Michael Palin, an instinctive traveller, went to India to witness the plight of the Dongria Khondh villagers before penning his new novel
Published: 16 August, 2012
The Monty Python star tells how independent journalism inspired his new book – and reveals just how close he came to being an Olympian. By Gerald Isaaman
AS the Olympics come to an end with a golden cascade of medals for Britain, Michael Palin has been reflecting on the competitive spirit that drives us on to success – and failure too.
He is a familiar figure as he jogs twice weekly from his home in Elaine Grove, Gospel Oak, up Parliament Hill, over to Kenwood and back, not only to keep fit – he is now 69 – but because sport has been a passion since his days growing up and later at university.
Underlying his own love of laughter with Monty Python, and roaming the remote corners of the planet for our mutual enjoyment on TV, has been his own inherent social conscience in seeking to reveal and explain the essential truth.
His innate curiosity, charm and talent have been his sophisticated weapons that have dubbed him a national asset, Mr Nice Guy, hiding somewhat his concerns in a world of abuse by politicians, bankers, and the media that cruelly mocks those who smile on the bright side of life. And it shows that truth has its own complex and ironic nature which has been mercilessly exposed amid disgust and anger, the innocent too often the victims.
Now he has gathered those thoughts together in a new novel, which has been a long time coming since he wrote Hemingway’s Chair in 1995, but now appears on immaculate cue.
“The Olympics seem to be a great success,” says Palin. “They seem so much healthier than other kinds of competition, especially the mine’s-bigger-than-yours competitiveness of the City. And women are equals of the men, unlike in so many of our institutions.
“The Olympics, unlike the overpaid, high-earning world of football, for instance, are enjoyed precisely because they’re seen as something in which money doesn’t seem to be the main object.”
And he reveals: “I was always interested in sport – I’m from Sheffield after all, hard-wired for football and cricket. As a player myself I was always distinctly middle of the range, lacked finesse but tried hard.
“I was a tough old centre-half. Best goal I ever scored was a screaming header back into my own net. Most successful sport – rowing. The first time I ever got drunk was after a regatta.”
His hero in The Truth is not a sportsman. Keith Mabbut is an idealistic, probing journalist living in Upper Holloway, his marriage to a Polish wife in collapse, his only distinctive achievement at 56 being a British Gas Award for Environmental Journalism.
But that is about to change with the chance to write the biography of legendary Hamish Melville, a publicity-shy do-gooder known as the “Action Man of the environmental movement”.
Indeed, his reputation has been earned thanks to his opposition to the corporate greed of multi-national companies and in protecting tribal peoples under threat, which provides Mabbut with the opportunity to pursue Melville to India to investigate dramatic allegations being made against him.
And Palin, the instinctive traveller who has written seven books on his adventures, indulged himself, visiting the Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa, where the Dongria Kondh tribe have been fighting an international mining company seeking bauxite, the main source of aluminium.
So it is not surprising that, in fiction, he gives us the Masoka Hills where a similar environmental battle is taking place, one that touched him emotionally and provides real substance for his story.
“Visiting there had a very profound effect on me, in terms of being able to place myself in the situation they’re facing,” he explained when The Truth was launched.
“The hill behind their village was going to be razed and stripped. It was as if someone was going to come to Parliament Hill for a period of 10 years just to strip the place down by 30 or 40 feet. It would be a complete no-go area all around here.”
In fact Palin was among international figures who protested on behalf of the Dongria Kondh villagers, who were unaware of their lives being destroyed, the Indian government stepping in and stopping the mining project, which is still the subject of an appeal.
That too touched Palin because one reason he embarked on his second novel was to give him more time off to be with his grandsons, Archie and Wilbur.
“I decided that watching them grow up was more rewarding than travelling all the time,” he says. “I do worry about the world in which they or anybody else will grow up.
“But I think that any older generation feels that for the younger. What I enjoy most about Archie and Wilbur is that they laugh so easily. I want to make sure they continue to do so.
“I’m very happy with the way my life has meandered through many pastures. I enjoyed acting and I enjoyed playing comedy, but once it becomes repetitive it becomes less interesting.
“I must have a low boredom threshold. Writing, on the other hand, is something that’s always been part of my life, from the Spanish Inquisition sketch to The Truth, and I’ll never get bored of it.
“But I certainly like to think I can still make people laugh, without necessarily getting paid for it.”
His novel, unlike Scoop, Evelyn Waugh’s supreme demolition of Fleet Street’s so-called principles, reads more like a true story, which gives it a huge impact all its own. The more so as the local settings are so welcome and familiar, Palin revealing, for example, that Virginia Woolf, the “doyenne of despair”, liked “to sit in Gordon Square Gardens”, and tells how his hero crossed “Euston Road, past the British Library and the curious Levita House, an incongruous public housing block inspired by the architect’s trip to Vienna in the 1930s”.
There is a remarkable twist in the tail of The Truth, when Mabbut is confronted with the truth that Melville is a two-faced manipulator and faces his own dilemma.
“The world’s stock of role models is low enough,” Mabbut declares. “It’d be like telling the world Mother Teresa was a hooker. You’d be hounded by every newspaper and broadcaster on the planet.”
You will have to read The Truth to discover whether any kind of truth truly triumphs. Nevertheless, it hasn’t shaken Palin’s belief in the media.
“I’m a great admirer of good independent journalism,” he insists. “The more Paul Foots the better. You don’t always have to be right, but speaking your mind and writing with passion is the best. The journalist who writes only what his editor tells him to write is of less interest to me.
“My thoughts on the subject are well-expressed in The Life of Brian, when Brian, stark naked at the window, shouts at the crowd to stop following him. ‘You’re all individuals’, he tells them.”
So, too, the admirable Mr Palin, who has succumbed to a new four-part BBC travel series to be seen in the autumn, this time by flying off to Brazil, which will undoubtedly put him ahead of the game for the next Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
• The Truth. By Michael Palin. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £18.99