‘Writing a diary is a bit like yoga’
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!”
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