“I love this place and it means a lot to me, because when I was young, before I wanted to be a lumberjack, I really, really wanted to be an explorer,” Monty Python’s Michael Palin tells me, as we sit in an office at New York City’s venerable Explorer’s Club. “It was very frustrating living in the north of England and wanting to be an explorer, partly because I couldn’t grow up fast enough. Places were being explored, and the unknown places were shrinking away. We had climbed Everest, but I had only been as far as Nottingham. It was very frustrating.”
Palin, of course, more than made up for that. After the death of fellow Python Graham Chapman, and the subsequent demise of the groundbreaking comedy troupe, he began traveling the world as a tour guide of sorts in a long-running series of travel programs, beginning with 1989’s Around the World in 80 Days, eventually traveling everywhere from the Himalayas to, perhaps most remarkably, North Korea.
Always, of course, Monty Python loomed large. He’s periodically reunited with his fellow Pythons in various configurations over the years — notably in films produced by friend and former Beatle George Harrison, as chronicled in the forthcoming film An Accidental Studio –- culminating with a run of shows at London’s O2 Arena in 2014, and New York’s Tribeca Film Festival in 2015.
With his Python days seemingly firmly behind him, Palin set out on yet another career: historian. His new book, Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time, chronicles the ill-fated journey of the lost ship in fascinating and engaging detail.
Last fall, Palin toured to promote the book, and he sets out on another tour soon, this time delving in to the ship’s story, and looking at how writing a book about a Victorian ship, he says, “fits in with a life of Python, Ripping Yarns and eating camel liver in the Sahara,” before setting out again in the fall, this time to promote the publication of his North Korea journal.
Palin talked to Rock Cellar about Erebus, his recent film Death of Stalin, and the state of the world in 2019.
Rock Cellar: We’ve spoken on the phone and emailed, but I haven’t seen you in person since Brexit and our election here in 2016. How do you see everything that’s going on in the world these days?
Michael Palin: I’m just continually surprised. My jaw drops everyday. I just can’t take it in. And I think, “Well, am I going mad?”
Because Putin and Trump both seem to be out of some very bad drama. They’re rather badly written characters, scheming, with all their cohorts around them scheming these macho schemes. I mean, just come on. There’s got to be a bit more. So I’m trying to kind of find out what’s below the surface; what’s behind it all. Is Trump playing a game, or is Putin playing a clever game? Or have they just gone off the planet? Are they complete psychopaths?
But I think you can’t dismiss them, as you have to say, “What’s going on here? What’s actually happening?” But it’s like rewriting history. The fact Trump only communicates in tweets, it’s so stunningly sort of weird, really, after what we’ve been used to.
But I am unable to take it in at the moment. Like everyone else, I just wait to see what the next part of the drama is. It’s rather like everything’s gone fast forward at the moment, and I think at some point it will hit a wall. I don’t know quite how serious that will be for everybody, but I can’t just see this all quietly sort of becoming the way we run our world for the next few years.
Rock Cellar: You were recently in the film Death of Stalin, which is itself an amazing commentary on the state of the world right now.
Michael Palin: Yes, but we made it before Brexit and Trump happened. I mean, the rumblings were obviously there. And it is satire. But it is a secession of mad egotists who, given power by people, or who have grabbed power. But it was written three or four years ago; long before Trump. Probably before Brexit and all that. On the other hand, there’s a connection to how power leads to corruption, and how power will lead you astray.
Rock Cellar: The reaction has been amazing.
Michael Palin: When it came out, I really did wait to see what people’s reactions would be, especially in America. We shot the movie; that’s it. “On to something else.” Then the movie had to find its place. Of all the movies I’ve made, really, this is the one where I’ve been most interested to hear the different reactions, because this is not just another movie.
It’s something which engages people based on how they feel about the state of the world, one way or the other. And I have people I know who’ve said, “This is the greatest movie. Why wasn’t it part of the Oscars?”
Other friends of mine just couldn’t just take the violence. So I think it’s a film which strikes very hard. It has a real kick to it. It’s actually just incredibly funny, and the atmosphere while we were filming it was with laughter most of the way through. So when I get somebody that says it was so vile that they couldn’t laugh at these killers and that they had to walk out, then you think, “Well, well. This is interesting.”
But I’m learning from others, what they think, because it’s out there, and so it’s for others to decide on.
Rock Cellar: How did you come to the story of Erebus and settle on writing a book about it?
Michael Palin: It started out with my working on a speech for a club in London. One of its members, Joseph Hooker, was a great botanist, who founded the Royal Horticultural Gardens in Kew in the nineteenth century. I was doing my research, and I found out, to my surprise, that this earnest, bespectacled, whiskered Victorian gent, at the age of 22, signed on to become an assistant surgeon on a ship called the Erebus, which went to the Antarctic for four years.
I didn’t know they were sending ships to the Antarctic in 1839.
And the more I read about Hooker, the more I became interested in Erebus, the ship itself. Because, you know, we know about Victory, we know about Discovery, we know about ships like Endeavour. But, really, not many people know about Erebus. I had never really heard about it. So I looked at this extraordinary career it had: it went to the Antarctic, and they were the first expedition ever to establish Antarctica as a continent.
No one knew that before they saw the volcanoes, they saw the ice shelf, hundred-foot-tall ice shelf stretching for miles. And they came back safely to England, with just four casualties over a four-year span. It was the most amazing, successful expedition, and I realized no one knew anything about it. What they knew about Erebus -– if they did at all -– was that it became a flagship and went to the Northwest Passage in 1845.
And that was as big a catastrophe as the previous expedition had been a success. 129 men, and the two ships, Erebus and Terror, just disappeared off the face of the earth. I thought, “Why don’t I know about this ship? We know about Endeavor, we know about Discovery. I’ve never really heard of Erebus.” So I thought, there’s a story there.
Rock Cellar: It’s an astonishing story, that’s told in a narrative form that puts you, really, right on the ship. Do you feel as though your diaries, and even writing for Python, helped you create that sort of atmosphere?
Michael Palin: I suppose so. I wanted people to feel what it was like for the sailors on the ship. Because, eventually, the ships disappeared, and I didn’t want that to feel abstract. And it was a horrible end for everyone involved, from what I learned. They just disappeared.
It took years for anyone to piece together what had happened, and then that story became twisted over time. So I thought it was important to get it down, correctly. Eventually, I went to Beechey Island myself -– where the only remains ever found had turned up -– and I took pictures of the three graves there. Because I thought this was testimony to what was really left behind.
Most of the remains are unidentified. Only two bodies were brought back to Britain. So these rather ordinary wooden head-markers mean quite a lot when you’re looking for memories of Erebus. My great hope is that one day I can see Erebus, which has been located under the water and is pretty well-preserved. I actually wanted to end the book with me diving down and touching the side of the ship, and feeling the wood, that oak from the Forest of Dean.
Because there it is, still there, underneath the ocean.