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.
In the days when I travelled I found myself stuck in many strange places. On an Arctic island in a snowstorm, waiting for rescue planes in the South American rainforest, in Khartoum waiting for someone to take us safely across the Ethiopian border. Now, thanks to lockdown, I’m stuck at home.
I thought it would be boring and frustrating but it’s quite the opposite. I’ve begun to notice and take real pleasure in the small things.
Instead of sitting down staring at my screen and throwing occasional glances out of the window, I now stare out of the window and throw occasional glances at my screen.
It’s spring-time and there are wonderful things out there. A few feet away from me a wisteria has entwined itself across a pergola. For the last few months it’s been a dry and spindly thing, but almost overnight it has burst into life and from being a purely functional perch for birds it’s now a thing of beauty in itself, it’s branches tasselled with long purple-white blossom.
And around it I can see birds whose lives are clearly not in lockdown, working hard on their properties and their sex lives. Not laid up like us, they can go where they want, when they want, as often as they want. I envy them.
But Out of The Window means more than what I literally see. It’s also about observing how different the world is now. Letters from the Prime Minister drop through the letter-box, food deliveries arrive, revealing that you’ve pressed one key too many and ordered 400 teabags instead of 40 and the Archbishop of Canterbury conducts Easter Sunday service from his kitchen.
But some things never change. Like multi-option phone calls which have given me a lot of grief recently. You know the sort of thing…
If you are calling to ask about why something has not happened press 1. If you have a query that involves non-availability press 2. If you have previously called and are already in the system press 3. If you have made an application press 4. If you have not made an application press 5. If you have made an application but wish to withdraw it press 6. If you are from Germany and have left your bicycle in this country press 7. If you are called Anthony and play cricket press 8. If you want a straight answer to a direct question press 47.
I’ve imagined this one. But then imagination is the biggest window of all.
These last few days have been so strange and so completely different from anything I expected to run into in my lifetime that I’m still not quite sure if it’s a dream and I’ll wake up and find Dominic Cummings screaming with laughter and shouting ‘Pre-April Fool!’
Where else but in a dream would I be counting the toilet rolls in the cupboard or seeing my local supermarket looking like a bank-robber’s convention or finding not a single restaurant open in the whole country.
The spirit of Python was always respectful of the absurd and the surreal. It was our stock in trade. Now we are asked to believe that a bat in China has closed down the cricket season without a ball being bowled, car factories are making ventilators, a French company is turning bras into face-masks and filming on Casualty has been halted for fear of there being too many casualties. Python has been completely upstaged by real-life.
I find myself in an odd position. Just a half-year after having my heart repaired and feeling ready to kick-start my life for a last sprint to the Great Tape In The Sky, I find the sky isn’t where I thought it was. It’s much closer. In fact were I to stop washing my hands and standing two metres away from everybody it might be right outside my door.
I’ve spent a lot of time writing at home and have always found self-isolating to be a necessary evil. But it’s much easier when everyone else is doing it. Apart, of course, from those who are out there trying to make us all better.
And I’m getting use to spending the days looking out of the window, hoping a sparrow will come by with an idea and thinking about the glass of wine I shall have this evening. 52 years of married life have made my wife and I experts on co-existence, and Hampstead Heath is not a bad prison yard.
That’s today. Yesterday is a place to avoid, nostalgia being a forbidden fruit right now, but tomorrow is the one I have most trouble dealing with. What will it look like and when will it look like what it will look like? Predictions fly around and theories sprout from bushes, but in the end William Goldman’s dictum about Hollywood – “Nobody knows anything” – has been proved right again.
Stay well, Stay indoors. God bless our National Health Service and be glad of what we have. Sunshine, good neighbours and three series of This Country.