The phrase ‘national treasure’ is one that does seem to get bandied around an awful lot in the UK, to the point it’s almost lost its value. But there are some people to whom the label fits very well indeed, and former Monty Python alumnus Michael Palin is a case in point.
Not just because of his Sterling comedy work with the Pythons, you understand. Oh no. He has also found his way in to the British public’s hearts with a range of epic globetrotting adventures both on camera and paper, ranging from a top-to-tale ‘Pole to Pole’ trip (yes, it is exactly what you’re thinking) to a ‘full circle’ circumnavigation of the entirety of the Pacific Rim.
It was this, a re-creation of Phileas Fogg’s epic journey in the titular Jules Verne novel, that got the ball rolling and set Palin off on his very successful second career as a celebrity traveloguer (for want of a better term). Taking in 17 countries – including UK, USA, Egypt, India, Saudi Arabia, China and Japan – this trip is not as long as his Pole to Pole or Full Circle jaunts, but it certainly has a unique air of against-the-clock excitement, definitively bound by a strict timeframe as he is.
If you think Palin’s circumnavigation will be rendered easy thanks to modern travel conveniences, think again. He is permitted only to travel by road, river (or sea, more accurately) rail and other surface-based means, so as to experience the limitations beset by Fogg. And whilst the technology of transport may have been more sophisticated, bureaucracy and border crossing red tape certainly is a lot more of an issue for him than it was for Verne’s traveller…
It all makes for riveting stuff. Yes, it is travel done quickly, and so there’s more time spent on a ship, train or similar than ‘in country’, but there are very meaningful and telling relationships formed during transit, most memorably on the dhow that takes him from Dubai to Bombay (now Mumbai). Besides, there are, to use his words ‘still pools at the side of the stream’, where he does stop, observe and record moments in cities and other stop off points enroute which often prove to be defining milestones.
This having taken place in 1988, there are some quaint, of the time details – Duty Free bags full of VHS tapes, for example – plus some political talk that we can easily be wise after the event about now, such as predictions from some in the Middle East that Israel will cease to exist after 25 or 30 years. And then there’s China – one man predicts to Palin that there will be free elections in China 10 years from now…alas, not the case, and brutal oppression followed a year later instead.
Palin is not an action man explorer type like Levison Wood, not a grittily determined journalist like Katherine Boo, and not an insecure wallflower like Clara Bensen. Somehow, he is instead a man with both the humble ‘everyman’ touch – naturally infused with classic Britishness – and a keen, erudite observational wisdom that conveys the scenes of the journey in crisp, accessible and warm prose. In short, he is a travel writer for us all.