Whether as a member of the comedy group Monty Python’s Flying Circus, or as an intrepid traveller trekking around the globe on adventures, or as a writer, Michael Palin is always splendid and witty company. Taking a peek into someone else’s life is always a thrill: and what better way to do it than to read their private diaries?
Travelling to Work is the third in his series of published diaries, and it’s another hefty tome. It turns out Palin is a more avid diarist than the likes of Kenneth Williams – and what’s presented here is just the edited highlights. You may wonder how on earth such a professionally busy man finds the time to record his thoughts, but that nagging mystery aside, Palin’s diaries are full of personal reminiscences, great stories, and wonderful anecdotes from the likes of Alan Bennett, Spike Milligan and John Cleese that Palin has recorded for posterity.
There is plenty of light and shade, self-doubt and regret to be found in these pages too. The book opens with a difficult year for Palin. 1989 saw his friend and former Python Graham Chapman die young from cancer, and as it happened Palin was the one sitting with him at the moment of death. He’s alarmed that The Guardian ask him to write an obituary for Chapman whilst his friend is on his deathbed; but ends up writing “instantly written pieces” for them immediately after his death, and in the midst of grief makes “three glaring mistakes due to hasty dictation”. Not long afterwards, his mother, whom he’d previously described as having “the look of someone who’s stuck in the audience at a long, bad play” during her decline in health, also dies. Palin has been recording the first of his epic travelogues, Around the World in 80 Days, but perhaps understandably leaves the 1980s and enters the 1990s with uncertainty and sadness.
Most of the memories of recording Around the World in 80 Days and Pole to Pole are found in the books that accompanied each series, but Palin here offers personal testimony about his concern that he would be jettisoning his hard-earned acting and writing career to follow a new path as a documentary maker. Being offered a plum role in GBH (and not the one you might imagine…) remarkably doesn’t pacify those concerns, and he enters Bleasdale’s landmark television series with major reservations. Nevertheless, Palin’s performance as Jim Norton rightly won plaudits, and it’s an insight for those intrigued by the acting process to learn how gruelling he found the experience, and how helpful the director and his co-stars were in coaxing the best performance out of him. Bleasdale pops up again later, wanting Palin for his (not great) adaptation of Oliver Twist – a further collaboration that wasn’t to be.
The later parts of the diary is taken up with Fierce Creatures, the problematic follow on from A Fish Called Wanda. Palin is reluctant to see it as a critical failure, but the experience offers a parallel between him and his fellow Python John Cleese. Palin had carved out a niche with travel documentaries: Cleese remained a comedy writer and performer of diminishing returns after A Fish Called Wanda.
Landmark historical events are recorded. The release of Nelson Mandela, the Iraq War, the Hillsborough Disaster, the conflict in the Balkans and the death of Princess Diana are all mentioned, with Palin’s unique take on each. Diana’s death would postpone the debut of Palin’s Full Circle, but he seems not to have minded.
On the other end of the scale to the events of global magnitude, Palin also records the significant moments within his family life, and those of his friends, and there are entries recorded in countries from all corners of the globe. There’s a great deal of humanity and warmth in his writing, and despite the length of the tome, it’s easy to breeze through and has been neatly edited to avoid repetition and to keep the prose fresh, engaging and lucid.
Travelling to Work will definitely appeal to anyone who has enjoyed the first two volumes of diaries, and especially those interested in the life and work of Michael Palin. Whilst there’s a lot of humour in the book, the personal recollections about life for a sensitive man in a tough industry which take up the bulk of the prose are introspective. The secondary appeal will be as an illumination on the entertainment world from, whether he sees it this way or not, one of Britain’s biggest names.
Releasing the volumes of diaries at a digestible decade at a time, we suspect there will be at least two further volumes. Hopefully, if Palin lives to a ripe old age and continues luncheoning with interesting people, there might even be three more to look forward to.