Michael 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.
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.
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.