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.
Last week came the sad news of the death of Albert Roux, one of the titans of French cuisine, brother of Michel and father of Michel Roux Jnr. Apart from the excellent meals I’ve knocked back at their signature restaurant, Le Gavroche, I’ll always be grateful to the Roux brothers for letting the Pythons film the Dirty Fork sketch there in 1970. To let a film crew anywhere near a place that you love is always a risk, but when Monty Python is involved the danger to life, limb, tables, plates and glasses, lobsters and oeufs en cocottes must be drastically increased. So thank you Albert and Michel for being great sports and if anyone is interested, our day in Le Gavroche can be seen in “And Now For Something Completely Different”, and captured in the publicity still taken that day, which has become a bit of a classic.
This is as close as you’ll get to Le Gavroche right now, as like every other restaurant in London it’s closed in order to save lives. How did we get here and when will we leave? Answers on a postcard please.
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.
Apart from a carefully patrolled and distanced studio appearance on the J Ross show, my TV work has been confined to Zoomland, which saves on transport and trousers but is strangely un-intimate. I wanted to have a drink with Robert Lindsay after we’d done our excerpt from Waiting For Godot and with Tennnant and Sheen after doing Staged, but all I could do was press ‘Leave Meeting’, and wonder whether it had happened at all.
Now as I gaze at the pristine pages of my 2021 diary I do at least have some writing to do. Without giving the game away more than I already have, I’m researching the short, enigmatic life of my Great Uncle Henry – Harry to everyone – born in the heyday of the British Empire and died in the muddy shambles of the Somme at the age of 32. If all goes well, it will hopefully materialise in bookshops in two years’ time.
Ahh…bookshops, restaurants, trousers. So much to look forward to.
This weekend two people who I admired very much died. Jan Morris and Hamish MacInnes. Both were in their 90’s, both had lived quite extraordinary lives, and I was fortunate enough to spend some time with both of them. Jan Morris was the author of Venice, one of the best travel books I ever read. It made me want to go to Venice and when I went there, with Helen, in 1967, it made being there even better.
Before she underwent gender reassignment (or ‘changed sex’ as Jan always called it) she was James Morris, the reporter for the Times on the Everest expedition of 1953, and it was he who not only broke the story of Hillary and Tensing’s success, but made sure the news got through on the day of the Queen’s coronation.
The other, more personal loss was my old friend Hamish MacInnes, who could have been a member of the Everest expedition in 1953, but didn’t like big expeditions, and went instead to climb an equally dangerous mountain nearby.
Hamish MacInnes was a true adventurer, whose life embodied many people’s dreams, including my own. A climber of great skill and daring who would choose the awkward and difficult route precisely because it was awkward and difficult. A man who led mountain rescue teams but also advised the directors of Monty Python and The Holy Grail how best to throw bodies into gorges. If climbing equipment wasn’t up to the job, he’d not only invent something that was, he’d build it himself. He wrote stories and doubled for Clint Eastwood. Hamish was a free spirit, who made his own rules and went his own way, and lived many lives in one.
In this increasingly regulated world it is very sad to lose two people who embodied such inspirational eccentricity.
But the good news of the weekend is that Terry Gilliam is not at all dead and turned 80 years old on Sunday. Inspirational eccentricity lives!
Can’t believe its nearly four months since my last post. But there hasn’t been much to write about. No sooner had I recovered from heart surgery than the great pall of Covid descended, and a quiet life became even quieter. Some good things came out of it. I’m a compulsive book buyer and coronavirus gave me the chance to redress the balance between buying books and actually reading them. I discovered the great pleasure of R K Narayan’s stories. An elegant, assured writer bringing the characters and the atmosphere of an Indian small town to life with colour and much humour. A delight.
If the days weren’t too hot and the garden not too tempting, I worked away on two writing projects - preparing a fourth volume of my diaries and beginning research for a book based on the short life of my Great-Uncle Harry who fought in Gallipoli and died on the Somme. In the short term I enjoyed re-uniting with Robert Lindsay for a Lockdown Theatre performance of A Bit of Waiting For Godot, with Jo Lumley as Narratress (her description). Also did some fresh interviews for a series looking back at my travels for a series which will run through October on BBC 2. Michael Palin - Travels of a Lifetime. More details soon.
Being forced to slow down a far too frenetic lifestyle does have benefits. My heart scare reminded me that my body isn’t indestructible and if I want to keep it that way I must know when to stop working as well as when to start again. Over the last year I discovered a rather enjoyable equilibrium, a balance between work and relaxation that for the first time in my life favoured the latter.
Whether I can keep this going into the year ahead I don’t know. I’ll try. I shall indulge my curiosity but not be controlled by it. After forty years I’ve given up running, and taken to long walks instead. Running was a a fierce and competitive fight with myself, justified largely by how good I felt afterwards. Walking is something to enjoy at the time. It’s about noticing things, taking time, listening to noises other than the thump of your own heart or the slip-slap of trainers. And I treat Hampstead Heath as a phone-free zone.
Strange times. All my life I’ve been spurred on by the infinite possibilities ahead, now those infinite possibilities have been replaced by infinite problems, I’ve drawn in my horns for a bit.
Ah, sorry, that’s my phone ringing.
175 years ago today, one of the greatest voyages of British naval exploration set off down the Thames, heading for glory.
“At half-past ten in the morning of 19 May 1845 anchors were weighed, the ships swung through 360 degrees to make sure their compasses were working, and the Franklin expedition to the Northwest passage finally got underway with twenty-four officers and 110 men aboard. Crowds cheered from the dockside. Sir John waved vigourously to his family as they receded into the distance. The sight of HMS Erebus, freshly painted black, with a distinctive white band around her hull, leading the best-supplied expedition ever to leave British shores must have given them all confidence that the best that could be done had been done.
To this day there is a pub by the river at Greenhithe called the Sir John Franklin, where you can have a pint of beer and steak and chips and stand at the spot where Franklin’s family saw him for the last time.”Extract from ‘Erebus: The Story Of A Ship’
Alas, thanks to coronavirus, no crowds will be at Greenhithe today to celebrate the 175th anniversary. The wrecks of the two ships who set out that day were discovered 170 years later beneath the Arctic waters. I followed in their footsteps in 2017, and I salute their bravery in unimaginably desperate conditions.