It’s Death Of Stalin Day, as decreed by The Central Commissariat for the Purveying of Entertaining Images to the Glorious Cinemagoers Of Britain!
It’s been strange seeing my (lightly photo-shopped) face staring at me from Underground station platforms. Normally taking the Tube is a chance to immerse myself in a book and forget about life above ground. But there I am – Molotov for a month – or however long the Death of Stalin plays.
What a great group of faces to be alongside. All excellent in the film and absolutely the best to work with. I’d like to have seen Simon Russell Beale up there too, and Andrea Riseborough and Paul Whitehouse and well, everyone else in the film. There’s really no station long enough to do justice to the strength in depth of that cast. And of course, our leader, Armando, who with David Schneider and Ian Martin and Peter Fellowes made sure no-one had a dud line!
I’m relieved that the film’s gone public at last. We’ve had some great reviews but sometimes they can raise expectations. Now it’s over to you. Don’t let my (lightly photo-shopped) face put you off. And take lots of friends!
Whoever thought writing was a sedentary activity should have been with me these past few weeks. Since my week in the Falkland Islands in March, my researches into the saga of HMS Erebus have taken me to Pembroke Dockyard in Wales, where the ship was built 190 years ago, to the Orkney Islands, the last sight of home for the ill-fated crew of Franklin’s Arctic expedition, and just last week to Hobart, Tasmania which was the base for Erebus’s most successful voyages, into the heart of the Antarctic.
A lot of the places where my story is set are remote corners of the world, so it takes a while to get there, but one thing they have in common is an almost unpolluted atmosphere. It’s quite a shock to look up into the heavens above Port Stanley or Western Australia (where I went to a Writers Festival on my way to Hobart) and see the sheer mass of flickering, sparkling light that fills the skies. Its a sight that takes the breath away, and one we big city dwellers never get to see.
The only trouble is that I know that soon I’m going to have to stop travelling and sit down and write my book. Instead of seeing stars I’ll be seeing spellcheck. Ah, well, I’ve always enjoyed the writing process. Not that it’s always as smooth as it seems. I recently had to sort through my writings that date back more than 50 years, to try and decide which to send to the British Library archive. In the end I gave up and sent everything.
So many of the best Python ideas sprang from squiggles and doodles and crossings out, that what I was giving the British Library was bound to be a bit of a mess, but a kind of productive mess, which they would sort out. And they seemed very happy to do that. The fact that all my Python material was hand-written, and then re-written, and then chopped up and inserted into someone else’s sketch didn’t seem to worry them. And it doesn’t really worry me any more. I’m an obsessively tidy person, and yet it’s the untidiness of the Python sketches that reveals the thought processes behind them.
“Don’t tidy up histery’ I wrote in my notebook, and then crossed it out and wrote it again, spelling “history” right.
Hope you all have a really great summer – and for those in the southern hemisphere, a really great winter.
As the days grow longer, I’m getting up a little earlier and trying to concentrate my mind on the story of HMS Erebus, the book which I have set myself to write in time for publication at the end of next year. I always found libraries rather stuffy when I was at school but now I’m looking at archive material, there’s something exciting, almost thrilling about seeing letters and diaries that were written 170 years ago, often from the furthest ends of the earth.
Talking of ends of the earth, I’m just back from researching Erebus material in the Falkland Islands. It’s such a quiet unspoilt, un-polluted environment that it’s hard to imagine there was a war there in 1982 – the year we were shooting Monty Python’s Meaning Of Life. The echoes of the conflict reverberate. I was there the week after the Falklands Marathon – won by an Argentinian.
The islands are bare and rather beautiful and I had a great time at the excellent Dockyard Museum and a very comfortable stay at the wondrous Waterfront Hotel. The RAF flew me down there – an 18 hour flight from Brize Norton via Ascension Island, which is an old volcano and the only piece of land sticking out of the Atlantic for hundreds of miles.
Was only there for a two-hour stopover but just enough time to see the the great sea turtles labouring towards the ocean after laying their eggs. Dragging themselves, exhausted across the sand, but once in the water, off like a rocket. After all, they swam over from Brazil to lay those eggs. I’d never seen anything like this before, which just shows that if you’re curious enough, travelling is never over. Watch this space!
I’m just back from the Lahore Literary Festival in Pakistan. I first visited the city in 2003 when we were filming the Himalaya series for the BBC. I fondly remember its noise and beauty and bustle and when Razi Ahmed invited me to the Literary Festival I was instantly tempted. I flew to Lahore last Thursday night. Unfortunately that morning there had been another explosion in the city and the police were worried that the big Alhamra Arts Centre might be a target, so the Festival had been transferred to a local hotel.
Despite the news that the explosion was an accident, not a terrorist attack, the police were taking no risks and with only 15 hours to go to the opening event, the location had to be changed yet again and the entire three-day programme reduced to one day. The fact that the Festival took place at all was a triumph for Razi and his team. Overnight they transformed the 135-year old Faletti’s Hotel into three auditoriums and space for a few thousand people to congregate.
And it worked. I was on stage with novelist Kamila Shamsie at 10 o’clock on Saturday morning. In the audience were some of the many Monty Python fans from all over Pakistan. Despite all the security concerns I was welcomed and made to feel at home and the perfect weather and great cast of fellow writers made it a memorable day in Lahore.
It ended when a PowerPoint presentation of highlights from my Himalaya series was brought to a Pythonically abrupt halt when a crouched figure emerged from the audience and handed me a piece of paper with a message that read : “Sir, Time Is Over. Please Finish. Thanks. Lahore Police” I assumed this was something John Cleese had organised and made a joke about going on for another hour. Within ten seconds my mike was unplugged and the power supply switched off. It wasn’t a joke. The Lahore Police had the last word.
By then the Festival had done its work and brought thousands of people together on a beautiful day in a fine city to hear about books and writing and to exchange ideas and meet other people with open minds. The great sadness was that many local writers had their sessions cancelled because of the shortening of the event.
I only hope that the authorities in Lahore realise what a treasure the Literary Festival is for the city and will persevere with it in the future.
Literary Festivals are ten a penny these days but the Lahore Literary Festival is something special. Long may it last.
Python and Pakistan
One of the most extraordinary stories about the early life of Python is that Pakistan was one of the first countries to buy Monty Python’s Flying Circus from the BBC. After showing the first 13 episodes they complained bitterly that there were no clowns, acrobats, bareback riders or performing elephants in the Circus and demanded their money back. So it was very satisfying for me to find that nearly fifty years on there are so many Pakistanis who love the real thing and who know the Dead Parrot sketch off by heart.
Trawling the morning’s newspaper for pages without Trump triumphant I learn that today London is colder than Iceland. Which could be a good omen. I’ve just taken on a commission to produce a book about HMS Erebus, a modest three-master, which became the flagship on two of the most dramatic Polar journeys in history.
The first, in 1839, to Antarctica, where Erebus, and her sister ship Terror, sailed perilously between the icebergs, reaching further south than any vessels had been before. The second six years’ later, to search for the North-West Passage, ended in disaster, when both ships, and 129 men, disappeared off the face of the earth. In 2014, almost 170 years since she was last seen, HMS Erebus was miraculously re-discovered, her hull bruised but intact, beneath the waters of the Canadian Arctic.
The story of the life, death and resurrection of the Erebus has become something of an obsession and I’ve already started research, which will soon involve travelling, like Erebus did, to far-flung corners of the world.
It’ll keep me busy in the year ahead, but there’ll be lots of other things to do, starting with a visit to Pakistan (for the first time since the Himalaya series ) for the Lahore Literary Festival in February, and appearances at The York Festival on the 19th March, and The Radio Times Festival at the BFI on the 7th April.
A lot of last year was spent waiting. This year I can’t wait to get on with it.