Don’t take Michael Palin to bed, he’ll keep you up all night

MichaelPalinMichael Palin – Python, actor, TV travel writer, novelist –  is terribly famous and I have never met him. I’ve seen him on TV and film screens all my life, however, so, like millions of others I have the illusion that I know what he’s like, and thus might be able to have a conversation with him one day. I know him through Monty Python, Ripping Yarns, his films and some of his TV travel series, and hugely entertaining all those are. I know his life through his diaries, because in each year that a new instalment is published, my brother, not accidentally, gives me a copy for Christmas. This year I got Travelling To Work: Diaries 1988-98. I read them because I’m nosy about backstage details of life as an actor and a Python, and because I like diaries. They’re a special kind of memoir, a hybrid of history and autobiography that depends on the linear narratives it contains for feeling how a life was lived.

Palin with Laurel and Hardy, inexplicably in the shrubbery
Palin with Laurel and Hardy, inexplicably in the shrubbery

I don’t care much for novels about everyday life, but the ordinary details of daily life are mesmerising when they’re read as history. I’ve got a couple of other diarised memoirs covering the same period, Julian Barnes’s Letters from London (magazine columns about politics and notable events), and Richard Eyre’s National Service (about running the National Theatre). They’re excellent for recalling public events, and for what the arts and politics were up to in these decades. Palin’s diaries are the same but different, because he allows more of the personal to appear in print. His diaries are very carefully edited: there must be masses left out that was private to the family, or stories that can never, legally, be told. Realistically there must also be a lot that was pretty dull, but one person’s dullness can be riveting to someone else. I wanted to hear a lot more about how Palin gets on with his neighbours (there are tantalising glimpses). No doubt he is a perfectly ordinary likeable bloke, but that’s where the private line has to be drawn: this book is about his life, not his neighbours. The stories in Travelling To Work are multitudinous, and in almost all cases we can read them, in carefully selected patches, from beginning to end; all those ventures with Meridian Television (does it still exist …?), a stammering charity, the Python production company, wrestling with the BBC to make Around The World In Eighty Days and Pole to Pole, his novels (he wrote novels? make note to self), a long and rather puzzling episode of making a film with Jamie Lee Curtis in New York that I’ve never heard of, surely I hadn’t missed that one?, but no, Palin was left on the cutting room floor due to the opinion of a 20-person focus audience. Ah well, it’s all good experience.

Travelling To Work is not just history, however, it’s my life too. This is the first instalment of his diaries to cover the years when I too was an adult, living and working in London, and I was gripped with recollections. I remember all the public events he talked about: I too was looking in astonishment at the destruction and burnt-out cars around Trafalgar Square after the poll tax riots. I too recall where I was when I heard that Princess Diana had died (a distraught phone call from my sister in Australia), and I too remember how weird it felt seeing the British infected by the pandemic of mass weeping and books of condolence. I too remember where I was when Mrs Thatcher resigned (cheering on the platform at Golders Green station when the Underground public address system announced it, then realising that nobody else was). I remember (almost all) the films that Palin worked on, and the people he talks about, but I don’t remember the lunches.

Palin with his new project: voicing the Clangers! Could any man want more?
Palin with his new project: voicing the Clangers! Could any man want more?

My word, the LUNCHES. This man could lunch for Britain. He can’t have eaten more than one meal at home each week in the decade this diary covers. The feeding companions and dinner guests are mostly his friends, so it’s enjoyable to read about him and Terry Jones, or George Harrison, or John Cleese, or well-known actor A, B, C or D tucking into daily fare at fancy restaurants I have never had the money or nerve to go into, or rather good-sounding ones that I’ll never be able to locate. Palin the diner-out was in demand chez David Frost, where they had not one but two dining rooms, and twice he was asked to feed at the same table as Princess Diana, and Sarah Ferguson in her previous role as a Duchess being bullied by the Palace. It must be a bit strenuous being asked to dinner knowing that you have to perform, and will barely be able to notice what you’re eating because of the attention you have to focus on a guest who needs entertaining. Thankfully, there are many, many lovely relaxed lunches with friends and family in this diary, so I’m glad he ate well.

The only problem with Michael Palin’s writing is that he’s too good at keeping my attention. For evening after evening I was reading way past my bedtime (Travelling To Work is a very long book). Once I tried taking it to bed and could not turn the light out till past two in the morning. (Not domestically congenial.) My husband had the same problem when it was his turn to read it: eyes glued to the pages, just one more bit, I’ve nearly got to the end of 1992, and before you know it the cuckoo clock downstairs is squawking one-thirty in the morning and you have to GO TO SLEEP. So that’s the problem with Michael Palin: if you take him to bed, he’ll keep you up all night, because you can’t put him down.

John Buchan’s The Three Hostages

Three HostagesThis podcast script was written for a miniseries on Thrillers for Gentlemen. I was looking at the thriller or spy novel that was masculine without being brutal; written about, and possibly also for, men of a certain generation who understood the ethos of the gentleman’s club, and worked within its rules. I’m not saying that way of life would work nowadays, but for its time, these standards are very attractive. These thrillers are tough, but with good manners. I’ll be posting the companion podcasts in future weeks, on Dornford Yates, Geoffrey Household, John Welcome and Ian Fleming.

I’ve been writing about John Buchan since the 1980s. I started reading Buchan as a schoolgirl, and started researching him before I took my first degree, and was given my PhD for my thesis on his fiction. I edited the John Buchan Journal for eleven years, and I’ve published – among many other things –  three books on his writing. I’ll be wittering on about him on a Radio 4 programme sometime in summer 2015 (I was on a Radio 3 programme about him in 2014), and I’ll be giving the Caledonian Club lecture on his writing on September 2015.  I do try to wean myself off researching him, but it’s hard. Buchan’s writing is so rich, intriguing and entertaining, I think I’ll never stop working on him.

Buchan is best known as being the creator of Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps. The Three Hostages is his fourth Hannay novel, in which the now rather stuffy and middle-aged Sir Richard encounters a modern night club and an Indian guru at Claridges on his quest to rescue three innocent hostages from a ruthless and unknown megalomaniac.

greenmantleThe year is 1923, and Hannay is just beginning to relax. He’s come a long way from being a beat-up engineer from South Africa. Only a few weeks after his arrival in Britain in 1914, he was on the run, wanted by the police for a murder he did not commit, and by a secret gang of spies for a little black book he’d taken off the body of the man they murdered, and left in his flat. Naturally, for he is super-resourceful and a terrific getter-out of trouble, Hannay solves the mystery of the thirty-nine steps, and saves his neck. His next adventure was a year or two later, in the First World War, where he led a daring mission to find out what the Germans were planning in Constantinople, and to stop it. That was in the novel Greenmantle. A year or two after that, in Mr Standfast, Hannay was solving another mystery for the War Office, chasing German spies up and down Scotland and into Switzerland, changing disguise roughly every five pages, and finding the girl of his dreams as well.

actor David Robb as Hannay, in the 2010 BBC radio version of The Three Hostages
actor David Robb as Hannay, in the 2010 BBC radio version of The Three Hostages

Now its peacetime, and he has a knighthood, a wife, a son, and a country estate. He’s been walking around the woods and fields, checking up on his land, and planning the alterations that need doing before the summer. It’s spring, and all is at peace. Except, that, of course, the world is not at peace. The war may have ended, but mysterious international masterminds who have emerged from the war madder, and badder, than before, are planning to unleash economic chaos onto a war-torn Europe. To keep the authorities off their backs, they’ve taken hostages: a young man, a young woman, and a little boy. These three will be killed unless the gang is left alone, and naturally this can’t be allowed to happen. Hannay has become a bit of a fixer for the government and the police, so his task for this novel is to find the hostages against a ticking clock. He has no idea where to start.

This is a novel set in the heart of 1920s urban civilisation. Very little of the novel’s action happens in the countryside, except for the gripping ending on crags in the Scottish Highlands. I think that was only put in because Buchan wanted a man-hunt to end the novel. In this novel we explore areas of the city with Hannay, as he roams London’s seedy underbelly looking for clues in a landscape he doesn’t really understand: places like Gospel Oak and Fitzrovia, which are now very respectable and rather smart places to live, but in the 1920s were really pretty run-down, haunts of the disaffected and home to those struggling not to drift down any further in the social scale.

borrowed from the Jazz Age Club site
borrowed from the Jazz Age Club site

Buchan creates an atmosphere of London’s sad decay, and war-damaged poverty. In the nightclub scenes, he surpasses himself. This place is so fashionable that it’s positively shabby. Hannay is taken there by Archie, his bright young friend who can’t dance any more due to a war wound, but wants to see the latest fashions and to see again where the beautiful people dance. They’re a bit fish out of water, these pillars of the establishment, as they sit sipping overpriced liqueurs in their dinner jackets, watching bored-looking people jigging around on a tiny dancefloor. Archie spots only one dancer really worth watching, but Hannay is more concerned about her minder, a tough-looking customer whom he recognises, because he’d seen this man only the day before as the butler in the house of a very important and influential politician. Other people also wander about the book in disguise. There’s the Indian guru, who comes to Claridges to hold court, to receive his acolytes, and to grant a private audience with a very important man, which Hannay witnesses, horrified at the evil he can sense seeping out from the guru’s soul. When Hannay sees this guru again, he tries to attack him, but is brought up short when the guru tosses his turban back as a deflecting weapon, and is revealed as … well, I won’t tell you. You’ll have to read the book yourself.

Hannay flies to Norway to track down another hostage, and sees not one but two people he really did not expect to encounter. There’s a man whom he last saw in a Harley St consulting room, giving Hannay medical advice. There’s also a man whom Hannay last saw in Constantinople during the war, a German whom Hannay rather liked, and now finds that he can trust implicitly. This is rather hopeful, that only five years after the end of the war, Buchan can write comfortably about making friends with a former enemy, and trust in the inherent goodness of people.

Hannay’s first ally is his own country neighbour Dr Greenslade, who gives him the first solution to the clues that the criminal mastermind is scattering about. But Greenslade, after this first strong showing, is oddly kept in the background for the rest of the novel. Hannay has another great ally, Sandy Arbuthnot from Greenmantle, aristocrat, clubman, adventurer and scholar. He too is a wasted character in this novel because he spends most of his time off-stage, hunting down references in the Bibliotheque Nationale and avoiding assassination. It’s as if Buchan’s roster of characters was so rich, he could afford to throw inventions capable of carrying a whole novel into a one-chapter walk-one role. Would that all novelists were so bountiful in their invention.

the well-known Australian cake, the Lamington, probably unknown to Buchan
the well-known Australian cake, the Lamington, probably unknown to Buchan

Hannay’s most important ally is his own wife, Lady Hannay, formerly Mary Lamington of the secret service, and one of the first women secret agents of the 1920s. And she’s a wasted character as well, after The Three Hostages is finished, because, after a tremendous showing in Mr Standfast, and this last burst of professional expertise in The Three Hostages, she is reduced to domestic roles for the remaining Hannay novels; feeding people tea, and being a hostess. She could have been so good, a marvellous role model for women hoping to enter the secret services, for women willing and able to leave Foreign Office desks for a life of subterfuge and disguise. But, of course, all that will not wash. Mary Lamington was created 50 years too early. She would have been a fascinating handler for Modesty Blaise (imagine that: all-female secret service agents in the 1960s), and she would have skewered James Bond with a single glance. She was born to circulate in high society as a secret agent (Lady Penelope!), but Buchan marries her off to the stuffiest traditionalist clubman in his books, and leaves her in country isolation.

At least she gets a terrific final show. In The Three Hostages, Mary makes Hannay take the job on by using emotional blackmail, and she rescues two of the three hostages herself. She play-acts as a foolish and silly mother to prevent the villain even noticing her, and she carefully does not let her husband know what she is doing, because if he did know he would only stop her. Hannay, as a hearty ex-soldier and a fine English gentleman, has rather, shall we say, traditional views about women. I feel sure that Mary Hannay would have used her vote in the 1919 general election. She simply ignores what Hannay might say, returns to her professional training, and just gets the job done.

There is much vigorous masculinity in this novel: the all-male lunches, clubs and dinners; the female-free household of the evil mastermind; the rugged 30-mile walks that Dr Greenslade takes for relaxation; and the classic Buchan Highland stalking and shooting episode that ends the novel. Two of the hostages have undergone demasculinisation, which Hannay and Mary have to try to reverse, and the girl hostage is rescued by her very masculine fiancé, which helps soothe his injured pride. But no-one’s masculinity is more secure than Hannay’s, since he simply never thinks he can be anything other than what he is, unlike the nervy and sensitive Sandy Arbuthnot, or the unexpectedly diffident Archie Roylance, anxious about women now he has a nasty limp from the war. Hannay is a tough old buffalo, and cares not two hoots, especially now that he is married and the father of a son.

Do read this novel: it’s packed with good things, and is wonderful entertainment. I know from experience that even if The Three Hostages is one of only three novels that you have on a two-month archaeological dig, pre-internet and far away from any other sources of reading, it will keep you sane.

On indexing a reading diary

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the very diaries: cover on lower right notebook embroidered by my mum

I’ve kept a reading diary since 2008. I’ve filled four fat notebooks so far, each taking from eighteen months to two years to fill, with about a page apiece of notes on the books I’ve finished. The entries are mostly about the books I read for pleasure: not the critical reading I do for work, since those notes usually go straight into my laptop. These are the notebooks that live beside my bed and go on holiday with me, that collect my life in books.

When a notebook is finished, I index it. Why would I bother? It’s extraordinarily useful, if I’m working on a novel or an author, to know that I have read a particular title, that I had something to say about it, and it’s in that diary there. Filling in the index used to be a bit of a chore, but now I’m doing it for the fourth time, it’s getting rather interesting. I can recall my life by the books I read, why I read them (often for podcasting, sometimes for teaching), and I watch with fascination as the titles mount up and I realise how often I’ve been reading certain authors.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI can now see by the long list of Ivy Compton Burnett titles that I went through a phase of reading her novels addictively, though now I can’t recall anything to distinguish between them. When I added China Miéville to the index for the first time, I realised, appalled, that I had only discovered him two years ago. In contrast, I see I haven’t read, or recorded reading, any Stella Gibbons for six years, and I seem to have read far more Antony Hope than I can remember.

I can track the years when I was writing up research on P G Wodehouse, from a positive infestation of Wooster in the Ws. There are great swathes of time when I was browsing on Jules Verne, interpolated with outbreaks of H Rider Haggard and an oasis of Barbara Pym.  For three solid weeks I was reading nothing but Terry Pratchett and Valentine Williams. I break off from indexing to write emails to friends, because their books that I borrowed and wrote about in the diary remind me that I want to see them again.

The discoveries aren’t all happy. I rediscovered the books I read while I was going through hospital treatment (comfort reading, mostly, and a very depressing novel about Henry James’s mentally ill sister), and the books by best-selling, trumpeted, acclaimed authors who I never want to bother with again (Tom Sharpe, Beth Patillo). I’m reminded of the novels I gave up on with indifference, boredom, or revulsion, and of authors for whom I had a brief intense craze and just as quickly tired of (Donna Leon).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANice serendipities are being created in the Index. Jack London’s The Call of the Wild is next to H P Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulu, and I feel they would understand one another. I think John Welcome and H G Wells would get on quite nicely, but not, perhaps, Evelyn Waugh and Mary Webb. Desmond Cory and Noel Coward would make a good thriller double act, all suavity and deadly action.

not the McInnes twins
which McInnes / MacInnes would you prefer?

I have struggles over how to order the books: is Elizabeth Von Arnim V or A? Sylvia Townsend Warner: T or W? My system for arranging them on my own bookshelves (A and W), has to take account of book heights, and the book spines one does not want to gaze at every mealtime. To solve this, my bookshelves keep the fiction books within the capital letter of the author’s surname, and books by the same author sit together, but Jane Austen sits happily beside Isaac Asimov and is placed before Margery Allingham; Trollope and Thirkell are side by side because they are both of Barsetshire; Neil Gaiman sits in the tallest G shelf because Stardust requires the height. Modern hardbacks, bought because we can’t wait for the new Lindsey Davis or Barbara Kingsolver paperback, lie stacked on their sides in sequence, spines outward, making an author-themed bookend for the next letter.

normally kept safe in a bag
normally kept safe in a bag

I am stricter with the index than the shelves because I value its perfect alphabetical workings. (I no longer make the indexes for the books I write: I would rather pay the worker’s hire than lose three weeks of my life and sanity to get the job done properly, and I can recommend an excellent indexer in South Carolina if anyone is interested.) I am meticulous about Mac being indexed in its proper place in the alphabet, with Mc coming shortly afterwards, never the Macs and Mcs lumped in together in a ghetto of clan squabbles (but on the shelf, Colin MacInnes and Helen McInnes sit next to each other). I have a mildly dyslexic blur over the order of R, S and T, so it takes me a long time to be sure that Jan Morris and Alan Moore come before J B Morton. Molly Keane is taking charge of all the M J Farrells, because I prefer to use her real name.

In six years I appear to have read around 800 titles, several of them several times over, in my spare time. The most-read authors are Elizabeth von Arnim, E F Benson, Ann Bridge (out of horrified fascination rather than pleasure, but still), Charles Dickens, Georgette Heyer, Antony Hope, Storm Jameson, Barbara Kingsolver, Rudyard Kipling, Terry Pratchett, Barbara Pym, Arthur Ransome, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Mary Stewart, Josephine Tey, Jules Verne, H G Wells and Virginia Woolf. Those I’ve been reading a lot for book-writing purposes are Una L Silberrad, Rose Macaulay, Angela Thirkell, Dornford Yates, John Buchan, Valentine Williams and P G Wodehouse. My To Be Read pile currently holds none of those authors at all, and several who are still alive.