Click here to read Part 1.
In the course of the evening, we learned many things, thanks to Palin himself and a keen audience full of questions. Did you know that when making travel series for the Beeb, there are six in Palin’s typical crew, including a stills photographer, whose contribution is much valued because most of the time, the others are too busy to take their own photos. One unanticipated obstacle of this profession is getting the job title right. Whatever does multi-skilled Palin write in that space on the visa form? There’s an anecdote in answer to that particular question. Palin recounted a family trip to Sierra Leone, where he was initially refused a visa because he’d listed his occupation as ‘writer’ and Sierra Leone’s government was somewhat sensitive about journalists at the time. Nowadays, Palin lists his occupation as ‘actor’, giving him issues no more complicated than having to embellish his professional relations with the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis.
Palin told us that his travels started relatively late as he grew up in post-war Sheffield and there wasn’t much opportunity to explore the world at that time. Once Python took off, however, he started taking off himself, to mostly American destinations. Of course, if you look at the past twenty years, there can’t be many countries left in the world that Palin hasn’t visited. What’s next on the list, then? Calcutta (woops, I mean ‘Kolkata’), and the glint in the speaker’s eye tells us that he can’t wait to get his hands dirty again in the manner of a truly intrepid explorer. After that? Iran. You could almost see Palin conjuring up an itinerary as he pictured Tehran, Esfahan, the Caspian Sea and the open plains. Then and there I decided to find a good Iranian restaurant so I could at least learn more about the food. By Jove, I was giving myself homework.
One question from the floor concerned the current state of humanity.
“Having travelled so extensively, what’s your view of humanity as a whole?” ventured one fan.
Palin looked up for a moment before answering. “I’m a glass half full sort of chap and when it comes to humanity, you know what I think? Not half bad.”
“In all your travels, what’s the best place you’ve visited and what’s the worst?” asked another.
Palin replied that it’s almost impossible to compare his destinations because of the tremendous differences and there are good and bad things about everywhere you go. However, he did remark that Peru is a special place, with the vibrant Cusco and the mysterious and ancient Machu Picchu.
One question concerned identifiable differences between types of travel. Is it different when he travels with his family? Palin explained that his wife, Helen, isn’t as adventurous a traveller as he, so when they plan a trip together, it’s likely to be aimed at relaxation. Then, he added that “Helen won’t be coming to Calcutta,” Judging by the audience’s collective chuckle, there was strong support for Helen’s right not to travel to the more challenging destinations. That’s another reason we all watch Palin; he can take us to Timbuktu and back without us feeling any of the journey’s pain.
As for his manner of writing, Palin told us that he jots down his experiences in a notebook, writing up the notes once he returns home. “I can’t imagine travel without writing,” he exclaims with a sudden burst of energy. For this traveller, the two are inextricably intertwined. The writing process is a long one, though. Palin locks himself away in his study and says that by the time a trip such as Eighty Days is completed and the book is finished, another two years have passed.
The question on everyone’s lips now was what were Palin’s future projects. Without hesitation, he explained that he and Helen now have a grandchild so family time is precious to him. He suggested that there may be a few single episode documentaries to come but that he’d like to spend more time at home now. “London’s a wonderful place,” he continued, “it’d be nice to experience more of it,” besides which he feels that he’s travelled so much that it’s all right to stop for a while, and, as important as travel is to his life, so is the opportunity to reflect on and consider all that he’s seen.
During question time, Monsieur nudged me hard. “Ask a question,” he urged with twinkling eye. “No, I’m too shy,” I whispered. But then, towards the end, Palin pointed at the gallery where we were sitting. “One last question from the gallery,” he called, “does anyone in the gallery have a question?” Suddenly, as if by involuntary reflex, my arm waved above my head. “Actually, yes, I do.” I said. Palin looked up at me. “Actually, yes,” he repeated with a cheeky smile. “What would be your advice to keen travellers, based on your own travel experiences?” I asked, my heart threatening to bounce out of my chest and down to the floor below. Palin recommended the following:
· It’s very important to talk to the people. Find out what they do, where they eat, what their stories are.
· Don’t go to a place with a long must-do-must-see list and don’t expect that it’s possible to cram the entire history of Egypt into a four day visit.
· Look around and observe what it’s like to really live in your destination. Watch people in the street, at the market or taking coffee. Walk around and experience the place from the ground up.
And, soon after, Palin closed the talk.
I whizzed downstairs to buy the anniversary edition of Round the World and queued up to have it signed. What surprised me most was that the queue wasn’t particularly long or cumbersome that evening. It struck me that perhaps people weren’t buying books anymore because of the credit crunch and following a £5.00 expenditure for the ticket, they considered their evening’s budget complete. In any case, I wasn’t about to complain.
“You asked me a question from up there,” Mr Palin said as my turn came,
“Actually, yes,” I replied, echoing my earlier performance and silently cursing the fact that I use that word, ‘actually’ so much. “Good voice,” he commented, as he dedicated the book. I admit it had surprised me a bit, but I put it down to years of speech and drama lessons. My teacher would be pleased to know that I haven’t forgotten how to project in a large room. We chatted a bit about one of his kids, whom I met when I was interning in Venice. At the time, I’d asked Palin The Younger what his advice for new interns would be. He kindly shared with me a suggestion that The Palin Now Sitting Right Next To Me had given him: take a poem with you when you’re guarding the galleries and learn a few more lines each day. That way, the boredom subsides and you add to your knowledge of literature.
Before leaving Mr Michael Palin in peace, I had my photo taken with him. It makes my head look like a football as I’m leaning towards the camera in embarrassing eagerness. However, it was worth a red face because now I can show it to Epic Papa, a traveller in his own time but now, for health reasons, unable to travel anywhere unless vicariously through the likes of a Palin DVD. That’s another reason why I’m such a fan of these series; they allow people to glimpse the broad world beyond their homes, even if they can’t go there themselves.
So you see, that’s why I’m smiling. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening in the company of someone I admire very much. This card-carrying fan is now the proud owner of a book signed by Michael Palin, and is considering hanging the shameless fan photo on the living room wall at home. “Okay, you can stop it now,” said Monsieur when I was still visibly thrilled with the evening, even after we got home, “or I might get jealous.” That, too, made me smile. No need to raise the green-eyed monster from the deep, Monsieur. There’s plenty of admiration reserved just for you. Having said that, I happen to know that Monsieur is quite a Palin fan himself.