A new journey of exploration for Michael Palin
As the Royal Geographical Society's new head, Michael Palin is a man with the world in his hands. He tells Michael McCarthy of his passion for the spirit of Shackleton
Saturday 04 July 2009
They all sound somewhat dramatic, the mishaps suffered in the course of the seven long voyages around the world embarked upon by Michael Palin, Monty Python comic turned TV traveller, but one sounds puzzling in the extreme. Camel poisoning?
Palin's ready grin appears. "I didn't go round poisoning camels," he says. "We were in a Polisario refugee camp in Algeria for four or five days, living with the local people" – the refugees were from the Western Sahara struggle for independence from Morocco – "and their version of killing the fatted calf for the foreigner is to buy a camel for the camel meat. So we had camel meat all week long.
"It was very generous of them and cost them quite a lot to keep us, but they felt we should have the best. But by the end of the week I think the camel meat was starting to deteriorate, and as we were leaving on the last day, at breakfast I was offered a bit of camel liver from the night before, and the wife of the guy we were staying with was so friendly and pleasant that I couldn't turn it down, even though it did smell slightly odd. So I took a bite. And then we went off to film this extraordinary Moroccan wall which has been built down in the southern part of Morocco to keep the Polisario [the guerrillas] out, and it was on the way there that it all came back to me, as they say.
"I was very ill for about 24 hours. We had to stop this entire column going up the Moroccan wall for me to just get out and throw up, and there was no way of me hiding it or doing it discreetly as it was an open desert. It was just wonderful, an enormous, Barry Humphries-Barry McKenzie-style, Technicolor Yawn."
Camel poisoning is just one of the bumps along the road encountered by the man who found fame on Monty Python's Flying Circus in the 1970s before turning to BBC travel documentaries. He made seven of them, multi-part series starting with Around The World In 80 Days in 1989, and ending with New Europe in 2007.
He travelled well over 100,000 miles, visited 90 countries, and had many more local difficulties along the way: Delhi belly, Saigon stomach, cheetah attack, near-drowning, cracked ribs, escaping Maoist rebels and Annapurna total system collapse.
As a long-distance traveller, Palin has paid his dues, which is a fortunate position to be in for the prestigious role he has just taken up, as president of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). Python man is now the nation's First Geographer. And he has a delicate task ahead of him.
He has come to the venerable RGS, which has been spiritual home to the world's most famous explorers from Livingstone in Africa to Scott of the Antarctic, just after its most difficult time since its foundation in 1830. Six weeks ago the society's whole direction was challenged by a substantial group of disaffected RGS fellows, who felt the society's decision to abandon large-scale field expeditions to remote parts of the globe in favour of supporting smaller geographical research projects carried out by various institutions, was a betrayal of its original spirit and purpose.
Feelings ran high. Those trying to get the RGS to go back to its roots included some of the best-known travellers of our time; they included Ranulph Fiennes, who has led numerous expeditions including a famous circling of the world via the two poles; Colonel John Blashford-Snell, often photographed in an old-fashioned pith helmet, who led a famous expedition down the Blue Nile in 1968; and Robin Hanbury-Tenison, whose expeditions to Brazil and to Sarawak helped to spark international concern for rainforests and for their tribal peoples.
On 18 May, matters came to a head at Lowther Lodge, the society's headquarters in Kensington, where the matter was put to a vote of fellows; about 4,200 of the 10,000 who were eligible cast their vote, and by a margin of 61.3 per cent to 38.7 per cent, the bid to restore big expeditions was defeated. The explorers lost out, you might say, to the lecturers.
Two weeks later, Palin took over as president, replacing the government scientist Sir Gordon Conway, and since then he has kept his counsel and refrained from commenting on what has been a bitter dispute. But talking exclusively to The Independent this week, in his first interview in his new role, he made it clear that he wanted to heal the divisions which had come to seem so acrimonious.
"I feel in a sense the argument has been dealt with, but I'm a conciliator by nature and I don't want any of the people involved to feel that the Royal Geographical Society is unwelcoming, or a place that no longer respects their views. I know a number of people who supported the resolution [to change the RGS's direction], people like John Hemming [a former RGS director] and Joanna Lumley – people I respect and admire. And one has to understand their view and take it on board."
But does he think – an accusation that was made – that the "explorer" faction is living in the past?
"There's nothing wrong with living in the past," he says. "The past is such an important part of the RGS. You go to Lowther Lodge and you can't forget that this has been a society since 1830 with all the great names and great expeditions – you see Shackleton up there, and Livingstone, and it's very important to recognise the spirit of their journeys, and never forget that they went out often risking their lives to tell us about the world.
"I think it's really important to respect that past, but I'm not sure, I'm not convinced that major interdisciplinary expeditions are necessarily the best use of our resources at the moment."
It is fascinating to hear such calm articulation from the lips of a man who for a whole generation, the babyboomers, personified the zany. Palin was for many the most memorably, crazily funny of all the Python team, as the manic-singing lumberjack, the man in the cheese shop with no cheese (Arthur Wensleydale), the cardinal leading the Spanish Inquisition who keeps bursting in on people, unexpected ("Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!") and of course, the shifty pet shop proprietor who sold John Cleese a dead parrot. (A hitherto unknown species – the "Norwegian blue".)
After Monty P, he moved on to write scripts and perform successfully in a variety of shows and movies, but it was not until 1988, when the BBC offered him the chance to recreate the global circumnavigation of Jules Verne's Phileas Fogg, that he discovered his second vocation.
The Palin version of Around The World In Eighty Days was a hit. He and his production team found casual encounters worked best: being shaved with a cut-throat razor on the street in Bombay by a barber who was "blind as a bat" was far more gripping TV than some of the big set-piece interviews. "You would never set that up," he remarks. By its final episode, when he arrived back at the Reform Club in London where the journey had begun, the series was attracting 12 million viewers, and as a TV traveller, Palin was made; he took over, you might say, where Alan Whicker left off, and spent most of the succeeding 20 years trekking with a film crew in tow around every continent, from the Sahara to the Himalayas, Africa to South America, the North Pole to the South Pole.
In some people this might eventually induce a cynical world-weariness: in Palin, very much one of life's optimists, it has done the opposite and sparked an enthusiastic devotion to the idea of geography, which of course has always been a Cinderella of a subject academically, as he himself acknowledges.
"For some reason, geography is not seen as a popular subject in school. It's seen as very unglamorous. Yet when I was at school, I can remember geography offering me the chance to get out and go on field trips and go on walks, and I loved maps, I loved atlases, I loved learning about other countries and places where things were different from our own – and that's all covered by geography."
He has long had close links with the RGS and has been a vice-president. Yet the offer of the presidency – a three-year term – while delighting him and something he saw as a great honour, also took him by surprise.
"I was surprised because I didn't feel I had the expert knowledge that a lot of my predecessors had, who were specialists in certain fields, like Gordon Conway, a great agronomist and an adviser to the Government. But clearly what they wanted from me, the people who approached me, was someone to communicate an enthusiasm for geography, and the idea of popularising geography has always been something I feel quite strongly about, and it seemed to me something I could do, so I said Yes."
Geography, says Palin, "teaches us so much about how we live, from what we eat, to our transport systems, to population problems, diseases, global warming, all these sort of things," yet he feels that in Britain there is simply too little interest in the outside world. "Somehow we've got to make sure that geography itself isn't a turnoff. 'Cos you know, it shouldn't be. We maybe have to rename it."
What might you rename it? "Oh... Adventure!" He says with a laugh. "I think it is an adventure. It's learning about how the world works. Everything you do, even if it's research in a laboratory, is adding to that knowledge, and that's all part of the adventure. I don't think adventure should necessarily mean going out there with the shorts on, across the desert. It can mean a lot more than that."
He may now be the nation's geographical figurehead, presiding over one of our most august institutions, but clearly, I said, the Python image will be enduring, won't it? You can't really shake it off, can you?
"No and I don't want to," Michael Palin said. "I actually also want geography to be entertaining, and I suppose most of my life has been spent as an entertainer of one sort or another, and I hope I can infect people with enthusiasm for geography, people who perhaps might never think of geography as being something to do with, you know, comedy, entertainment or whatever."
Norwegian blues? I ventured.
"Yes! Norwegian blues!"
The Royal Geographical Society
*The Royal Geographical Society was founded in 1830 and throughout the 19th and 20th centuries it sponsored many celebrated expeditions to remote corners of the Earth. The largest and most active scholarly geographical society in the world, its official purpose is "the advancement of geographical science". In 1995, it merged with the Institute of British Geographers, which represented university geography lecturers, and since then, the society's emphasis has shifted away from large-scale exploration towards academic research.
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