he hadn’t explored until thawing relations between North and South Korea paved the way for a trip.
“I’d always wanted to do a TV series there but it never looked likely until the beginning of this year - the atmosphere must have changed - US secretary of State Mike Pompeo was staying in our hotel. We were very fortunate to get access to this closed world at the end of the earth.
“We were heavily watched and supervised but we spoke to people in the street celebrating, which couldn’t be rigged.”
Palin describes the Communist country as “extraordinary”.
“You are in a bubble, a place which has roads but very few cars, a railway station with few passengers and apartment blocks, but who is in them? There’s an odd serenity to it that is rather restful, especially after London. It’s less manic, calmer, less polluted. The people are well dressed and very proper - the regime insists on that; no scruffiness of dress or thought.
“We saw them having a party which proves they can get drunk. There are no adverts but also no freedom of expression.”
Since his career had been built on that very freedom, how would he fare under Kim Jong-un?
“The people have been brought up with a different mindset, not knowing about the world outside, so in terms of seizing all sorts of opportunities to do many different things, I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I was born in North Korea - but then I wouldn’t have wanted to. I wouldn’t have known they existed.”
But upon reflection he seems to prefer his spinning plates. “There’s much less choice there, I sometimes think choice isn’t always a good thing, but I am very curious and living where I live, you can debate the good and the bad. There are happy times and difficult times. North Korea is one note all the time and I wouldn’t be good at that.”
Michael Palin is in The War To End All Wars at Peter Samuel Hall, Royal Free, on Nov 11 to raise funds for Keats Community Library. Tickets: keatscommunitylibrary.org.uk.