Book Review: Travelling to Work by Michael Palin

Michael Palin

I haven’t seen many reviews of Michael Palin’s latest volume of diaries, which covers the globetrotting years from 1988 - 1998. This might be because reviewers are still wading through the 500-plus pages. This is not a difficult book to read at all, but boy, is it long.

The real question is not how on earth do reviewers find the time to read all of this, but how does Michael Palin find the time to keep a diary when the diary itself makes it so clear how busy he is? (And still is – as I was writing this review the news broke that he is to narrate a remake of classic children's series The Clangers). When not popping from Pole to Pole or traversing the Equator he is having lunch in famous restaurants with famous people. Familiar names tumble from every page. Dustin Hoffman, Willie Nelson, David Bowie, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Thatcher, David Hockney, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney to his fellow Pythons and Peter Cook. Palin is truly the Zelig of showbiz.

This book does a little bit to dispel the myth of Palin being comedy’s Mr Nice. Travelling to Work could have been subtitled “The National Treasure Years”, but beneath the soft linen suit he is clearly a tough cookie. Terry Jones told me earlier this year that it was “Mike” who nixed the idea of further Python dates because he had his own projects to pursue. Niceness can only get you so far and Palin has gone a lot further in every sense.

He says he likes to take risks but he is also clearly a disciplined diarist, jotting down significant events as well as insignificant ones. Apparently this doorstep publication is only a part of his decade’s worth of writing. Maybe that explains why I’m not in it. I interviewed Palin on July 22, 1997 (according to the diary) for a Time Out feature entitled Around The World in 18 Hours, but while the feature gets a mention I don’t. I guess maybe I wasn’t interesting – or famous – enough to make the cut. Sometimes he is a bit grudging with his praise. Having seen Reeves and Mortimer live in 1991 he writes: "Viv and Bob do their stuff well. They are more original than most."

This is obviously a book to keep in the toilet and dip into. I don't think it would work quite as well as an e-book as a loo-book. It is so exhaustive that there are passages which will no doubt take on greater significance in later years. Dinner with Robin Williams in April 1992 is an enjoyable but awkward affair: “conversation is possible but everyone is waiting for the fire to start blazing”. Rik Mayall is in and I checked to see if Joan Rivers was mentioned - surprisingly she isn’t. While it is hard to think of a comedian more different to Palin, it is surprising that there were no encounters. 

It is interesting to read about talk about the Python reunion. While it finally came together this year the book reveals that a reunion was raised much earlier. There was talk of a Python film in 1997, possibly an update of Holy Grail featuring the same knights two decades on. The years covered are not all fun and laughs though. Graham Chapman’s death in October 1989 cast a shadow over the 20th anniversary of the first Python broadcast.

The funny thing is that despite this volume being about his travelling years, it is events at home that make the most riveting reading, as he hops from charity lunches and gala dinners to meals at the Groucho to Langans to Ivy to L'Escargot to Aubergine in the Fulham Road to Mon Plaisir in Covent Garden. There is just one mystery that remains. How does he stay so thin when he seems to be eating out almost every day? I know he's a committed runner but there must be more to it than that. Maybe his next book should be diet tips.

Buy Travelling to Work here. 


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