Travelling light

Following heart surgery, Michael Palin is ready to renew his travels with even more enthusiasm. He talks about his recent trip to North Korea and his work helping stammering children

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These days Michael Palin is best known for his sideways observations of life in far-flung places, criss-crossing the world in search of warm stories of people and places. There are probably few countries he hasn’t visited, which perhaps explains why he chose the unusual destination of North Korea for his latest travel adventure.

The trip made a big impression on him. “The capital, Pyongyang, was very ordered,” he recalls. “People were noticeably well disciplined and well behaved on the street – there was no shouting, arguing or anything like that. But there was this air of slightly menacing unreality. There were roads but few cars. There were streets with some cafés but we were not free to go there unless accompanied by minders. From very early in the morning, publicly broadcast music reverberated across the city. You wake up and hear these chords of patriotic music coming from somewhere – I was baffled by it at first.

“I was expecting lots of military parades but on May Day we were taken to parkland where there was a funfair. It was a day off for workers and lots of families were there enjoying Korean barbecues. They offered us food and a glass or two of soju.”

Soju is a distilled drink usually consumed neat with an alcohol content ranging from 16 per cent to an alarming 53 per cent. “By lunchtime everyone was having a high old time,” says Palin. “What they were like by the evening, God knows!

“But although it wasn’t as militaristic as I had expected, the people were clearly indoctrinated. It was forbidden to criticise the leadership in any way. I suppose indoctrination was a way to give hope and inspiration to people in a plucky little country pitching itself against the rest of the world.”

North Korea Journal, the book recounting the visit, came out last September but a promotional tour had to be cancelled. In September Palin was admitted to St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London for open heart surgery after getting increasingly breathless.

“I was opened up by the same surgeon who’d done Alan Bennett earlier in the year – I met Alan in the waiting room,” Palin says. Although the operation was a success and he now feels much better, life and work had to be put on hold. “I was in hospital for one week, had immediate convalescence and was then told to take three months off and do nothing.

“The trouble was, in order to do nothing you have to spend half the day telling people who contact you that you’re meant to be doing nothing. After that, you’ve not much time left to actually do nothing.”

The experience has changed him. “I now feel aware that ageing isn’t just about getting older. It’s also about the body becoming prone to more difficulties. This episode has left me brutally aware that, say, 40 years ago not many people would have survived this sort of thing.

“I value each day now. I look out the window and see things more. I feel intense pleasure that I’m still alive.”

One other thing has helped him appreciate life too. His main Monty Python writing partner, Terry Jones, died recently from dementia. When Palin was presented with a Special Recognition Award at last month’s National Television Awards, he dedicated it to Jones. “Terry was my dear friend of 60 years. He taught me more about television than anyone else.”

Palin will probably be most loved for his Monty Python years and the excursions into comedy acting that came after. Sheffield-born and the recipient of the Greatest Ever Yorkshireman accolade, he has nevertheless, through his performances, not missed an opportunity to send up his northern roots.

In Monty Python’s 2014 version of the well-known Four Yorkshiremen sketch, he brags about a life of grit and hardship. “You were lucky!” he tells his fellow Pythons. “We lived for three months in a rolled-up newspaper in a septic tank. We used to have to get up at six in the morning, clean the newspaper, go to work down mill for 14 hours a day, week in, week out, for sixpence a week, and when we got home our dad would thrash us to sleep wi’ ‘is belt!”

Meanwhile, in a musical part of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life film, he plays a mill worker again, who, when the mill is closed down, decides to sell his 63 children for medical experiments to help pay the bills.

And in one of the Ripping Yarns TV comedies, he is a die-hard fan of Barnstoneworth United, a small and failing Yorkshire football club, known for losing every game. Depending on which side of the Pennines you come from, you might think that one was just a little too close to the bone.

Actually, Palin’s early life failed to match the misery he would later brag about to his fellow “Yorkshiremen” Pythons. “I had a very happy childhood and have fond memories of Sheffield. When I was growing up I had direct access to marvellous countryside on the edge of the Peak District. There was this spot we used to call the Crags. I would often go out there on my bike. The scenery was like something out of a Western and you could pretend you were John Wayne!”

He attended the private Birkdale Preparatory School in Sheffield before moving on to Shrewsbury School and then Brasenose College, Oxford. At university, as well as meeting Jones, he sealed his performing future by appearing in the Oxford Revue in 1964.

More than 50 years later, he is now Sir Michael Palin, having been presented with a knighthood last June. It was, however, for his services to travel, culture and geography, rather than comedy. Perhaps that softened the blow for the other Pythons? Palin laughs.

“Actually they were all very supportive and wrote me nice messages. I thought I’d get a lot more stick. Even John Cleese sent me a very nice, friendly reaction. Mind you, I don’t know what he might have said behind my back.”

Palin also finds plenty of time to help others. Indeed, when asked what he is most proud of, he does not mention his travel books or his comedy career, nor even the Dead Parrot sketch. He does talk about his work supporting therapy for stammering children. Palin’s own father suffered from a bad stammer. Following his role in A Fish Called Wanda, in which he played a character with a stammer, he gave his name to the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children, a specialist centre for speech and language therapy in London.

“The centre is very successful and now has almost a dozen therapists. It’s incredibly moving to hear parents talk of how their child went to the centre and it ended up changing their life.”

For more than 30 years he also had a long association with the Campaign for Better Transport. In his time with the organisation, some claimed his own extensive travelling was not compatible with its work. Others pointed out that he may well have been making his own valuable contribution to reducing long-distance travel because his books and programmes were perhaps able to satisfy our desire to learn about life in other parts of the world without the need to go there ourselves.

Despite all the travelling, the charity work, the comedy, being an A-list celebrity and often being quoted as the ideal dinner party guest, Palin remains decidedly grounded. He lives in a fairly modest, albeit extended, North London town house that abuts the pavement and is overlooked by a tower block. He has done so for the past 52 years. He met his wife, Helen, when he was on a seaside holiday at the age of just 16. He is now 76. They have three children: Tom, Will and Rachel. “We’re a close family and we all get on,” says Palin. “We live within 20-30 minutes of each other.”

Fresh out of recovery following his operation last autumn, Palin is now busy editing material for the fourth volume of his well received diaries, taking the story up to 2010. It is due out next year. And another travel documentary could be on the cards. “It will be a short journey, like the North Korea one. I want to go somewhere I haven’t been before and learn a lot that I didn’t know.”

Palin is frequently asked where he would like to go next. He used to respond “Middlesbrough”, usually to great comic effect, although he insists “there is nothing wrong with the place” and it was just the fact that it really was one location he had not been to. But he recently did a show in the town, so is unable to use that line anymore. During his knighting ceremony when he was asked the familiar question by Prince William, he opted for Kazakhstan.

That would make for an interesting programme but after Borat, they are likely to be wary of another English comedian. He might find the country harder to get into than even North Korea.

Main image: Palin in North Korea

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