‘Writ­ing a di­ary is a bit like yoga’

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - In This Issue -

1n 1969, Michael Palin quit smok­ing and started a di­ary. The shyest Python tells Gaby Wood that it’s best to bare all

‘Ithink it’s in­for­ma­tion that be­comes more fas­ci­nat­ing as the years go by,” says Michael Palin about his best­selling diaries. “The way the coun­try’s changed, the city’s changed, at­ti­tudes change. You think: did we re­ally do that? Could we park out­side John Lewis and just go in?”

As celebrity rem­i­nis­cences go, this is hardly rock ’n’ roll. “Sex, Drugs and Park­ing on Ox­ford Street” is un­likely to be the ti­tle of Keith Richards’s next me­moir. But then, the au­thor in ques­tion – 73-year-old co­me­dian, travel doc­u­men­tar­ian, film pro­ducer, screen­writer and linch­pin of Monty Python’s Fly­ing Cir­cus – has been dubbed, rather dully, the na­tion’s nicest man.

“There’s re­ally noth­ing that I write that is par­tic­u­larly… sue­able,” he says, chuck­ling a lit­tle. “I tend to like the peo­ple I’m with most of the time. And you know, I’ve been mar­ried for 50 years, so there’s noth­ing in there that’s par­tic­u­larly in­dis­creet. Which sounds ter­ri­bly bor­ing, but that did make it slightly eas­ier to edit.”

When I speak to Palin, it is 10am, and he has al­ready writ­ten his di­ary en­try for the day (he writes in the morn­ings, for half an hour max­i­mum, about the pre­vi­ous 24 hours). As he re­counts in the first of his three 700-page tomes, he be­gan to write a di­ary in 1969. The Pythons were just be­gin­ning to work to­gether, and his first child, Tom, was a few months old. But what in­spired him to keep a daily record was that he had just given up smok­ing: “So cocky was I that I looked around for other gi­ants to wres­tle.” And writ­ing a di­ary had the added ben­e­fit of giv­ing him some­thing to do with his nico­tine-free fin­gers.

Ten years ago, a friend sug­gested he pub­lish them. He hes­i­tated, think­ing they con­tained some “per­sonal ma­te­rial”. In the end, thanks to his un­ran­corous out­look, “very few names were struck out”. With the help of the late Ion Trewin, the ed­i­tor of Alan Clark’s diaries, he re­duced his long­hand en­tries by 80 per cent and pro­duced what he calls “an an­ti­dote to hind­sight”.

What do they show? Well, the first vol­ume cov­ers the Python years, the sec­ond his work in Hol­ly­wood, and the third his more re­cent in­car­na­tion as, in his words, a “tele­vi­sion trav­eller”. In all of them, he’s very funny, de­spite the fact that he’s most fa­mous for writ­ing as part of a team. “Well, I am funny on my own,” he laughs.

Palin vol­un­teers the fact that he’s been ac­cused of name-drop­ping in the later vol­umes, but says that as he’s got older, his friends just hap­pen to have be­come more well known. ( The in­dexes run to 50 pages.) He con­fesses, how­ever, that he “felt more com­fort­able with the first vol­ume of diaries, which ended in 1979. I think it’s im­por­tant to keep the dis­tance, partly be­cause it keeps the diaries from be­com­ing like to­day’s news­pa­pers, or the gos­sip col­umns.”

There is an el­e­ment of self­pro­tec­tion in seem­ing to re­veal all – no one will want to dig fur­ther if you’ve said ev­ery­thing al­ready. An im­por­tant case of this for Palin was his sis­ter’s death. An­gela Herbert killed her­self in 1987. “Var­i­ous peo­ple at var­i­ous times were try­ing to probe the story, and find out ex­actly what went on,” he tells me, “and some­times quite un­pleas­ant meth­ods were used, de­cep­tive ap­proaches to my brother-in-law and so on.” Palin checked with his sis­ter’s wi­d­ower and chil­dren, then pub­lished his di­ary from the days when she was ill, ad­mit­ted to hospi­tal, and her sub­se­quent sui­cide. It gave a con­text to her death, and gave him an op­por­tu­nity to cel­e­brate her, too. The sec­ond vol­ume of his diaries is ded­i­cated to her. “I felt it was very im­por­tant to be open about what had hap­pened be­cause there is so much em­bar­rass­ment about sit­u­a­tions like that, and I didn’t want my sis­ter to be just for­got­ten or seen as hav­ing done some­thing very wrong. I think the fam­ily saw that as well. It was the only time I checked the copy with the in­di­vid­u­als who were men­tioned be­fore it was pub­lished.”

In Palin’s diaries, his­tory is in­ter­sti­tial – it hap­pens in the cracks of the ev­ery­day. For in­stance, was the Monty Python team a group of comic ge­niuses, or were they just a few lads muck­ing about? Well, both. Ex­cept that now, ev­ery­one knows how in­flu­en­tial they’ve been, but very few peo­ple know the colour of the car­pet in the Bournemouth ho­tel they stayed in when record­ing an early sketch. Palin’s diaries pre­serve a tex­ture that his­tory wouldn’t think to record.

In vol­ume three, he laments that the Pythons ap­pear to have been af­fected by their own pub­lic­ity: “Now our get-to­geth­ers are so in­fre­quent and our rep­u­ta­tions so in­flated that our meet­ings take on an aura of sig­nif­i­cance.” That was in 1989. But then you see that he was al­ready wor­ried about be­ing bor­ing in 1973: “Al­though I am in a job which still al­lows me to wear knot­ted hand­ker­chiefs over my head and have 2,500 peo­ple pay to see me do it, I still feel that I am a 30-year-old busi­ness­man.”

If any­thing, the fu­ture con­cerns Palin more than the past. Ever since he started pub­lish­ing his diaries, he has felt pos­ter­ity as he writes. “A cer­tain amount of self-con­scious­ness has crept in, I think.” He notes peo­ple’s full names, mind­ful of fu­ture edi­tors. His hand­writ­ing has be­come neater, in case it will need to be tran­scribed. The note­books them­selves are stur­dier, his flimsy re­porter’s pads hav­ing yielded to hard­backs, cov­ered in Floren­tine mar­bled pa­per. Palin laughs at him­self as he con­sid­ers all of this. But he hasn’t lost one of his orig­i­nal im­pulses: to cel­e­brate life. “I didn’t want to for­get a day. One of the great ben­e­fits of the di­ary is that some­how your life means a lit­tle more to you than just a lot of dead ends.”

The prac­tice has be­come in­grained in Palin’s habits. “It’s as im­por­tant to me to write the di­ary as it is to eat my break­fast and clean my teeth,” he says. “It’s a very good dis­ci­pline to try and un­scram­ble your mind.” Writ­ing a di­ary for half an hour ev­ery morn­ing is, he spec­u­lates, “a bit like yoga”.

I at­tempt to pic­ture the well­trav­elled Palin in a tree pose, but some­thing about it feels like a spoof. “Have you tried yoga?” I ask doubt­fully. “I haven’t tried yoga, no,” he says. “Diaries are my yoga!”

‘I’d rather skip my break­fast than miss writ­ing my di­ary ev­ery morn­ing’

‘ Well, I am funny on my own’: Michael Palin rein­vented him­self as a trav­eller

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