Travels, anniversaries and deaths seem to have filled the last two months. The losses first – Ronnie Corbett, immaculate timer of comedy lines – on a par with Cleese – Prince, who I didn’t know a lot about until the obituaries rolled in and who I now know I should have caught up with much earlier. And Victoria Wood. That was a real shock. She had the great skill of reflecting our lives back at us, and making us laugh at ourselves in the best way possible. I always felt better after watching anything she did. And though she had many reasons to do so, she never played the big star. She quietly observed life, took it all in and gave it back to us with warmth and humanity, and above all, loads of laughter.
Two weeks ago, my missus and I celebrated fifty years of married life. A triumph of inertia, I always say, to avoid getting too sentimental. But to any married couples reading this I would recommend staying the course if you can. You find that almost without noticing, you’ve shared so much, and no-one else will ever share that much with you again. Two lives, inextricably entwined, encompassing the bad times and the good times is quite a storehouse. And by the end of the next week I’ll be 73, which sounds awfully old, but in my head I’m still in my twenties. Which is even more worrying!
I’ve been on the move. Not far. To Copenhagen to open an exhibition of paintings by Wilhelm Hammershoi, an artist who came to me completely out of left field, but who is now one of my all-time favourites. In fact I’m hoping to get to Copenhagen again to see the impressive Hammershoi exhibition at the equally impressive Ordrupgaard Museum, before it closes in June.
I spent 24 hours in North Wales interviewing Jan Morris the writer for a 90th birthday tribute to be shown on BBC2 later in the year, and after that I was lucky enough to have cause to visit one of my absolute favourite cities, Dublin, to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award from University College. Very generous of them to give me such an award, but I always feel that being given a Lifetime Achievement Award is kind of like saying “Right, that’s it. That’s your lifetime”. I mean you never hear of anyone being given a second Lifetime Award.
But if I am now in my second lifetime I’m certainly going to make the most of it. As the month of May rolls in, watch this space!
It’s three weeks now since I returned from a two-week boat trip to Antarctica, and I’m feeling the cold. It’s summer down there and the temperature was never far from zero – a little above, a little below. And when the sun shines it’s bright and clear, and even though you’re at the Antarctic Circle you can wear a T-shirt, provided you apply a gallon of sun oil and stay out of the wind.
It’s the wind and the sun that make the difference. The UV rays are powerfully strong in the unpolluted air, and when the wind blows, as it does every now and then, it’s no gentle breeze, but a fierce horizontal assault, whipping the snow into your face, stabbing the skin like an acupuncturist gone berserk. It’s then that you’re reminded that the Antarctic summer, in it’s angriest moods, can beat the London winter any day.
I took this photo from a kayak in a bay on the Antarctic Peninsula. on one of the calm, sunny, well-behaved days. Apart from the sensational beauty of the mountains and the stillness and serenity of the ocean, the magical element in this whole experience was the awareness that this was one of the very few places left on earth where humans have never been. There are mountains ahead of me, which have seen no human footprint in the whole of recorded time.
Now, I’m back home dealing in a different kind of stillness and serenity – as captured on canvas by the great Danish painter Wilhelm Hammershoi. In 2005 I made a one-hour BBC documentary about this little known early twentieth-century artist, who could paint household interiors and make them quite magical and mysterious. I think he’s terrific and I feel very honoured that I’ve been asked to open a new exhibition of his haunting work at the Ordrupgaard Museum, north of Copenhagen today.
Somehow the silence of Hammershoi’s interiors produce a similar sensation to the vast, untouched exteriors I saw in Antarctica.
If you’re interested the Hammershoi film is on YouTube, or, together with two other films I’ve made about artists, is on a BBC DVD called Palin on Art.
And if you want to experience the beauty, excitement and danger of travel in the Antarctic in all its moods, there’s nothing better than Ernest Shackleton’s book SOUTH, an account of one of the most unbelievably epic journeys ever undertaken.
Yesterday evening I was at the Cartoon Museum in London (just round the corner from the British Museum, but quite a lot smaller) to open an exhibition of the work of Martin Honeysett, one of the main illustrators for Dr. Fegg’s Encylopeadia of All World Knowledge. I wanted to find out why Terry and I had chosen Martin all those years ago, and turned to my diary for help (keep writing those diaries guys!) Well, it paid off! Reading my entry for February 15th 1974, I got a real shock.
“We have had meetings with cartoonist called Martin Honeysett, who has in the last year drawn some very funny, Python-like cartoons for Punch and Private eye. Terry was especially keen for Honeysett to be involved, as he had met him at a Punch party and taken a great liking to him. However, it turned out that Martin Honeysett had never met Terry in his life and was pleased, but a little bewildered, to get such an enthusiastic phone call from him. Terry, had in fact, met quite a different cartoonist.”
Terry’s mistake must have been divinely inspired as we got on really well with Martin Honeysett. He had a wonderfully weird imagination, enabling him to depict The Argentinian Leaping Cow and Badger, The Turkish Wall Goat and The Patagonian Shoe-Cleaning Rat in a way that Rembrandt or Botticelli would never have been able to get their heads around. And what great artist would even have attempted to tackle one of Dr. Fegg’s great recipes – Suet And Suet – whose ingredients were as follows : 6lbs of Suet, 24lbs of Suet, more Suet and finally, 31lbs of Suet.
Martin’s quiet, polite exterior hid a rewardingly tortured imagination. Most of his characters look pretty ghastly – ravaged, dark-eyed and sleepless. Even his rats have boils. Cosy living rooms and neighbourhood shops were transformed into dysfunctional hell-holes. With a flick of his pen housewives became screeching rat-bags and husbands became gawping morons. He was like an alchemist in reverse – turning gold into base metal.
Martin died, far too young, almost exactly a year ago, and it was fitting that the opening of his exhibition drew so many of his friends, admirers and fellow cartoonists. Seeing them all together was a reminder of what a proud tradition we have in this country of scurrilous, stroppy, subversive free-thinking humorists. Long may it continue.
You can catch the Martin Honeysett exhibition at the Cartoon Museum, 35 Little Russell Street WC1A 2HH until April 16th. And there’s lots of other wonderful work there too. It’s one if the few museums from which you’re guaranteed to come out laughing.
As for me, well the last two years have largely been spent looking back – and having a very good time in the process, with stage tours in the UK, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, and a Python Reunion – but now I’m really keen to do something new, to try something I’ve never tried before, to start pushing the boundaries again. Lots of exciting prospects, but nothing decided yet. Watch this space!
A very Happy New Year to all my readers! May 2016 bring something new and fresh for you too. Remember the Meaning Of Life – “Be nice to people, avoid eating fat, get some walking in and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations” As true today as when Python first came up with it in 1982!
It’s been three weeks and two days now since the last night of my Thirty Years Tour at the Waterside in Belfast (about which the man from the Belfast Telegraph was very nice!) and I’m back to my old life of working all day and relaxing in the evening, as opposed to trying to relax all day then work all evening.
I miss the adrenalin rush that used to hit me at 7.30 – or 8.00 in Ireland – when I tumbled out of my big, metre-high, specially built box-set of books and onto a stage in Stoke -on -Trent or Southampton, or Carlisle or Cork, or wherever I happened to be that night. Always a new audience, always the fear in the very back of one’s mind that you might completely blow it. Fortunately I knew from the welcome that the audience was on my side and it was up to me to be as good as I could, and give them the show they wanted – and had paid very generously for!
So thanks to all the audiences on the Thirty Years Tour whose enthusiasm was so warm that we usually had fun. No two night’s were ever the same and no two audiences were ever the same and that’s what’s so exciting, and irresistible, about a live tour.
I’m hanging up my Fish-Slapping boots for a while now and trying to give myself time to concentrate on some new projects for 2016. There’s not much sign of pipe and slippers time yet. I have two documentary ideas and some possible acting projects in the year ahead. I don’t want to rush at everything like I used to, I want to pace myself. Leave time for a bit of non-work travel and watching the grandchildren grow up and sitting in cafes with friends and going to movies and completing my current task of watching every episode of The Sopranos.
The great thing about my life is that whilst home and family haven’t changed much over the years everything else has, so I don’t really know what I shall be working on a year from now. It’s like stepping out onto the stage in front of a live audience – just swallow, smile and go. You don’t know what’s waiting for you until you’re out there.
Still waiting for it to get really warm in London. Even though I don’t really like it really warm. No, I don’t. Really. When the newspapers start telling us that London is warmer than Cairo I know what we’ll be in for. Noisy and ineffectual air con in the Underground, blokes with their shirts off in Marks and Spencer, late night shouting, arrival of insects from all over the world, and ice cream vans playing Teddy Bears Picnic at full blast.
So I shouldn’t really complain about this recent spell of pretty cool sunshine. It suits me. I’m trying to write material for my Thirty Years Tour solo show (tickets still available!) and if it’s too hot outside I lose the will to write and sit in the garden half-undressed wondering how long I can take it before I have to go indoors and rub 50 strength Coconut oil all over me.
And the countryside doesn’t like great heat either. Green turns to parched brown and sheep, particularly, must get very sweaty.
These recent cool but bright days have been perfect for travelling. My home city, Sheffield was at its most lively and welcoming when I visited a fortnight ago for the International Documentary Festival. We were showing a film called The Meaning Of Live, which takes a backstage look at the Python reunion shows at the O2 last summer. Quite poignant. And funny. From Sheffield I took the train through the Peak District to Manchester. The sun shone and the great, wide green hillsides looked impressive and friendly at the same time.
The Lowry Hotel in Salford is a great base to see the best of what’s happening in these great northern cities. A short walk across the bridge over the River Irwell and you come to one of the best modern buildings in the British Isles – The Manchester Civil Justice Centre. On one side is the largest suspended glass wall in Europe. But the whole thing is adventurous and original. And designed by Australians.
I bet most people don’t notice it. You have to be a visitor to appreciate these things. Someone who doesn’t scuttle by it every day, head down, late for work.
From Manchester I went south to Altrincham to see where the Clangers TV series is created. Just an ordinary industrial estate but what’s going in those sheds is amazing. A team of craftsmen and women, all superbly skilled, painstakingly bringing to life one the most inventive of all children’s programmes. Such is the intricacy of the work that only a few seconds are completed each day.
That day I went on to an appearance at the Stoke-on Trent Literary Festival., held at a remarkable location – an upper room at The Bridgewater Pottery Factory, one of Stoke’s success stories. They make all sorts of beautifully-hand painted plates and teapots and mugs – and told me that royal babies are very good for business. I was giving a talk about 25 Years Of Travelling, but the enjoyment of seeing this thriving corner of unfashionable Stoke-On-Trent and the Clanger factory up in Cheshire made me realise that airports are not essential to seeing the world. If you have eyes to see, then the unusual and the rather wonderful is often just up the road.
And a couple of weeks earlier I’d been among the delightful highways and by-ways, woods and meadows of Herefordshire to speak at the six hundred year old church of St. Mary in Linton, where my great grand-dad was the vicar for 36 years. Can Edward Palin ever have expected that 150 years after he preached his first sermon his great grandson would be standing in the very same pulpit?
Sorry, I’m rambling. It’s just that I’ve been reminded what a beautiful island we live in. Until it gets really hot, that is.