Michael Palin: 'I just go where the wind blows me'
The imminent Monty Python reunion means a return to his comedy roots, but Michael Palin is equally celebrated for his travels around the world. Rob Cowen joins our favourite 'everyman' for a walk that stays rather closer to home
Sunday 29 June 2014
'I can't conceive what my life would be like without the feeling of belonging to landscape," says Michael Palin. "It's so important and yet I worry society's losing that deeper connection." We're standing by a vast, gnarled oak amid the foliage around Kenwood House, the most genteel corner of London's wide, rambling Hampstead Heath. Behind us, the newly restored white stucco façade of the house's southern aspect rises elegantly and gleaming, but it is the oak tree's humble bark that has one of the foremost travellers of our age excited. "Just feel it. It's like great flanks of chain mail. Difficult to believe this is 300 years old. You think a building that old is impressive, but these are living. Remarkable really."
Palin's passion for this place is understandable; the Heath is home turf. He's been hefted to what he calls its "lose-yourself beauty" since buying a house with wife Helen at its southern boundary in Gospel Oak in 1968. Somewhat surprisingly for a man with such an adventurous spirit, they've never moved: "I put down roots. The house is full of our memories and our children's memories. All three were born there, we squeezed them together, sharing rooms but we've always been happy. We still are!"
He runs over the Heath twice a week, a regimen evidenced in his slim, energetic appearance and that mischievous twinkle in the eyes, all of which make him appear considerably younger than his 71 years. Indeed, as the photographer directs him into a blooming magnolia, he can't resist a joke. "It's like those naughty glamour magazines of the 1950s. I remember them from Sheffield. They were always in the woods and bushes. Perhaps I should recline a bit … how's this?"
As well as an education in racy literature, growing up in 1950s Sheffield proved formative for Michael Palin: traveller. "My first memories of landscape and adventure are from there. That's where the connection was made. A 20-minute bike ride and I'd be among dramatic gritstone crags, which were like something from a Western. Nearly all the things we watched were cowboy films and it was like the grand rocks of Utah had been reproduced on the outskirts of Sheffield. I had the feeling of living in dramatic country with even wilder, mysterious lands away to the west."
His love of exploring was formed while discovering those hills and valleys. "I'd head out into the Peak District on my bike and get a feeling of real adventure, the sense that I was a small part of a bigger world. My geography teacher took us out on field trips too, and right away the idea of walking somewhere, getting into a landscape and learning about its layers became really important to me."
Important enough that even at the height of his fame as Python, screenwriter and Hollywood actor, he jumped at the chance to be the "victim" in Around the World in 80 Days when approached by the BBC in 1987. Although maintaining it wasn't a career choice – "I've never had a career; I just go where the wind blows me" – he says he was always putting feelers out about his willingness and desire to travel. "When we were doing Monty Python, Terry [Jones] and myself had a geographical and historical sense of the country and rather than work in London studios we were always wanting to go out and use the landscape of North Yorkshire or Scotland as sets for sketches. And that's what we started to do. It wasn't just that it looked better; there was a feeling of getting out into wilderness. Then in 1980, I was asked to do a railway journey through the British Isles and I think I said yes because I wanted to see the country. Without deliberately saying 'I want to do a travel series', I was setting down markers – Palin likes travelling!"
"Then when someone said Pole to Pole I thought wonderful! Actually the poles are pretty boring, but the bits in between, Africa through Russia, are absolutely fascinating. The huge success of those series was because I was the 'everyman' – the sense that if I could do it, anyone could do it."
I wonder what the other Pythons made of his jump to international globetrotter. "Well John [Cleese] has always been a bit lofty about my adventures. He tended to yawn a lot when I talked about them. Then he made a show about lemurs in deepest, darkest Madagascar and spent the whole time going 'ouch', 'owww', 'Bloody Hell' and 'what's that?'. I think he got a little more of an insight."
Palin and Cleese are of course reuniting with the rest of the surviving Pythons for the Monty Python Live (Mostly) concerts that begin on Tuesday at London's 02 Arena. As we pass a larch tree, I remind him that they appear quite regularly in their sketches. Does he have a particular fascination for them? Will we see larch on stage? "Ha! I don't think so, but there you go. We were frontrunners – the first arboreal comedy!"
Our ramblings have been physical as much as verbal and as we pause amid the towering deciduous trees of the Heath's South Wood, Palin admits we have strayed off his beaten track. "I'm disoriented now actually. Isn't that wonderful? We're lost in a London park." A parakeet screeches above but I resist all temptations to reference parrots, living or dead. Instead as we strike out down another meandering track our talk turns to far-flung woodlands that stick in his memory.
"Well, I'll never forget the beauty of Himalayan woodland. When filming in Bhutan we walked down from the northern part of the country from a 25,000ft peak down into Paro, starting with the absence of wood cover at the top, through dense conifers, rhododendrons, beautiful shrubs, flowers and these extraordinary butterflies. In contrast, when I first went to China, Mao Tse-tung had just ordered a denuding of trees from landscape. Everything looked naked. It seemed so crazy an idea and, of course, it proved such. The roots didn't bond the soil and it washed away.
"Then there was Brazil recently. First time I've been deep into the rainforest as we were filming up the Amazon. Wow. That impossible-to-explain, jungle feeling. The darkness. You put your hand on a tree and next thing you know there's a column of red ants climbing up your arm."
I put it to him that, inescapable in his travels, is a deep empathy with landscape and people, an awareness that has seen him raise questions of climate change and global warming, most notably in his recent novel The Truth. So is travel part of the problem or part of the solution? "You can argue both but in my case I can only say the latter. It has taught me so much about the world. If you only travel in large groups and get shown certain places and don't explore an area or meet and connect with the people who live there – that's a different experience. Because in the shows we get off the beaten track, I've learned so much about landscape and how it affects people, their religious beliefs, what they dress up in, their celebrations, songs and food. But it takes time to discover that. Empathy is not something you can get at a folk fair for the price of a ticket. And empathy is everything."
We emerge to cross a mound of raised ground with sweeping views down to London ahead. Around us are the bursting buds of a horse chestnut. "Look at this. Every year it starts again," he says, smiling. "The reliability of seasons. I love the Heath for its wild splendour. That said, I'm quite happily urban too. I like the feeling of knowing London is over there. I need people around me. I quite like electric light and hot water and the internet. I remember talking about this with Terry Jones. We were standing looking at some wonderful landscape and we said it was beautiful but frustrating that you can't take it home with you. You can make a film or take a photo but it's implacable – it's just there. It's why I'm drawn to landscape painters. In their own way they tried to immortalise a moment, a place, and bring it back. Perhaps that's what I'm trying to do."
I point out that this might be regarded as the essence of all travelling. "Yes, I think you're right. Travelling means looking for something and never quite finding it. You find it in little moments but then you have to go on. It's an addictive adventure whereby you're put in situations you haven't been put in before and as our lives at home become more risk averse, that's important. Not danger, but the unprepared, the unexpected, the things you have to suddenly adjust for very quickly. It's the whole experience of seeing a place from a distance, approaching it slowly. Maybe it should be called slow travel."
Descending to Gospel Oak and home ground, we turn to look back at the horizon to the north, the wide swathe of grass, the geometry of buildings, rolling hill and sky. "You know what? If things were different, I think I could keep travelling my whole life. Just keep on moving. It's all about what's around the next corner."
Hypothetical situation, then. If diaries were suddenly cleared and he had a fortnight of freedom, where might the next adventure be? "Actually I've been so busy, I'd like to take my family to Sydney. It's the beauty of the city; it's easy to be comfy there and live well but also easy to escape out to the Blue Mountains. Have you been there?" I shake my head. He thinks for a moment. "Well, they're rather like the crags outside Sheffield."
The Monty Python Live (Mostly) concerts at the O2 Arena, London, run from 1-5 July and 15-20 July and are sold out. The third volume of Michael Palin's diaries, entitled Travelling to Work is released in September and coincides with a one-man national theatre tour.
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