Diaries, 1969-1979: The Python Years Michael Palin

Weidenfeld, pp.650, 16.99

This is a huge book. Crikey, it’s a whopper. It’s impossible not to won- der, as you hold it in your hands and try your damnedest not to drop it on your foot, whether its author, for all his fame and eminence, is quite worth all this ink, paper, attention. And this is just the first volume. If, as seems reasonable to assume, several more collections are plan-ned, we could well end up with four such breezeblocks, between them covering 40 years of Michael Palin’s public and private life. It could take nearly as long to read them.

Nonetheless, to comedy obsessives of a certain age, Palin remains an intriguing figure. The best actor of the six Pythons, and the peacemaker in the group, he has also enjoyed the most successful career after and apart from Python. True, John Cleese did Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda, but those were 30 and 20 years ago, and Terry Gilliam has directed several fantastic films; but only Palin, I would suggest, approaches the status of national treasure, which enables you to publish books like this one. His popularity is broader, if not deeper, than Monty Python’s once was. And yet it will be Python fans who buy this book.

For the mystery remains: how on earth did Python work? It seems extraordinary now that this shambolic, often staggeringly amateur series of unconnected sketches should have held several generations of children, teenagers and students in its thrall. Three decades have passed since the ability to quote the Dead Parrot sketch verbatim became the most embarrassing thing anyone could do socially with their trousers still on. (Trousers because no girls ever quoted it, only boys.) The TV series ran for just four seasons, and reading this book you realise how young they all were; frighteningly young. Every 5 May, Palin records dismally that another birthday has arrived: 27, 28, 29, 30. Next year he may feel more cheerful about being 64. Only someone at ease with himself would publish these diaries. As no autobiography can, they show him as he was when he was young: ambitious, bright, quite serious, already deeply embedded in family life, endlessly curious, slightly naive, conservative with a small c, Socialist with a large S. One reviewer I read compared this book unfavourably to Alan Clark’s diaries, which are certainly a racier, more pyrotechnic read. But Clark was bonkers, Palin palpably is not. These could have been subtitled ‘Diaries of a Sane Man’, in what were clearly crazy times.

What we are apt to forget is that the six Pythons were writers, and therefore prey to the usual writerly neuroses. Even when astonishingly successful and universally loved, they fretted constantly about money and wondered what they were going to do next. Palin doesn’t dwell on the group’s internal rivalries, but he does inadvertently chronicle them, as he does Graham Chapman’s slide into alcoholism. In between, many large meals are consumed, and Eric Idle is always nipping off to see a film in the afternoon. Children are born and grow up, parents fall ill and die. It’s all thoroughly, reassuringly normal, which may be why the newspaper excerpts have seemed a bit dull. They misrepresent the book, which is a slow burn, revealing its pleasures only gradually, and allowing readers the warm glow of hindsight denied its writer.

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But why is it so absurdly long? Chopping the last three years would have saved around 300 pages, and no one would have felt cheated. Even so, this book will make the perfect present for those comedy obsessives of a certain age, who will know exactly what it is long before they have unwrapped it.

Grumpy grand-dads do their job best when, behind the façade, they pretend to be really loveable. Michael Bywater, who accepts the irritating label of ‘baby boomer’ (born 1953), makes no pretence of loveability. Instead he is very, very funny. ‘Something has gone wrong,’ he says, and he knows what it is; the nannying that we all put up with in practically every transaction of our lives. A lesser man would blame it on the obvious culprits, the lying advertisers and politicians and health-and-safety regulators and all the jumped-up ‘authorities’ whose condescending orders and advice and cajolements plague us every day. Bywater knows that the ones to blame are ourselves, the big babies who put up with the nonsense. It is all, he rightly points out, our own fault, and there is no chance that we will do anything to stop it.

The idea is simple, the execution sharp. Example after example hurtles painfully off the page. He finds 25 separate, mostly meaningless, written notices on a single carriage of the train to Swindon, deconstructs an advertisement for an impossibly expensive watch, and wastes little time on our prime minister and his friend in Washington. The jokes, some of them as disgusting as Swift’s, do not flinch before things people hold dear, including religious belief. Facing the absurdity of ‘intelligent design’, he can only point out that ‘eighty per cent of everything is stupid’.

This review would give you lots of laughs if it consisted entirely of Bywater quotations. But he is a hard man to quote. The fun of his method is to wrap a simple story in elaborate sentences, curling down the page with afterthoughts and timely self-contradictions. He casts himself as an accomplished and well-educated person (can fly an aircraft, remembers Latin tags, refers glancingly to Derrida), and ruefully acknowledges his own pretentiousnesses. But although he admits to wearing the sort of ‘pilot’s watch’ that pilots never, never use for telling the time, he shamelessly poses for his jacket photograph in dark glasses, as though he needs helping across the road.

We get the idea, and the technique, after a dozen pages. But back it comes again and again. Each hilarious example is followed by another hilarious example, and if he cannot find one in real life he gets it off the internet, that inexhaustible mine of folly and ill-written tripe. Bywater, so good at writing newspaper columns, has difficulty filling a whole slim book. The reader’s remedy, no doubt, is to buy the book and read it in snatches, with brief relish. The index is particularly enjoyable, including the admirably obscure entry: ‘aorist tense, implied by hyphenated adverbial modifier, example of, 12n’.

With 20 years of temporal seniority over the author, I find a central flaw in the claim that his baby-boom crowd is outstandingly disadvantaged by the absurdity of the world it has survived into. In my time the advertisements, although by present standards fairly restrained, nevertheless asserted that cigarettes made you attractive to women and dark beer was ‘good for you’. There were no health-and-safety nannies, but children got chilblains, and the dentist drilled away without stabbing anaesthetic into their gums. Grownups couldn’t tell that the government was lying because it did practically everything in secret, and when you were 18 it gave you a scratchy uniform, encouraged a man with stripes on his arm to yell obscenities at you, then sent you off to be blown up on the other side of the world. The good old days were horrible too, without even Michael Bywater to help you laugh at them.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated