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.
Change Of Heart
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.
The Bishops Finger
There are epiphanic moments in every life and I had one a week ago in Smithfield in the heart of London when The Bishops Finger beckoned to me. It was the evening of ‘Freedom Day’ and by chance my son Will and I found ourselves in front of the ancient gate of Bart’s, the hospital where nearly two years ago I had my ailing heart re-juvenated.
One thing I’ve missed since then is a pint in a pub on a hot summer’s day. And that’s when I saw, on the other side of the square, The Bishops Finger. And it was pointing at me. And the next thing I knew I was in the cool dark interior, standing at the long polished wood bar, watching Fiona, the owner, draw a beautifully cleansing glass of Whitstable Pilsener.
I’ve spent time in plenty of pubs I’m only too happy to forget, but The Bishops Finger was different. So much so, that I burbled on about it, with the enthusiasm of a freshly released prisoner. Fiona must have though I was on something. We sat and despatched our Whitstable Pilseners and talked about nothing much, which is what pubs are for. In a way I had Covid to thank for keeping me away from places like this for so long that the joy of re-discovery was doubly glorious.
Occasionally things like this happen which can’t ever be repeated or re-created. All I can say is that that drink in The Bishop’s Finger will always be special. It was more than just a drink, it was a return to life.
A Day For The Diary
I just heard on the radio that May 12th is National Diary Day, or National Dairy Day as it always comes out in my emails. It was with rather a shock that I calculated that I’ve been a regular diarist for over fifty years. Monty Python hadn’t been heard of when I made my decision to give up smoking and keep a diary instead.
I wavered a bit on the smoking front. Five years after I’d ‘given up’, I found myself one of Three Men In A Boat, spending a lot of time in the middle of the Thames with two generous smokers – Tim Curry and the late great Stephen Moore – as we waited for Stephen Frears to make up his mind what he wanted us to do next. A regular visitor to the set was our screen-play writer Tom, now Sir Tom Stoppard who tempted us with very long, very smart, ciggies which looked irresistibly sophisticated. I was soon on ten a day and was saved by a severe cough, which frightened the ducks off and reminded me why I’d given up in the first place.
Though I have not spent a night away from home since February last year I’ve done more travelling on television than for a very long time thanks to the recent Travels of A Lifetime series and re-runs of the original series on BBC Four. I‘m not that keen on watching myself on screen – I always see the mistakes – but I’ve been reminded how much of the appeal of my travel shows lies is in the professionalism of those I worked with, and particularly the superb camera work of Nigel Meakin. Whilst I was waffling away he was building up a visual scrapbook of each location which in these stay-at-home days reminds us what a rich, exciting and exotic world is still out there.
I always thought it was odd that the great Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919, when more people died across the globe than in all the battles of World War One, was almost perversely ignored by the writers of the time. Hardly a mention from the likes of Hemingway, or Scott Fitzgerald.
I’d love to have known how they got through it. How close it came to them, how scared they were of the future. So to all of you who may be encouraged to start a diary on National Diary Day, stick with it. Make it National Diary week, or National Diary Year, and the next thing you know you’ll be celebrating National Diary Half Century. And a word of warning – to all those of you getting out pails and butter churns tomorrow, check the spelling.
Walk, Don’t Run
It’s just over a year and a half ago that I gave up running, after 40 years. Taking up regular running way back in 1979, when Life Of Brian had just opened in the cinemas (apart from those which banned it ) was one of the best things I ever did. At the price of a few pulled muscles I kept myself lean and fit. There were so many cold, wet days when all I wanted was to stay by the fire or under the covers, but I’m so glad I persevered. I ran in streets and parks and beaches all over the world, from Saudi Arabia to Sierra Leone, but my regular patch was Hampstead Heath, close to my home in London. Just the right mix of hills and woods and off-piste tracks and paths.
After my heart surgery I scaled down from running to walking, and have come to value the Heath even more. It’s still a challenge, but now I have more time to take it all in. The bird life, the trees, the woods, the mix of secret places and some of the finest views of London. I walk some days to Kenwood House and back. It’s a great goal to aim for, offering you the chance to stroll around the grounds of your own mansion. I love the changing moods of the place. This morning an early mist gave the house a ghostly, spectral presence and I’m glad I had my iPhone with me.
In between long walks and bird-spotting, I have been whiling away the days by making a start on the book about my Great-Uncle Harry. He died young, 31 years old, and in a bad place, the mud of northern France, but I’m trying to give his life some value, so he’s not just another name on the wall of a memorial. This involves a lot of detective work, but it also brings into focus a blood relation who has been consistently ignored and whom I now feel quite close to.
My friend Basil Pao described pandemic life as feeling like the world has pressed the Pause button, and to try and break up this sense of being in lockdown limbo, I try hard to keep in touch with friends and there are always surprises, and when Paul Whitehouse told me his daughter’s a Clangers fan, I was happy to oblige.
Hope you’re all going to have a jab as soon as you get the chance. For me having the vaccine was a no-brainer – if only to get me out of the house.
Here’s to the light at the end of the tunnel, or the needle at the top of the arm.