I’ve been reading Michael Palin’s Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years by way of preparation for Volume 2, due this month. In sincere tribute to this most gentle of men, I must say that I enjoyed it quite a lot.
My experience with the Monty Python troupe has been largely in connection with their later solo projects. You’d think this unfamiliarity would make an intimate look at The Python Years heavy going, but oddly – or perhaps, given the source, reasonably – enough, it turns out to be just the opposite. Because over years of careful, almost Beatle-level media scrutiny, the storylines have remained remarkably consistent, and as recorded by The Nice One, they aren’t liable to change much even if there was new info. to add.
Thus, fans who approach these diaries already pickled in all things Python or Palin (as, apparently, are several reviewers over on Amazon.uk) are liable to be restlessly dissatisfied at best and outright bored at worst (if that’s even possible, with Monty Python) – while the novice is liable to end up charmed for reasons they never expected.
Especially the North American novice (again, as borne out by the Amazon US reviewers), who are not, strictly speaking, used to considering celebrity from the POV of reality. Honestly, though, what could be more valuable in this case? After all, when you first enter the lunatic asylum, it helps to be very sure your guide is sane.
Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years
(St. Martins Griffin; US: Nov 2008)
Which is not to say a bit more guidance wouldn’t have been welcome, here. There are a few interpolations, and footnotes… OK, a couple of Gilliam’s animations might have helped. It’s at about 1972 that the reader recognises the first difficulty of a diary: It records the moment, not the Meaning thereof. In the moment, the Python troupe looked on even the Dead Parrot Sketch as just another job. In reality, the subversive geniuses that helped define a generation were to begin with just ambitious kids, out for the best they could get.
The second problem with the diary becomes evident another year or so later: the author already knows all the interesting bits, so he either doesn’t feel the need to describe them in any detail or is forced to edit them down after the fact to avoid lawsuits. At 650+ pages and a cast of literally hundreds—many of whom were obscure even at the time—there was probably room here for even more severe editing than that which was applied. They write material, have meetings, approve or reject, tighten or rewrite, bicker or buddy, check the reviews and debate future projects… perhaps the ultimate insight on offer here is that sublime silliness turns out to involve an awful lot of grunt work in the trenches.
Palin sketches a consistent portrait of himself as a decent, ordinary bloke who just happens to be trapped in the role of light-comedy hero—Hugh Grant comes inevitably to mind—playing exasperated straight man to his whacky buddies, who in turn are forever dragging him into Situations. They swirl through his life, charming, frustrating, advantage-taking, alternately forwarding the plot and complicating it… though, rather remarkably, never quite beyond repair.
Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries 1980—1988
(Thomas Dunne Books, 03-2011; US: Mar 2011)
Throughout their sane centre progresses steadily towards the long-suffering bemusement familiar to readers of his travel diaries, but otherwise shows a far greater interest in his family’s maturation than his partners’: ‘learning to be a good father to my son [eventually, two sons and a daughter] and a good son to my father.’ – who deteriorates and dies of Parkinson’s in the course of the first two-thirds, while his son sketches a heartbreakingly unassuming portrait of the desolation of old age. These are –- at least, again, according to the edited version—ultimately the musings of a middle-class British man who has lived in the same house with the same woman for more than 40 years; who can thus, despite Silly Walks and Inquisitions, make quite sincerely believable the inevitable passages in which he wrestles with Art vs. Commerce.
Things get steadily more interesting the further the Monty Python troupe is shoved up onto their eventual pedestal, not so much because the musings on fame get any deeper—although, at least in terms of Palin’s relationship with his own creativity, they inevitably do—but because the circle of outside celebrity observation widens accordingly. The shrewdness on display here in that respect bodes very well, indeed, for Vol.II.
However, since Idle, not Palin, is the Star-Struck one, George Harrison, the Stones and Keith Moon show up almost before the reader is aware of the context. It’s only when the Life of Brian is being filmed circa 1977-78 – and Palin, by his own account, starts writing more consciously for publication – that there is a sense of Something Really Big happening…
…and then he hosts Saturday Night Live, and in the attempt to negotiate ‘the American market’ ends up with live cats down his trousers, in what is possibly the single silliest entry in the entire decade. Perhaps in the end Palin’s memoirs are most valuable as evidence just how complicated a nice guy’s life can become, and most appealing as a record of how he triumphed.