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Interview: Michael Palin

Michael Palin takes on mendacity in his second novel – more than a decade after his first.

Michael Palin, photo by Jane Ussher

Forget the parrot sketch, forget the Spanish Inquisition, and forget, if you can, the Lumberjack Song. Michael Palin, former Python, actor, screenwriter, playwright and possibly the best-loved television travel presenter of all time, is like any other new writer offering up his work: he’s nervous. His new fast-paced and witty novel, The Truth, explores environmental dilemmas through the story of a misguided middleaged idealist and takes the reader from the Shetland Islands to India and beyond. And he describes writing it as “both a great privilege and a stark test”.

“There’s a feeling that you’re known for lots of other things,” Palin says from his North London home. “And if you write something you don’t believe in or don’t really want to write, then you’re just doing it to sell a few books through your name.” He’s aware his profile means he’s guaranteed publicity for The Truth other novelists could only dream of. “The privilege is to be published; independent bookshops are closing everywhere … the stark test is not to cock it up, not to do something that isn’t good and let everyone down.” These are the sorts of self-effacing remarks that endear Palin, it seems, to almost everyone. This is the man who doesn’t mind being filmed staggering down a Calcutta alleyway after a sleepless night or chewing on camel intestine so as not to offend the locals. You can’t help but warm to his mix of cheery ordinariness and wry observation, whether he’s trekking the Himalayas or just talking about books. The Guardian went so far as to dub him “the People’s Palin”.

With his wildly successful travel documentaries (25 years of these, more than 90 countries and counting; he’s just back from four months in Brazil) and numerous other commitments – he’s recently completed a three-year term as president of the revered Royal Geographical Society for one – he has plenty of other demands on his time. And it’s not as if he has anything to prove. So, why would he embark on writing a novel? “I love language and I read a lot but I’ve been a bit timid about enjoying that and realising that I can write quite well if I put my mind to it. I felt [writing just] one novel was a job unfinished.”

His first, more than a decade ago, was Hemingway’s Chair, about a meek assistant postmaster obsessed by Ernest Hemingway. It sounds like a Python sketch in which Palin would play the bewildered clerk to an increasingly enraged John Cleese. The New York Times called the book “an awfully strange comedy” but went on to praise its “deftly understated wit, its careful plot and character construction”. “I’d been doing all these travel programmes and enjoying them immensely,” says Palin, “but my imaginative, mischievous side hadn’t been used much over the years. It was sort of in abeyance.”

Then along came 2008 and the Wall Street crash, the British MPs’ expenses scandal and a cascade of events in which, it seemed to Palin, truth was the first casualty. “There was a remorseless feeling of people justifying themselves; everyone fighting their corner and using completely different evidence. I kept hearing people saying, ‘This is the truth of what’s happened’, and really we didn’t know the half of it.” The idea for the novel came quickly: during a half-hour walk through London’s Soho to his  office, Keith Mabbut emerged. He’s a disillusioned ex-journalist who finds himself in middle age writing glowing, glossed-over histories of oil companies and, despite himself, stumbles upon an environmental story that appears to offer him the chance of redemption, an opportunity to write something truthful.

The novel allowed Palin to explore some of the issues he had come across during the years of making travel documentaries: he’d been incensed, for instance, by the aluminium mining he witnessed in Orissa, a state on India’s eastern coast, which is home to the country’s oldest indigenous tribes. The sacred hills they had occupied for centuries were being threatened with destruction. Mabbut goes there, or a place very like it, in search of elusive environmental warrior Herbert Melville. But Mabbut is distracted from the task at hand; he’s convinced his groundbreaking fictional trilogy, Albana, is a better use of his writing talents. Albana is a sweeping historical recreation of the dawn of Man, with extraordinary perils – including “transterrestrials” – and more. “I’ve always loved that,” Palin says gleefully, “when people for no apparent reason decide they have a trilogy in them! Albana will tell the world, really, all it needs to know – it’s very much a middle-aged man’s sort of dream.”

Palin pauses to praise the work of his editor, who cut quite of lot of Albana from the book. It is an enjoyably Pythonesque interlude, but at the core of the novel is the malleable nature of truth and how things are often not what they seem. “I don’t tweet, so a novel is a way of saying things about the world through characters.” His recent trip to the Amazon raised another hot-button environmental issue of the kind explored in The Truth. “There’s absolutely no doubt indigenous people are being killed off by the depletion of the rainforest and flooding of the land through hydro schemes,” Palin says, “yet everybody, including the tribes in Brazil, is interested in computers – and computers are made from aluminium. It’s very difficult to know where to plant the boundaries.”

The series on Brazil will be his eighth but Palin is travelling less these days, partly because he is besotted with his two young grandsons, Archie and Wilbur. “I just muck about with them; it’s like being with the Python team again: you can be as silly as you like for as long as you can!” He’s aiming to do shorter trips. Cities, he thinks, and urban areas, may be his new focus. Thanks to his travel series, he has had probably the most sustained public career of all the Pythons. “It started off as a bit of a stunt. I felt a bit guilty just enjoying what I was doing – with all this money and a BBC camera crew and just me, waffling on about not being able to buy a sandwich or being grumbly one morning … I thought, ‘This is quite unjustifiable, no one’s going to watch this!’ I played a Phileas Fogg character in order to deal with it. But then I realised, ‘This is just what people like: an ordinary character who is quite happy to be filmed after a night of continuous bowel eruptions.’ I realised it was much easier just being myself, and if I conveyed something of my curiosity about a place and my love of travel then I didn’t need a gimmick.’’

The first series attracted more than 10 million viewers every week and Palin was off: North and South Poles, highest mountains, biggest waterfalls, snow storms, head-hunters and gallons of yak butter tea. “I was terribly lucky, I might have stayed as an actor or a scriptwriter but this sort of travel show was new; most presenters [before me] were highly qualified people who knew what they were talking about.” In his second volume of diaries, Halfway to Hollywood, Palin charts the highs and lows of his acting and scriptwriting career in the 1980s. “I had people saying to me, ‘You’ll never have to get a bus to work again’ – it was all very tempting. A limo would pick you up in the morning and you’d be taken to a very comfortable dressing room with soft drinks and sashimi and a book to read and at 5.30pm they’d come in and say they didn’t need you today. I couldn’t stand it, sitting around being paid to do nothing; it was driving me mad having no control over my life.”

This is the same man who put on a solo show in the West End traversing his long and busy career and called it Forty Years Without a Proper Job. “With the BBC travel series we had a small team and we had total control over what we were doing. It was hard work and that was terrific – it was a great relief and a liberation.” So the travel programmes have allowed him to retain something of the creative independence the early Pythons had? “Yes, nothing was very well structured back then. The commercial sector really had no hold. The Pythons weren’t a product or a brand; we just bumbled along. The BBC was rather embarrassed by us and put us on late at night. We were in a brief period where the artists and the creative world set the limits. There’s still some good work now, but everything is about creating something for a particular market: you do your audience research so you know exactly where you have to go. We never knew that.” That freedom to go beyond the market is also what keeps him enthused about travelling. “You step off the plane and you meet people who have no idea of what’s happening in, say, London. They are leading their lives and there is a spontaneity there, different ways of doing things. Every journey changes my mind about things – and that is terribly important.”

THE TRUTH, by Michael Palin (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $36.99).


To join the conversation about Fiona Kidman’s The Trouble with Fire (Vintage, $36.99) and fellow New Zealand Post Book Awards fiction finalists Paula Morris’s Rangatira (Penguin, $30) and Sue Orr’s From Under the Overcoat (Vintage, $29.99), visit the Book Club section of www.listener.co.nz, follow the Twitter account @nzlbookclub or go to the Facebook page New Zealand Listener Book Club. Next month’s Book Club choice – beginning on August 3 – will be David Ballantyne’s 1968 novel Sydney Bridge Upside Down (Text Classics, $15.99).