Michael Palin, the man who brought us Sir Galahad the Pure in Monty Python and the Holy Grail is now a real knight. This year, Palin was one of the individuals named in Britain’s New Years Honours, and received a knighthood for his “services to travel, culture, and geography.”
Palin is the first member of Monty Python to be knighted, but his honors are for what he has done after being part of the iconic comedy group. This honor, I feel, is well-deserved.
I could talk about how I always considered the Pythons to be my “Beatles,” and how Palin is by far the most relatable of this groundbreaking group (a fact his fellow Pythons, like John Cleese and Eric Idle, share with a touch of faux resentment, judging from their recent live tour), but really, it is his second act as world traveler that made me such an admirer of his style.
When I first watched his Around the World in 80 Days special, I was in college. I had always loved reading about travel, but there was something so stiff and distant about many of the travel stories I read or television series I saw. They never missed a train, mostly traveled first class, and rarely showed hassle and conflict. That all changed with Palin, who revealed the inconveniences and discoveries that come with trying to make your way around the planet sans the isolated convenience of jet travel. He showed the importance that simple person-to-person conversations have in getting to know more about an entire community, and the value a simple meal holds among what some would call strangers (but that Palin showed us were potential new friends). There was no preaching or pretension to his message, just a glimpse at the beautiful weirdness of the human condition.
This wasn’t due to naivety or a false sense of “everyone is beautiful.” If you read the final installment of his diaries, Travelling to Work: Michael Palin Diaries: 1988-98, you would discover a man who dealt with some devastating loss and disappointment, as well as with love and laughter. He had every right be the cynical grump who had no use for this nasty world, but instead, he ventured into it, warts and all.
By letting people see the uncomfortable and humiliating moments, he revealed even greater dignity. By not hiding the flaws of a region, he made it even more fascinating. He tackled the world from the Himalayas to the United States through more than three decades of travel with such infectious charm, all of us who followed his travels felt like we were among family… or at least very close friends.
I loved these specials so much, I scoured the travel sections of bookstores for new or used copies of all the companion books of his specials. I read them voraciously. I went Around the World in 80 Days in just 24 hours and read Pole to Pole cover-to-cover at breakneck speed. I loved his commentary and his friend Basil Pao’s accompanying photographs. I loved knowing even if I never make it to some of the places he has been, at least I could journey alongside him in the pages of these books. I even read his fiction books like Hemingway’s Chair and hunted down his young readers’ fantasy picture book The Mirrorstone just to have it.
Back in 2015, I wrote an article about how watching old Top Gear episodes and a couple of other favorite shows helped my father during the recent loss of my mother. One of the other series I mentioned only briefly was all of Palin’s Travels, which I fully admit I chose because I wanted an excuse to rewatch the entire set again from the beginning.
This month, we all sat down again and watched his latest special Michael Palin in North Korea, where he managed to turn a very restricted, highly guarded tour of a nation where freedom of expression is limited into an opportunity to show us the human side of those living under it. During this special, those of us who have been loyally following Palin on his journeys were able to join him in celebrating his 75th birthday.
It was a good moment, as just earlier we had been wondering if he had journeyed on his last adventure, connecting the rest of us to those tiny details of a culture and region we may never otherwise get to see. I recall thinking when Around the World in 80 Days first aired, Palin seemed to me so much more mature than in his days of Lumberjacks and Gumbys, but now looking back I realize he was a couple of years younger than I am now. I’m not sure if I find that fact amusing or a bit unsettling.
When he shot his 2012 special, Brazil with Michael Palin, he was in his late 60s and could easily have felt armchair traveling was as good as anything else. Fortunately for the rest of us, he had some more venturing to do.
Even his new book, Erebus: The Story of a Ship, shares his love of exploration and history, as it tells the tale of the exploring ship that disappeared in 1848 in the Arctic, not to be found until 2014. I’m planning on picking up a copy of this one as soon as I can.
I have always considered myself a realist in that not everything about every culture is good, including my own. I am of the opinion there is good and evil in the world, and no matter how much we would like to, we can’t make everything peaceful and perfect.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to try, and if there is one person in this world whose gentle humor, insatiable curiosity and sense of adventure, and constant thirst to learn something from every individual he meets could bring out the best in everyone, it is Sir Michael Palin.
When we were still working our way through his travel specials with my father, we were on his 2002 special, Sahara, and my father casually said, “You know, the world would be a better place if everyone had an attitude like Michael Palin.”
I couldn’t agree more. Whatever the future holds for Palin and his journeys, whether he decides to venture across seas or just through the pages of a good book, I wish him safe passage.
Congratulations, Sir Michael Palin. Thank you so much for finding room in your suitcase for me.