Ken Branagh's film Belfast is an overwhelming and moving experience. It reminds us that the human spirit is resilient. That there is a flame of goodness and decency and compassion in all of us that can flicker and fade but will never be blown out.
Because of the events that Branagh deals with, the vicious sectarian violence and the heavy handed military response which followed, Belfast became a city to avoid. A city synonymous with grief and anger, with lives and hopes cut short.
In 1981, when I was asked to put on a one-man show at the Arts Theatre Belfast during the Festival, I readily agreed. Friends were guarded about my decision. There were bombs going off, and killings and reprisal killings were still a regular feature of life in the city. But the rationale for my travels has always been see it for yourself. If you want to know what people think you first have to meet them.
This was the first time I'd ever done a one-man show, and I'd loaded myself with a paraphernalia of costume and prop changes which I knew had to be done fast otherwise I'd lose my audience. So well-rehearsed was I that I ran out of material after 35 minutes. I threw myself on the audience, announcing an early interval (' Drink as much as you like') and a whole second half of Q and A.
The response was fantastic, including a suggestion I try and break the Arts Theatre record for running from the stage, round the auditorium and back onto the stage again which I was told had been set by Sir John Gielgud at 19.5 seconds. ( I beat it by three seconds !) I learnt a valuable lesson in Belfast that night. Listen to the audience. Hear what they say about where they live.
I returned to the Festival two years later with a show called More Than Thirty Five Minutes with Michael Palin. I went back there throughout the 80's. Though I was offered the Grand Opera House I always preferred the shabby intimacy of the Arts Theatre. It was twenty years before I ever felt the need to do my one-man show anywhere else.
Thank you Belfast.
For me, one of the most impressive sights in Premier League football is the ability of Marcelo Bielsa, the Leeds United manager, to squat for long periods of the game. Whilst most managers pace up and down, or throw water bottles, Bielsa will be down on his haunches, watching his team from about three foot off the ground. Leaving aside the question of whether or not this is a good vantage point to follow the game, he does display an almost nonchalant talent for a position most of us couldn’t easily hold for more than a minute.
The sad truth is that we in the West have lost the art of squatting, which must have come as a sixth sense to our forefathers, and which still comes naturally to much of the rest of the world. I blame the chair. In The Complete And Utter History of Britain series Terry Jones wrote a sketch in which a man goes to the patent office with the very first chair. When asked what it’s for he replies that ‘it’s for sitting down, higher up’.
And once you can sit down higher up, you can look down on those below you and chairs become thrones and pretty soon you’re bossing people about and getting them to kneel. Squatting is not just an egalitarian activity, it’s also proven to be a much better position for emptying your bowels. Lavatories offer a greater control of waste disposal but a much less effective way of waste expulsion.
On my travels, especially in what we rather patronisingly call the less industrialized countries, I found that squatting is for many the default position not just for defecation but for conversation too. It requires no paraphernalia other than strong quads and pliable hamstrings. And it does away with ticket touts.
I think we could learn a thing or two from Marcelo Bielsa.
I’ve been having a clear-out of long-untroubled shelves and dark cupboards, with the help of my grandson Wilbur, who is amazed that I have so much stuff. I explain to him that I’ve had over seventy years to accumulate it and that I’ve always been very bad at throwing things away. Among the things he found most mystifying were two shoe boxes full of book matches, which I’d collected from bars and restaurants and hotels all over the world.
He looked at me pityingly. ‘Why, Grandpa ?’
‘Because as you get older you begin to forget things. Your memory needs a nudge, and that’s what they give me’.
So here’s a selection of my Ten Best book-match memories.
Box Tree Restaurant, Ilkley Yorks
Whilst filming A Private Function, we celebrated Alan Bennett’s fiftieth birthday here. A wonderful meal was only slightly marred by Maggie Smith discovering a piece of glass in her Mixed Salad. “A very mixed salad’, as she described it later.
Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort
Hardly needed matches here. Furnace Creek is at the heart of Death Valley and the day I stopped there with my two sons, the temperature was well-over 100F. Even the heart of the Sahara was cooler.
Watergate Hotel, Washington DC
One of the great locations of American political history. The Watergate break-in in 1972 led to the disgrace and resignation of President Nixon two years later. When staying there with my fellow Pythons in 1975 I scooped up anything with Watergate written on it, including the Room Service menu, which made Graham Chapman very cross as he hadn’t ordered his breakfast.
Hotel d’Angleterre Copenhagen
Smart hotel in the Danish capital. Amazed to find a large painting in the lobby by William Palin, a Victorian relative. Didn’t stay there but grabbed the matches and left.
BBC TV Centre
Quite a surprise. Had forgotten that there was a time when the BBC spent licence-payers money on book matches. But I’m glad they did, if only for this aerial reminder of the building where Python was born.
A fond, if scuffed memory of one of those brownstone basement bars which used to be dotted around Manhattan. Live music long into the night. To me, the essence of New York. Most have been squeezed out by developers.
One of the venues on an ill-fated Python tour of Canada in 1973. Regina was in the middle of hundreds of miles of flat prairie. When being shown round the city Graham Chapman asked our guide, “Why didn’t they put it over there?’
Tokyo Japanese Restaurant
The first time I went to a proper Japanese restaurant in London I and a friend saw a line of shoes laid out at the entrance, and assumed they were for us to change into. As we shuffled uncomfortably towards the table in these tiny slippers we passed a tableful of Japanese who looked up in horror. We were wearing their shoes.
Utah Parks Company, North Rim Grand Canyon
In 1972 Terry Jones and myself made our first visit to the USA. We tried to see everything as fast as possible, and Terry suggested that we run down the Grand Canyon and up again in a morning. It was not until the way back up that he collapsed. Worst of all, the lodge where we found these matches had run out of beer.
Europa Hotel Belfast
This is where I stayed on the many occasions I played The Belfast Festival. In the 1980’s Belfast was in the midst of the Troubles, and yet they were terrific audiences. Someone told me the Europa has been bombed 28 times.
Back in 1968 when the world was in an upheaval of riots and protests, Terry Jones and myself sat down to write songs for a lovely man we’d met called Barry Booth. Barry had been the pianist for the Royal Household Cavalry. As it had proved impossible to fit a piano on a horse he’d had plenty of time to himself, and after his national service ended he began to build a career arranging and accompanying big touring acts.
One of them was the matchless Roy Orbison. Barry encouraged us to write something which he could play to the great man and we would all be millionaires. I’d just married and our first child was on the way and I could have used a million. Or even a hundred. Which is how I came to write The Last Time I Saw You Was Tomorrow. Barry played it to Orbison in his hotel room, but Orbison didn’t see its potential. The potential to ruin his career.
But Barry wasn’t put off. He asked us to write more songs which he himself would sing. The result was an album for Pye Records called Diversions. Nobody was interested apart from John Peel who played He’s Very Good With His Hands on his legendary radio show. This boosted sales to around 200.
Terry and I went back to writing jokes and forgot all about Diversions. Until recently, when Barry had some CD’s made and I realised how good some of those old songs sounded. Quirky, pre-Pythonic lyrics delivered by Barry with musicianship of great delicacy and feeling.
Terry died in 2020 and Barry just over a year later. If you have any curiosity about their work then do try and listen to a copy of Diversions. The album, of sad and surreal ( and funny ) songs shows that good things live on. And it makes me realise just how much I miss my two fellow Diverters.
Mid-morning in London. Sun at last pushing aside the drab grey cloud-cover that’s subdued the spirits this past week.
Two years ago today, I was losing consciousness in the body repair shop at Bart’s Hospital. When, four and a half hours later, a kind anaesthetist returned me to the world, I had two new devices inside me. No longer could I say I was made entirely by Mr and Mrs Palin. I was now made by Mr and Mrs Palin and Edwards Lifesciences of Irvine, California, whose valve and annuloplasty ring I now sported.
I became a little emotional when I was told this news. I wanted to fly out to Irvine California and grasp the hand of whoever it was made the bits that were keeping me alive.
But convalescence and Covid put paid to all that, and I have not yet taken myself and my new attachments anywhere at all.
Though touted on television as the Great Traveller, the furthest I’ve been in the two years since my surgery is just south of Cambridge.
It’s nothing physical. Thanks to my transformed ticker, I have never felt better or stronger. It’s that travelling anywhere further than just south of Cambridge has overnight become not only less easy, but way less appealing. There was a time when jumping on a train or even an aeroplane was to be plucked from the everyday mundane world and taken somewhere magical. Now there’s far more process to go through. There are rules about travelling. Forms and jabs and internal debates about masking or not masking and flying or not flying. And as soon as the rules are relaxed at all, everyone makes for the exit.
I found myself wanting to get away from people who were trying to get away.
So I’ve stayed at home. Working on a new book about my Great-Uncle Harry, re-visiting and relishing old journeys, walking over Parliament Hill, reading, taking pleasure in the change of seasons, enjoying the company of my family and realising how blessed we are to have Archie and Wilbur and Albert and Rose growing up around us.
I know my feet will itch again sometime, but for now, taking things slowly means enjoying them more.