Ice fol­lies

He’s back on screen with a travel se­ries about North Korea and a role in drama Van­ity Fair, but Michael Palin’s big­gest new project is a per­sonal one – a book about early po­lar ex­pe­di­tions with a New Zealand con­nec­tion.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By Rus­sell Bail­lie

He’s back on screen with a travel se­ries about North Korea and a role in drama Van­ity Fair, but Michael Palin’s big­gest new project is a per­sonal one – a book about early po­lar ex­pe­di­tions with a New Zealand con­nec­tion.

It’s early Fri­day morn­ing in his Lon­don home when Michael Palin picks up the phone to the Lis­tener. You al­most hope the early hour and in­tru­sion may ren­der the nicest man in Eng­land slightly less ge­nial. But he proves dan­ger­ously avun­cu­lar from the getgo. Catch­ing Palin at home might seem lucky. Af­ter all, he has spent much of the past 30 or so years wan­der­ing the world ac­com­pa­nied by a cam­era crew, dis­play­ing his seem­ingly bound­less en­thu­si­asm and un­flap­pa­bil­ity. Though, of late, it’s been act­ing gigs get­ting him out of the house. In Ar­mando Ian­nucci’s black farce The Death of Stalin, Palin’s Vy­ach­eslav Molo­tov had echoes of his put-upon Monty Python char­ac­ters.

He’s play­ing an­other his­tor­i­cal fig­ure, Wil­liam Make­peace Thack­eray, in a new tele­vi­sion adap­ta­tion of the writer’s Vic­to­rian sprawl­ing so­cial satire Van­ity Fair. Palin’s top-hat­ted Thack­eray in­tro­duces each episode like a cir­cus ring­mas­ter.

Mean­while, his ca­reer as a travel doc­u­men­tary front­man, which has to some ex­tent made him the David At­ten­bor­ough of ge­og­ra­phy, con­tin­ues. He’s just been to North Korea for a po­lite poke around. Be­ing re­minded he’s jumped from fic­tional Stal­in­ist Rus­sia to a non-fic­tion Stal­in­ist state makes him chuckle.

“Yeah, I didn’t wear my Death of Stalin T-shirt while there, I can tell you that.”

Pre­dictably, Palin and his crew were care­fully shep­herded in their fort­night in Py­ongyang and out­side the cap­i­tal. Still, he says, the se­ries will be re­veal­ing. He came away think­ing maybe the place isn’t all that bad.

“We were very care­fully su­per­vised to make sure we didn’t look at things they didn’t want us to look at. But, on the other hand, we did film peo­ple in the street, we filmed peo­ple in a park hav­ing a day off and it didn’t seem a coun­try un­der the op­pres­sive gloom that is por­trayed in the West.

“So, I think we do shed a lit­tle bit of light on the coun­try, but it’s still a place that is very, very, very dif­fi­cult to un­ravel.”

The Korean ex­cur­sion served an­other use­ful pur­pose – as a dead­line for fin­ish­ing writ­ing his lat­est book, Ere­bus: The Story of a Ship. It’s a delve into the his­tory of the Royal Navy ves­sel, which, with sis­ter ship HMS Ter­ror, car­ried an ex­pe­di­tion led by ex­plorer James Clark Ross to find the mag­netic south pole in the early 1840s.

In its pages, Palin quotes Cap­tain Robert Fal­con Scott: “It might be said it was James Cook who de­fined the Antarc­tic re­gion, and James Ross who dis­cov­ered it.”

Af­ter their ex­pe­di­tions to the south­ern con­ti­nent, both ships, now un­der the com­mand of Sir John Franklin, went in search of the North­west Pas­sage. Both were lost in the Arc­tic with no sur­vivors among the 129 men. Searchers in the 1850s dis­cov­ered ev­i­dence that af­ter the ice-trapped ships were aban­doned, and as the sailors suc­cumbed to the cold and star­va­tion, the flesh of those who died may have sus­tained those who briefly out­lived them. An Ad­mi­ralty re­port, de­scrib­ing the can­ni­bal­ism as “the last dread al­ter­na­tive”, shocked Bri­tain. Charles Dick­ens, a friend of Lady Franklin, waded in with a de­fence of the men, ac­cus­ing Inuit, who had told Bri­tish searchers about their en­coun­ters with sur­vivors years be­fore, of killing the sailors and eat­ing them. Other the­o­ries have sug­gested scurvy and lead poi­son­ing, from badly sol­dered tins of

As the sailors suc­cumbed to the cold and star­va­tion, the flesh of those who died may have sus­tained those who briefly out­lived them.

food, had done for them be­fore the cold.

With de­creas­ing amounts of po­lar ice mak­ing search­ing dur­ing the sum­mer months eas­ier, the wreck of the Ere­bus was dis­cov­ered four years ago, largely in­tact, in just 10m of wa­ter. The Ter­ror was found two years later.


When news broke about the Ere­bus find, it stopped Palin in his tracks. He had just fin­ished a sea­son of Monty Python re­u­nion shows in Lon­don and was look­ing for some­thing to do next. Telling the ship’s story seemed the per­fect idea. Af­ter all, he had other con­nec­tions.

From 2009 to 2012, he was the pres­i­dent of the Royal Geo­graphic So­ci­ety, which had been a spon­sor of the Antarc­tic ex­pe­di­tion. Dur­ing film­ing of his se­ries Brazil, he’d hap­pened upon the story of botanist Joseph Hooker, who had trans­planted rub­ber plants from South Amer­ica to Far East Bri­tish colonies and even­tu­ally took over his fa­ther’s job as direc­tor of Kew Gar­dens in the late 19th cen­tury.

As a young man, Hooker was as­sis­tant sur­geon and botanist on the Ross Ex­pe­di­tion. When Palin was asked to give a talk in 2003 at Lon­don’s Athenaeum Club about one of the in­sti­tu­tion’s mem­bers, he chose Hooker.

As a boy in land­locked Sh­effield, Palin had grown up on sea sto­ries – the Horn­blower nov­els and 1950s movies about the Royal Navy. In his tele­vi­sion ad­ven­tures, he’s spent a fair amount of time afloat – rang­ing from jet boats on the Sho­tover River to dhows on the Per­sian Gulf. In Pole to Pole he vis­ited the Earth’s north­ern- and south­ern-most points.

He’d orig­i­nally hoped his Ere­bus study might be an­other tele­vi­sion se­ries. He could find no tak­ers but un­der­stands why.

“It’s such an enor­mous thing to do on tele­vi­sion; there’s a lot of sail­ing, there’s a lot of ice, there’s a lot of peo­ple in sort of bal­a­clavas. It’s very, very dif­fi­cult to see how you would make it at any de­cent cost and do full jus­tice to it.”

Slightly Amund­sen-like, per­haps, The Ter­ror, a se­ries by Ri­d­ley Scott, got there first. It’s a drama, adapt­ing the 2007 su­per­nat­u­ral novel by Dan Sim­mons, which takes the Franklin Ex­pe­di­tion tragedy and its sug­ges­tions of can­ni­bal­ism and makes a hor­ror story out of it.

Gain­ing pub­lisher in­ter­est for his non­fic­tion ac­count, Palin soon had an Ere­bus book to write and 18 months to do it, all on his own, mean­ing he had to put aside tele­vi­sion work.

“I quite en­joyed the free­dom of be­ing in con­trol, re­ally, of my own, ha, ship. If some­one had to go to a li­brary, it was me. Or, if some­one had to go to the dock­yard out at Wool­wich to look at the plans, it was me. I felt peo­ple ex­pect me to get a sense of the places where the ships went. So, I will go to Ho­bart and I will go to the Falk­lands and I’ll go into the North­west Pas­sage.”

And so he did, but his first archival port of call was the fa­mil­iar sur­rounds of the Royal Geo­graphic So­ci­ety where, among the arte­facts, are a pair of socks – the stock­ings worn by Hooker in the Antarc­tic.

“They were rather grey and shabby and a lit­tle bit crusty but they be­came the sym­bol of the re­search I would have to do.“

Dur­ing his re­search, Palin ven­tured to Tas­ma­nia, where the ships win­tered be­tween their first two of three for­ays to the south­ern ice and where, at the time, Franklin was the lo­cal gov­er­nor. He also went to the Falk­lands, where the ships un­der­went re­pairs on their voy­age home. He hitched a ride on a Rus­sian Arc­tic tourist ves­sel to see the area where the ships’ North­west Pas­sage ex­pe­di­tion ended, only for float­ing ice to pre­vent him get­ting close.

“So, we ac­tu­ally en­coun­tered the con­di­tions that Franklin en­coun­tered.

“I hoped the cli­max of the book would be me ac­tu­ally div­ing down and touch­ing this ship that had been launched in Wales in 1826 … but I would prob­a­bly knock some­thing over and de­stroy the fi­nal note­book of Sir John Franklin or some­thing, so it’s prob­a­bly best that I didn’t.”

Palin’s book notes the Antarc­tic vol­cano that Ross named af­ter his ship as the scene of New Zealand’s great­est air dis­as­ter. Ross’ own name lives on as a sea, is­land, ice shelf and de­pen­dency in the NZ-ad­min­is­tered slice of the south­ern con­ti­nent.


Re­turn­ing to Antarc­tica via Syd­ney in 1841, the Ere­bus and Ter­ror vis­ited the Bay of Is­lands, 18 months af­ter the sign­ing of the Treaty of Wai­tangi. The crews were warned not to go ashore un­armed.

Palin writes about Robert McCormick, the nat­u­ral­ist-sur­geon aboard the Ere­bus, meet­ing mis­sion­ary Henry Wil­liams and invit­ing him aboard. McCormick also called in at the Pai­hia print­ing of­fice of Wil­liam Colenso. The stopover was marked by tragedy, too – a royal ma­rine in the com­pany drowned when a dinghy over­turned on its way back to the ship.

“It was an in­ter­est­ing pe­riod for the coun­try and ex­tra­or­di­nary to think about what New Zealand has grown to be in a rel­a­tively short time.”

Leav­ing North­land, Ross’ ships landed on the Chatham and Auck­land is­lands, all part of a mis­sion to plant Union Jacks in re­mote spots that didn’t have one yet. The first flag plant­ing, on Pos­ses­sion Is­land in the Ross Sea, was into a bed of pen­guin guano. The birds pecked at the hu­man in­vaders drink­ing toasts to Queen Vic­to­ria.

With his re­count­ing of the ex­pe­di­tions into the Antarc­tic and Arc­tic cir­cles, Palin’s book is also a story of em­pire in the rel­a­tively peace­ful years af­ter the de­feat of Napoleon. The Royal Navy was the Nasa of its day.

“Our very well-trained navy was avail­able to go around the world and, in fact, for a very short time Bri­tan­nia did rule the waves. What they did, es­pe­cially with the Ere­bus on the first ex­pe­di­tion to the Antarc­tic, was carry out sci­en­tific ex­pe­di­tions. It was ex­plor­ing the world, and it stim­u­lated lots of re­search done by non-Bri­tish peo­ple … all the peo­ple who wanted to know about the world, they used the Bri­tish navy.

“But then, you know, you get to the Franklin ex­pe­di­tion and it was a rather dif­fer­ent feel, it was, ‘Let’s show what we can do. Let’s go through this North­west Pas­sage’ … but the Antarc­tic voy­age, I think, was a wholly ad­mirable ex­am­ple of em­pire.”

Palin agrees when it’s sug­gested that his ac­count of so much nau­ti­cal der­ring-do and even­tual grim tragedy has some oc­ca­sion­ally Pythonesque touches. Af­ter all, there was that sketch, “Lifeboat Can­ni­bal­ism”, in which Palin and co played ship­wreck sur­vivors dis­cussing who among them should be on the menu.

“I was very pleased to dis­cover, in my re­search, the role that hu­mour played in all of this … it’s re­ally about con­fronting fear with the ca­ma­raderie of your friends around you. There was an aw­ful lot of laugh­ter there and I try to bring those mo­ments out in the book as much as pos­si­ble.”

Stuck in pack ice on New Year’s Eve, the ship’s or­di­nary sea­men passed the time by carv­ing them­selves a pub.

He cites, as an ex­am­ple, the ships’ or­di­nary sea­men pass­ing the time, while stuck in Antarc­tic pack ice, by carv­ing them­selves a pub to cel­e­brate New Year’s Eve in 1842, com­plete with an ice sculp­ture of their own Venus dé Medici.

Else­where, Palin writes with amuse­ment about McCormick. He liked noth­ing bet­ter than dis­cov­er­ing a new species of seabird by shoot­ing them dead. With his spec­i­men cases full of dead al­ba­trosses and other species, and vis­it­ing Rio de Janeiro on the re­turn voy­age from the Antarc­tic, he bought two live par­rots to take home as pets.


Palin, of course, was part of the great­est mo­ment in par­rot-re­lated com­edy in a sketch, which first screened on Monty Python’s Fly­ing Cir­cus in 1969.

He and John Cleese per­formed it again, at the Python re­u­nion shows four years ago, in front of 200,000 peo­ple, an event he sees as the last hur­rah for the group that changed the course of Bri­tish com­edy. Palin ad­mits to mixed feel­ings about re­unions since the death of mem­ber Gra­ham Chap­man in 1989. But the 10 Lon­don sta­dium shows were a fit­ting farewell.

“Here we are, all over 70, stag­ger­ing onto the stage … we re­ally had to step up to the mark, rather than do pale ver­sions of what we did be­fore. A lot of the sketches were the best we had ever done them. We re­mem­bered Python in the best pos­si­ble way. There were lots of of­fers to go around the world with the show, but Python was made in Eng­land. We live in Lon­don. That was the place we should do our last show.”

Since then, Terry Jones, a friend from their Ox­ford days and whose writ­ing part­ner­ship with Palin dates back to pre-Python times, has gone public with his de­men­tia.

“So he would not have been able to do any fu­ture tours any­way. So I think it was a nat­u­ral end­ing and I’m glad it went so well.”

And, as his book, his act­ing roles and his North Korean ex­cur­sion prove, Palin has plenty of other things to be get­ting on with.

He’s been mar­ried to wife He­len, whom he first met in his teens, since 1966. Their three chil­dren are now reg­u­larly pre­sent­ing them with grand­kids. Hand­ily, grandad has writ­ten some kids’ books in his di­ver­si­fied ca­reer.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, when his chil­dren were grow­ing up, his travel do­cos would mean he was away for months on end. It didn’t seem to worry his near­est and dear­est.

“My wife is ex­tremely good and pa­tient deal­ing with my de­par­tures. She’s not a great world trav­eller her­self, so she doesn’t feel that she’s missed out on some­thing. I don’t think they re­ally no­ticed my ab­sences. Apart from the fact that I’m not there to sign the odd cheque.”

He’s just spent 18 months writ­ing Ere­bus in his home of­fice in their house, which sits on the edge of Hamp­stead Heath. “My wife couldn’t wait for me to get to North Korea or some­where and get me out of the house a bit.”

The cover of Ere­bus looks quite Boy’s Own – the sort of book that might at­tract the young Palin, who grew up read­ing those sea ad­ven­tures and for whom ge­og­ra­phy was a favourite sub­ject. “I would read Na­tional Geo­graphic and look up the maps in my fa­ther’s at­las and I knew I’d never see th­ese places. No one from Sh­effield ever did. But I could read about them and they were in my mind.”

So, what might a time-trav­el­ling 75-yearold Palin say to his younger self about his jour­neys to come? “I’d give him a great big hug and say, ‘Gosh, you’ve been lucky’,” he says with a laugh, adding a line from The Life of Brian: “You lucky, lucky bastard.”

North­west Pas­sage: The Ere­bus sails past an ice­berg.

1. Ere­bus and Ter­ror in search of the mag­netic south pole. 2. Sir James Clark Ross. 3. A paint­ing de­pict­ing Sir John Franklin and crew mem­bers stranded in the Arc­tic. 4. Sir John Franklin.

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