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.
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.
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.