It’s a well-known fact that Michael Palin is a ‘national treasure’. Or so you are told just about every single time the travel presenter and writer appears on television or features in a newspaper interview. So it was with grim inevitably that a few days before the first instalment of his latest expedition, Michael Palin: Into Iraq, aired on Channel 5 on Tuesday, the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times both felt it imperative to describe him with this phrase.
Never mind that he’s no doubt utterly sick of this lazy cliché – objectively, it’s a misleading misnomer. ‘National treasure’ is patronising, twee and demeaning, and distracts from the fact that he’s one of the finest writers of our time, whose elegant and erudite prose is known for its rich, mellifluous, accessible yet uncluttered style. He hasn’t become a bestselling author six times over for nothing. He just writes so well, and writes as someone who has spent a lifetime reading books.
The evidence is in his travelogues. He managed an entire series based on the travels of Ernest Hemingway. Or witness the manner in which he unpacked with relish a whole heap of unread classic novels as he prepared himself for the long, boring Pacific crossing in his 1988 voyage that became Around the World in 80 Days. This is testament to his voracious appetite for literature.
To read his diaries and the books that accompany his travels (barring the latest one on Iraq, I have read them all) is to experience his immense erudition. He attended the prestigious Shrewsbury School in the 1950s and 1960s, where he would have been taught Latin. Not only does learning a second language help you write with precision and economy, but Latin furnishes you with words that, naturalised into English, have become markers of high thinking.
It was through the exotic tales he consumed as a boy that he developed his intimate rapport with language.