Home truths on
Palin's Latest series at people and thier aspirationsafter centuries of 'tribal wars' in Europe
Michael Palin, fresh from the success of another BBC travel series, speaks to Gerald Isaaman about his new book and the changes in his life that stopped him from wandering too far this time
Watch out for Michael Palin next time you are on Hampstead Heath. He won’t be jogging up Parliament Hill, as he used to do from his home in nearby Gospel Oak. More likely, he will be behind a pushchair.
And in it will be his first and only grandson so far, 18-month-old Archie, with Michael no doubt telling the toddler exotic stories of his years travelling round the world – his latest trip being delightfully depicted, of course, on his new BBC series.
Archie played a role factor in that. Michael, now 64, is conscious of how much time he has spent abroad, away from his wife, Helen, and family since his original Around the World in Eighty Days, back in 1989.
So the Monty Python star didn’t want to miss the birth last year of Archie, the offspring of his son Tom and wife Rachel. “Archie was conceived at the time we were thinking of our next TV series,” he told me. “I suddenly thought: I don’t want to be on the other side of the world for six months when he’s born.
“That was one of the major factors in my deciding to do something nearer home. Now I find Archie’s just irresistible. There’s something about grandchildren which I hadn’t expected. I’d heard about the grandparents’ phenomenon – and it really is a wonderful feeling. I didn’t want to miss any of that.”
Since then Michael has been busy writing his warm, sensitive and incisive book version of the 20 countries he calls New Europe, the Balkans and beyond, into what was once Communist- dominated Russia and also modern Turkey. “And Archie has been helping too – arranging everything and disordering everything,” Michael protests mildly.
“There were long afternoons when I just couldn’t write the book because I was looking after Archie.”
Yet he is equally conscious that the world Archie will grow up into will face the dangers of climate change, something his own TV programmes exacerbates by promoting travel, in particular by plane, and that he too has a wanderlust in his genes that is almost impossible to eradicate. Indeed, Michael still fancies hiking down the Silk Road into China and flying off to Brazil at some future date.
We have to be sensible and insist that very cheap travel is adequately taxed and the growth of airports is curtailed, but Michael nevertheless confesses: “I love travel. I’ve got so much stimulation, mental and physical, from travelling.
“It broadened my horizons, literally and figuratively. And I’ve made so many friends. But everyone has to understand that they do bear a responsibility for climate change.”
He points out too that early man was on the move from Africa from the start, travelling up the Nile delta into Asia and Europe “always looking for somewhere more comfortable, somewhere more pleasant to be.
“Just think of all the people who travelled to the United States in the last 200 years, how a complete new world was created out of nothing. Movement is in the genes. Travel is very important as it is one of those things that brings us all together – and if it is well done, it can enable us to sort out our problems with other countries.”
With a plethora of travel programmes now on television, he doesn’t accept the comment of one critic that they have become “landscape pornography,” though he admits that
his cameraman “makes everywhere look marvellous”, whether it be the snow-capped heights of the Himalayas or the dust-driven storms of the Sahara.
The New Europe series, he points out, is more about people and their aspirations after centuries of murderous tribal and religious warfare, now that 10 countries have joined the European Union, with Turkey wanting to follow.
“So much of the history of the last thousand years in Europe has been very close to our own, certainly in the last century,” he explains.
“That’s perhaps because we all know what happened in two world wars, between and after. You can’t ignore that.
“The reason we called the series New Europe was to try and tap into that sense of how eastern Europe might have changed and the hope that Europe could be sorted out by co-operation instead of conflict. When you look at the wars of the last century you feel we can’t go through that hideous experience again.
“Religious warfare still simmers there, but I felt that there was a sense of optimism despite many problems.
“And I feel more European now that I’ve done this series – because part of the reason for doing it was that Europe is no longer divided with different ideologies and different ways of life. We now share more than divides us.
“Now, after the end of Communism, anything goes. It’s the market place that runs things. In Bulgaria I was amazed to see estate agents’ boards in English up all over the country because they want us to buy property there. It was like Hampstead on a good week.”
The new European states are relishing their independence and while Poles in particular want to come to Britain to earn decent wages, they want to retain their own identities and culture. “Their positive attitude to the EU is because they see it as their real get out of jail card,” he adds.
“One wonderful Czech I met, who was born and brought up in Prague, said, ‘I’m probably the quintessential European. I speak five or six European languages, I move around various European capitals but you can’t expect me to live in Austria and wear lederhosen. It’s not on.’”
Now back home, Michael refuses to say whether he will go off travelling again. He still fancies writing a second novel and is currently working on his second volume of diaries.
“Gospel Oak is my Shangri-La, absolutely,” he declares. “Archie is beginning to talk and I want to be here.” And with a great laugh, he adds: “You may well see me next pushing him in a pram on the Heath.”
New Europe by Michael Palin. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20.
Order on-line at www.thecnj.co.uk
Palin’s latest series looks at people and their aspirations after centuries of ‘tribal warfare’ in Europe