I’ve never been one to idolise pop singers or paste posters of the latest Hollywood heart-throb on my bedroom wall. I don’t buy celebrity calendars and I admit to cringing whenever someone sends me pictures of Messrs Clooney, Craig or Pitt in some come-hither pose. However, last week I submitted to the ranks of groupie-dom for one particular person of whom I’m a fan, and now I can’t stop smiling.
The object of Epicurienne’s idolatry? Mr Michael Palin, and just writing his name makes me ask why he hasn’t yet been made a Knight of the Realm. (Apparently I’m not alone in wondering this; the theorists suggest it may be because of certain Python humour being taken a little too seriously by The Powers That Be.)
Mr Palin is probably best known for his acting credits and co-creation of cultish Monty Python skits and films. I started watching these when I was really too young to understand their humour, aside from the fact that the black knight in the Holy Grail really should have given up fighting when he lost the first arm. I loved The Life of Brian with its infectious ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ chorus from the cross and a healthy dose of cross-dressing holy women. Later, said Mr Palin caught my attention when, as K-K-K-Ken Pile, he stuttered his way through the hilarious film, A Fish Called Wanda, scooping up a BAFTA for his trouble. But it’s not for his acting prowess that I so admire this man; Palin has brought something different to the armchair traveller, through the BBC adventures that take him (and us) to all corners of the globe, from London’s Victoria Station to the wilds of Antarctica, from the souks of Morocco to the backwaters of Alaska or from the refugee camps of the Sahara to a meeting with the Dalai Lama or a belly-dancing class in Istanbul. I’ve watched all the shows, we have them all on DVD at home and I am therefore an official, card-carrying Palin fan so imagine my excitement to hear the man himself speak.
The venue for Palin’s talk was Daunt Books, a dangerous place for people like me whose bookshelves already groan beneath the weight of various travel tomes, lest we return home with more. The flagship store is located on chic Marylebone High Street, its carved wooden frontage harking back to Edwardian times and its windows filled with carefully selected literature, drawing customers into a bibliophile’s dream where hours can be lost in the simple act of browsing the stacks. I adore this place. If the Daunt stock were not enticing enough, the staff befriend the authors of the books they sell and, as such, there is a regular talks schedule. For a mere £5.00 customers gather to listen to an author speak as they sip on glasses of wine; in hyper-costly London, that’s what I call excellent value. Well, last week the speaker was none other than Mr Palin and, contrary to his last Daunt fixture when the tickets sold out by the time I’d called to book, this time I managed to get three. I felt just like Charlie Bucket on glimpsing gold in his Wonka wrapper.
From my seat in the gallery, I had an unimpeded view of the speaker’s platform and (ta dah) Mr Palin himself. The introduction was made by a Daunt representative, explaining that when they first opened their doors twenty years ago, the book of the first Palin travel adventure, Around the World in Eighty Days, was piled high on one of the display tables. Could it really be twenty years since Around the World in Eighty Days was on t.v.? I wondered. Yes, apparently it could. Twenty years ago, when I watched this then-brand new series on t.v., I was still a New Zealand schoolgirl, obsessed with French verb endings and the Peloponnesian War.
When Palin took the floor, he told us that in the course of the past two decades, the world had changed sufficiently that, in acknowledging this milestone anniversary of Eighty Days, the crew had decided to revisit certain destinations from that first travel series, noting differences between then and now. For instance, The Persian Gulf is now known as the Arabian Gulf in many Middle Eastern countries and Bombay is now Mumbai, but I digress.
Taking Dubai as one example of a destination appraised, in the past twenty years this city has undergone a massive metamorphosis from a moneyed but relatively characterless town to the glitzy seaside metropolis of today, replete with seven star hotels. Palin recounted for us his more recent experience of Dubai, on this occasion staying at the Burj al Arab, the luxury hotel that looks like a yacht spinnaker in full wind, where each room has a team (yes, team) of staff responsible for the welfare of its guests, and where rates can mount up to thousands per night. So what was Mr Palin’s observation of this swanky environment? That most of the guests looked dazed, sported casual gear and just seemed to want to relax. In other words, the Burj al Arab is wonderfully luxurious but a tad excessive for your regular holidaymaker.
Palin next spent some time recounting a memorable voyage on a dhow called the Al Shama that carried him from Dubai to Mumbai (no longer Bombay). A touch of nocturnal Delhi Belly (or should that be Dhow-y Belly?) saw him rushing at intervals to the basic on-board conveniences of bottomless barrels hanging over the open sea at the stern. On each run, he was greeted by the crew who were excited that he might want to spend time with them as they fished by night. On one such occasion they shouted out that they’d made him a curry, which is the last thing anyone feels like eating when experiencing digestive discomfort. The audience laughed in sympathy.
In post-production, the dhow voyage was supposed to take up a mere seven or eight minutes of film, but the editor deftly crafted it into a 45 minute episode in its own right, and in doing so, the special relationship that developed between Palin’s crew and that of the boat helped turn around some initially lukewarm reviews of the series. The public liked this new take on travel; they wanted to see the reality of far-flung lands, not a string of well-trodden tourist destinations and Hilton hotels. This episode is fondly remembered by Palin as a pivotal point in the development of his newfound reputation as an intrepid traveller and it won’t surprise you to learn that he revisited the crew as part of the anniversary catch up trip, taking a portable DVD player with him so they could see themselves on TV for the first time. Before parting again, the captain suggested that the head of the BBC might like to pay for a new dhow as the Al Shama was no more. According to Palin the request just might be awaiting attention on a certain desk at the BBC so we’ll have to wait to see if it materialises.
(To be continued)
Michael Palin’s website
Around the World in Eighty Days Amazon link