There is something very British and endearingly old-fashioned about Michael Palin, something very Boy’s Own. Since bursting into our consciousness fifty years ago with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, he has re-invented himself as a sort of latter-day Victorian adventurer. But even in Monty Python, and the later Ripping Yarns, the Britishness was still there as was the need to explore pastures new. With Python, he and the others were going where no man had ever gone before, hacking a new passage through the already tamed jungle of BBC comedy while the corporation executives, wearing their suede shoes, observed with tolerant amusement from the safety of their veranda, complacently sipping their G&Ts while a revolution was taking place.
But for the past thirty years, since his first voyage Around the World in Eighty Days in 1989, Palin’s adventures and exploration have become more literal and physical. He has criss-crossed the globe, north to south, east to west, producing television travel programmes that inform, enlighten and, yes, amuse. Most of the TV series had a book to go with them but now Mr Palin has written a free-standing book about historic exploration and adventure.
Palin, who acquired the status of National Treasure in the UK some years ago is, not surprisingly, a very likeable sort of chap, modest and self-effacing in a very British sort of way. He was in The Hague to promote and sign copies of his new book, Erebus, which tells the true story of events culminating in an infamous and disastrous expedition to the Arctic in 1845.
Interviewed by Chris Keulemans in front of a full house in the main auditorium at the Theater aan het Spui, Palin revealed he had, since childhood, revelled in sea faring tales, devouring everything from Hornblower up to, and including, Patrick O’Brian, with a large dose of classic black and white British navy-based war films of the 1950s thrown in for good measure.
Consequently, one got the impression that travel and adventure were his true vocation and that Monty Python was just a stop-over en route – not that he was dismissing it as such. He still seems proud of what the Pythons achieved and was happy to discuss it with Chris Keulemans whose seemingly unlimited knowledge of the subject bordered on the unhealthy and marked him as a true and dedicated fan.
But, of course, the main theme of the evening was the new book. The design of the jacket is very much in the style of Karl May or early 20th century Boy’s Own but the book is, in fact, the biography of the eponymous Erebus, a ship that explored the Antarctic and later set sail to discover the North West Passage, the assumed sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific around the north of Canada. Due to a mixture of incompetence and over confidence bordering on arrogance, the voyage was a disaster with the ship and all those aboard being lost. The wreck was only discovered in 2014.
On the face of it, this little known story may not be appealing except to those of the author’s bent and enthusiasm but, as Palin revealed while reading passages from the book, it is written in a light conversational and therefore entertaining style without ever patronising the reader or getting bogged down in over-weighty prose or academic facts.
I suspect, or rather am convinced, that Michael Palin could make a television series, and write an accompanying book, entitled The Most Boring Subject in the World and still present it in an informative and entertaining way, one which would claim, as usual, ginormous viewing figures with the book sell zillions of copies. Long may his adventures continue and long may we all be invited along to witness the ride. Michael Hasted 31st October 2018
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