'No-one expects the anti-growth coalition': I recently spotted this piece of graffiti, scrawled on a hoarding on the Jenners' building on Princes Street. The reference was clear and illustrates the continuing cultural resonance of Monty Python. Soon after passing Jenners, I found myself cutting through Cranston Street off the Canongate. I was reminded that Cranston Street Hall played host to both the premiere of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
and the very first Fringe appearance by Michael Palin and Terry Jones, in 1964. A 'great temple of the arts', Palin described it, slightly tongue in cheek, when returning with Jones in 1983. It was there, following good reviews (and a visit from David Frost) that Palin first had an inkling that he could make a living from the arts.
Finding a second string to his bow that he has been superb at is what has kept Palin open and optimistic. His time since the 1980s has, despite a range of TV and movie acting, largely been defined by his travel documentaries. The genius of Palin lies in his ability to travel anywhere and communicate empathetically. This is evident in his recent series, Into Iraq
, for Channel 5, which follows one made on North Korea. There he was able to befriend some of his minders, drawing out of them some of the darker aspects of North Korean life but also the common humanity.
The North Korean series almost didn't happen due to his wife getting ill but she insisted he went through with it. Her condition has since worsened and that clearly casts a shadow over Palin. His raw reaction to the death of his best friend Terry Jones in 2020 illustrates how loss is a constant part of his life as he reaches 80 years old. Heart surgery about two years ago showed that his own health may jeopardise his ability to travel. We are lucky that he continues to seek new pastures even though unsure whether he will ever again make such a physically demanding trip.
A baptism of fire
He chose Iraq because of the contrast between its 'extraordinary past' and its 'decades of war and conflict'. As Jeremy Bowen recently put it, 'Iraq has been tortured by war'. However, as Mesopotamia, it was the birthplace of civilisation. Palin actually began his journey in Turkey, locating the source of the River Tigris and exploring Kurdistan. Parts of this geo-cultural territory are in Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq.
He attended the Newroz festival of Kurdish culture in the town of Akre. Not prepared purely to spectate, Palin got into the centre of the crowd taking torches up the mountain, with health and safety eschewed. A true baptism of fire into Kurdish culture. As Palin put it, the dramatic spectacle was something of a 'mixture of Glastonbury and Apocalypse Now
'. The 'fire walk' was visceral and provided a wonderful conclusion to the first programme.
As ever in his travel programmes, the laborious process of crossing international borders is not left on the cutting room floor. He rarely moves hundreds of miles from one location to another without the travails of the journey featuring. For Palin, borders are often bleak places of 'barbed wire, watchtowers and queuing lorries'. This willingness to embrace and highlight the difficult aspects of travel perhaps stems from his first major travel series Around the World in 80 Days
. In that, he had to strictly cross each section of the route without recourse to air transport. Scrambling to reach ships about to depart became a common theme, as did finding alternatives at short notice.
In the case of the Iraq series, the process of getting into the country was a mesh of bureaucratic inertia, combined with genuine concern for the safety of him and his team in 'one of the world's most dangerous countries'. There was more than a 'slight sense of trepidation' as he entered the country. The war-ravaged aspects of the country become evident in the oldest part of Mosul. Destroyed by Isis in 2014, this section of the city remarkably still has some residents, trying to continue life. A lovely segment of him talking to a group of young kids draws out the inner sweetness of the man. Palin draws optimism from his interactions with young people in this and his other series.
In the second episode, Palin visited the scene of a terrible Isis massacre on the banks of the Tigris. Those killed were young cadets. Palin admitted that his 'natural optimism took a beating' when witnessing the scene. The 'harsh realities of modern Iraq' became very evident as he explored the area around Kirkuk, the main oil producing area. There the 'eternal flame', burning for over 4,000 years, first indicated that oil was present underground. It has proved something of a curse, becoming the focus of successive wars and conflicts. Though the oil provides about 90% of Iraq's wealth, it has been largely wasted over the decades with very little of it trickling down to the Iraqi people. The numerous extravagant palaces built under Saddam Hussein, now partly demolished, symbolise this vast squander.
Palin also examined the dual threats of Isis 'remnants' and climate change which are threatening Iraq. It was the flooding of the Tigris which brought life and civilisation to the area. Many of the tributaries are drying up, threatening to turn many areas arid and eventually back to desert. His optimism returned when he explored some of the ancient monuments and places. Iraq seemed to represent both despair and inspiration at the same time. Resilience seemed to be a key 'part of the national character'.
He entered Baghdad with a 'sense of wonder', derived from a childhood reading Arabian Nights
. Taking a ferry across the Tigress reminded us that Palin's favourite modes of transport are trains and small boats; places where you are closer to other passengers and can communicate close up. He soon got caught up in the 'buzz' of central Baghdad. He came across a poetry slam, full of political criticism and engagement, which he found 'heartening among the apparently insurmountable problems' facing the country. He was amazed by the ability of the Iraqi people to stay strong and find a way to survive through the seemingly endless conflict.
He ended the episode under the infamous Victory Arch erected by Saddam Hussein to commemorate the Iran-Iraq war. For Palin, it stands as a symbol of megalomania. Iraq has struggled to recover from Hussein's brutal dictatorship and the way it was brought to an end. Rather than bringing peace and prosperity, it led to insurgency and violence.
Around the world
During lockdown, I got sucked into a Michael Palin binge watch. Starting with the entertaining but not fully satisfying Ripping Yarns
, we soon got into his travel documentaries. Going through them chronologically, including more obscure series such as that on Ernest Hemingway, Pole to Pole
was probably the highlight. He travelled through places including the Soviet Union, Ethiopia, South Africa, etc, in about 1989, just as huge historic changes were happening. Palin's attempt, in Russia, to overcome the convoluted bureaucracy involved in buying a bottle of vodka tells you as much about a system on the verge of collapse as a sophisticated analysis by a political economist would.
A common thread was the way Palin communicated to those he didn't share a language with. A day spent with a family in a remote part of Nepal typified this; you don't need language to communicate. It was clear from the woman of the house's gestures and the mood of her utterances that she wasn't happy with the way he was preparing the food. You didn't need Google translate to appreciate that.
Similarly, the section of Around the World in 80 Days
on a traditional dhow, which took him from Dubai to Mumbai, was what really made him as a travel broadcaster and writer. It opened up a whole new career for him; without that section you wouldn't have the same emotional connection. The 2008 programme in which he returned to try and find the ship and its crew was charming and, again, it revealed the deep humanity within the man.
In the final episode of Into Iraq
, Palin visited the site of Babylon, one of the first city states. He discovered that the substantial brick edifice now on the site was built in the 1980s, on top of the remnants of the old city. Again, a product of Saddam Hussein's megalomania as were the unused, graffitied palaces nearby.
He finally reached a building which has been part of his imagination since childhood: the Great Ziggurat of Ur. Something he thought he would never see in person. Standing on top of it, he found the whole scene awe inspiring, 'as impressive as the pyramids'. The pages of his childhood encyclopaedia were brought to life, with the child-like enthusiasm still within him.
Though he reflected that the place should be thronging with tourists, he was rather grateful that it wasn't and that he could enjoy it in tranquillity. He found the same wonderful silence in the middle of the Iraqi marshes, able to escape the chaos and honking horns. It was those marshes, where the Tigris and the Euphrates meet, that inspired the idea of the Garden of Eden. The two mighty rivers converge at Basra and form the Shatt al-Arab.
As the river finally discharged into the Persian Gulf, there was a sense of Palin perhaps reaching an endpoint himself. There was an elegiac feel to the final episode. 'I might just stay at home after this,' he commented. Certainly, Palin's voice was weaker, the journey clearly leaving him spent. He reflected that, despite the challenges, it had been very worthwhile to 'catch the feeling of a country that has been written off'. It demonstrated to him that 'humankind does its best whenever it can', even in the most unpromising circumstances. That is a unifying theme of Palin's travels.
Narrating a life
How has Palin remained so open and inquisitive when others become embittered? He is an inveterate scribbler: evident in his volumes of diaries. He credits keeping a diary for keeping him sane and 'in charge' of the narrative of his life. Writing a diary lets you see that things do not flow in a unidirectional way and that perceived achievements did not seem that way at the time. Palin's life post-Python surely provides wider life lessons. Constant reflection as a path, not to repeat or rest on our laurels, but to continually seek. 'I'm always optimistic on the road… I find it so exhilarating I just want to keep going'.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher based in Edinburgh