H.M.S. Erebus has been on the last stages of her latest voyage – 179 years after her first one. In a whirlwind tour of Australia at the beginning of December, we went to Hobart, Tasmania, where a fantastic crowd turned out on a wet Monday morning at the State Bookstore, and from there to stage shows in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Thank you all for being fantastic audiences. It was the first time I’d done Erebus and Python in the same show.
Back home to a big talk and signing in Bath, and my last Erebus evening of the year, at my brilliant local bookshop, the Owl in Kentish Town, which is one of the most memorable, with a small but perfectly-formed crowd and an introduction from ace TV Director and local Owl fan, James Strong, who directed me in Vanity Fair.
But perhaps the greatest excitement of the whole campaign has been Erebus on the Underground, reaching a whole new audience of tired commuters and after dark, really big rats. See photograph.
Thanks to all of you who have shown an interest in the book. It has been a great pleasure to write, but an even greater pleasure to connect with such a wide audience.
Happy Christmas one and all!
Slipped into the British Library this morning to have one last look at the excellent mini-exhibition of bits and pieces from my archive, which closes on November 25th. As you can see, I couldn’t get near the display!
Much of the material is in Terry Jones’s hand which made me aware of how much we’d written together, and how our collaboration lives on in our different and distinct handwriting, in a way which would never be the same in these digital days.
Saw Terry on Monday. Looking well, greets me with a smile. He’s less mobile now, but when we parted I said “See you soon” and he nodded and agreed. “See you soon”, he said softly.
Next year is Python’s 50th anniversary. Judging by what’s been dug up in my archive, there’s a lot of stuff that’s never seen the light of day. Some of it quite justifiably, but some quite funny and interesting to Python aficionados. Big Nose at the sermon on the mount went on for about four more pages!
2019 is also the 30th anniversary of Around The World In Eighty Days. Must find somewhere I haven’t been to celebrate. Do they do birthday cakes in the Gobi Desert? Off to Australia next week to do three Erebus and Python stage shows and hopefully catch a bit of sun by sticking my head out of the dressing room window.
A happy surprise sandwiched between a signing in Belfast and an appearance at the Dublin History Festival was a detour to the town of Banbridge, County Down. This was the birthplace of one of my favourite characters in the story, Francis Crozier, captain of Erebus’s travelling companion, HMS Terror.
Believed to be one of the last to perish in the Arctic, Crozier’s sacrifice on the fatal expedition to the North-West Passage is commemorated with a massive monument, featuring carvings of the ships and concrete polar bears, which looms over the town square, next door to the Crozier’s elegant Georgian family home, which is being restored.
Less than a week later I was in Providence, Rhode Island for the start of a week-long US and Canadian tour. Beautiful buildings on the hill but I gave my first transatlantic Erebus talk in an old snuff movie house, now reborn and called the Columbus – which seemed a good name for a talk on exploration. The Americans and Canadians don’t do understatement, so instead of the book being called Erebus The Story Of A Ship, over this side of the Atlantic it’s called Erebus, One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and The Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time, and the cover is black.
More black halfway through my talk in Brooklyn. At one point all the lights went out and the screen went dark as the power cut off. Playing for time, I said that this was a recreation of the Polar winters, when, for five months of winter the sun never rose above the horizon.
Flew from Providence to Newark. A little touch of nostalgia as we skimmed low over the cranes of Newark Docks, where, thirty years ago, and by the skin of my teeth, I’d boarded the container ship that would carry me on the last leg of Around The World In Eighty Days. At the Explorers Club in New York I met a number of grizzled Arctic veterans. One of them winked and said “I can get you down to the wreck, Mike”. It’s been my dream to actually scuba down to Erebus and touch her sides, but Parks Canada seem to have put comedians low down the list of applicants! I learned that the ice was so bad up there this year that they could only manage a day and half’s diving onto the wrecks.
Great audiences at the Opera House in Toronto. An old vaudeville theatre, which had only recently hosted Tom Jones. My last speaking event of the tour was at the very smart new HQ of the Canadian Royal Geographical Society, looking out over the Ottawa River just beside the Rideau waterfall.
The highlight of the evening, and probably of the whole tour, came as a complete surprise to me, when John Geiger, on behalf of the RCGS, presented me with the first ever Louie Kamookak medal. This was named after the great Inuit historian and explorer, who died, far too young, earlier this year. He made it his life’s work to find out valuable Inuit evidence of what happened to the Franklin expedition. In a small way, I feel we were fellow-travellers.
It’s been a while since I enjoyed the full-on delights of a big book tour. There was Brazil in 2011, and a big post-Python At The O2 tour for my diaries in 2014, but since then I’ve been acting and writing rather than selling. This is the crunch time for any venture, the time when you leave the cosy comforts of pre-publication expectations behind and face the verdict from the public.
So far, so good. Erebus was officially available in the bookstores from Thursday September 20th. I was in the car crossing the border into Scotland on Tuesday 25th when I heard the news that we had sold enough to make the top ten in the Sunday Times Best-Seller list. I had a feeling from the reception in Harrogate and Newcastle that a lot of people were interested, and most of them were enthusiastic. The talk at St Boswells in the Scottish Borders went well and the terrific response from sell-out audiences in Falmouth, Dartmouth and at the Appledore Festival in North Devon, justified our Erebus-like course from the north to the far south in a single week.
A bat joined me on stage in Dartmouth. I was looking down and didn’t see it. The audience saw it and laughed. I looked up thinking I’d done something funny, but I hadn’t. At Falmouth I addressed the congregation from a pulpit and remembered that for a few months between wanting to be a test pilot and an explorer, I’d toyed with being a vicar. Captive audience, that sort of thing.
All in all, it couldn’t have been a better first week. Great oysters at Rick Stein’s in Falmouth, discovering one of the great pubs of Britain- The Rat Inn near Corbridge, playing the Tyne Theatre in Newcastle which was opened only twenty years after Erebus disappeared into the ice.
I was working so hard I missed seeing both episodes of my North Korea journey, but heck, I didn’t expect to be still standing unaided at 75!
And there’s another week to go in the UK and Ireland, and then off to the USA and Canada. The North Korea documentary will have gone out in America on September 30th. Will I be allowed into the country? Watch this space.
On July 19th the very first copies of Erebus, The Story Of A Ship, came into the world at Clays the Printers in Bungay. There was a nice coincidence here for the first time I ever went to Bungay was on the water. I was seventeen and joint captain of a craft called the The Broadland Widgeon, on which two friends and myself spent a week navigating the Norfolk Broads. We spent one night moored up by the River Waveney at Bungay. It was 1960, and the printers were probably working round the clock to satisfy the demand for Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Less sexy, but with more icebergs, Erebus The Story of a Ship will be published soon. In America and Canada it has a different cover, adorned with a quote from Bill Bryson. “Beyond terrific, I didn’t want it to end”. Now that’s one to die for.
Right now I am re-training myself from author to salesman, making sales promotion videos, giving interviews to the national and local newspapers, TV and radio and generally, as they say, “putting myself about “.
There’s still five weeks to go to publication day, and to be honest, the time can’t go fast enough. The book looks very fine and I can’t wait to see it in the shops.
I’ll be away to Majorca on a family holiday at the end of August, then back to face a triple whammy of Vanity Fair – the ITV drama series in which I appear as the author William Makepeace Thackeray, two hour-long documentaries on Channel Five made on my two-week trip to North Korea in April and May, and then Erebus, which goes down the slipway and into the viciously crowded waters of autumn book releases on September 20th.