Friday, April 13, 2007

Reviewing 'Michael Palin Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years'

This book is a disappointment. As a fan of Michael Palin’s acting and writing I was lulled into thinking this book would be like his plays and programmes—a laugh a minute. However, this collection of diary entries is like eating a plum pudding that is lacking in plums.

This 650 page tome spanning only a decade is according to Palin, “a record of how I fill my days. Nothing more complicated that that.” It is a catalogue of events, not a confessional. It concentrates on recording the diarist’s activities rather than reflecting upon them.

Palin states that his daily diary writing does not strive to be perfectly written and highly polished prose but he writes well, nevertheless, with snatches of wit. The book is replete with references to how Palin slept overnight, his early morning vows to stop drinking alcohol, the ‘depressing pattern of the grey [English] skies’, his detailed descriptions of ordinary lunches and ‘truly epic’ meals, the trips to the pool with his children, the visits to care for his ageing parents and Palin’s long reading sessions while soaking in the bath. One learns prosaic things, including the payment of his phone bills, the series of gingivectomies in the dental chair, his bowel problems (these are given an entry in the index) and getting his waterworks sorted out in France (thankfully these escape the index unless they’re under ‘pee-pee’ or ‘l’urine’.)

However, the diaries do give a fascinating insight into the irregular life of a writer and actor with no fixed daily timetable. It plots the rollercoaster of emotions in response to the publication of reviews or the standard of his performances. The Michael Palin Diaries offer glimpses into the Monty Python team dynamics with the management of individual egos, the urge to aspire to individual success, the pressures of making a quid, the tussles with the censors and the behind-the-scenes spats.

The picture we get of Michael Palin is a person who is often troubled though growing in confidence as his performances are lauded by the public and hailed by heroes such as Spike Milligan. His decision to accept work is often made in accordance with how it will impact on his family. The rejection of high paying commercials because the products are dubious or the scripts are second rate, reveals a person who is committed to honesty and integrity.

This book and the fine photographs will be savoured by Python aficionados, about whom Palin wrote in 1975, “There are a great many people out there who want to know all about Monty Python.” For people whose interest in Python and Palin is not as intense, a short book describing the Python years would be preferable to this huge volume that is a touch self-indulgent.

There is gold within the leaves of this book but it only comes with much dredging. Most readers will want to ‘adjust their set’ or reach for the fast forward button. The retrospective footnotes often achieve what Saul Bellow said about the clever or wicked footnote “redeeming many a text.” The book quickens towards the end of the decade when the Python team is hitting its straps but it suffers from what Palin said about his stage performance: “If it starts well, then there is great laughter all through, but if something goes wrong at the beginning (God knows why) it can go in silence.”

Michael Palin Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006 is available here in the United Arab Emirates from Magrudy’s bookshops at a cost of Dh140.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front Cover.