British comedy lynchpin turned tireless travel scribe Michael Palin has turned his gaze on Erebus, an infamously mysterious mid-19th century shipwreck. He chats about the ship, his book and the tour to Ruth Seavers.
In the wake of Monty Python, the epochal comedy group that starred Michael Palin alongside Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Terry Jones, Palin made a tentative move into travel documentaries and writing in the early 1980s. “I got lucky breaks with my travel books,” he recalls, three decades after the first of them. “When I did Around The World In 80 Days, a book was commissioned by the BBC to go with it, that was really my own version of the journey. And it did well, really well. And from then on I was lucky to be able to write seven or eight books about the places that I’d been – Pole To Pole, Himalaya, Sahara.”
Being a writer, though, was something he’d always thought about. “I wanted to write books for as long ago as I can remember. I love words, I loved books growing up. And for me, the best thing of all was to be able to write your own book, even though there are many, many – hundreds of thousands – of people doing the same thing.”
Moving this time, he says, into more academic territory, Palin is currently on tour with his show Erebus: The Story of A Ship. In this, he brings to life the story of the tough little ship HMS Erebus that took on the Antarctic and the Arctic. Launched in Pembroke in 1826, it was designed as a bomb ship, and was named after the Greek underworld: ‘Erebus’ is a personification of darkness in Greek mythology. Later converted to a scientific ship, it launched an expeditious career which took it to the ends of the Earth. Erebus disappeared around northern Canada in 1845; lost for over a century and a half, it was finally rediscovered in 2014.
The talk is set to richly illustrate the life of this little ship, and its ultimate tragedy. The book was “quite a departure,” Palin says. “What I wanted to do was to not get stuck in academia. To be accurate on details, to be thorough in research, but also to keep it to a good story – that was the main thing about Erebus.”
Palin discovered the story of Erebus while doing some character research for a man called Joseph Hooker. “He virtually founded and ran Kew Gardens during the 19th century. I found out, to my great surprise, that when he was only 22 he signed up for a four-year journey to the Antarctic. Which had not been embarked upon at all – no-one knew what the Antarctic was.” And it was HMS Erebus that Hooker sailed on. “When I heard in 2014 that the hull of the ship had been discovered under the waters of the Canadian Arctic,” he says, “I thought, ‘well this is it. The story has legs!” And The Story Of Erebus was born.
The book is a piece of storytelling that stands alone, Palin says. “But in order for it to work, you have to go into the detail. You have to know – because I chose it to be a story of a ship – I wanted to know about the ship. How it was made, where everybody was on board, how they survived in Arctic conditions. The research was really important, but it’s a bit of old fashioned storytelling, really.”
The sketch comedy pioneer still enjoys doing stage performances. “You’re directly there, the audience is in front of you, and no one is getting in the way between. The Erebus talk I’ve done a number of times, both here and in America and in Australia. So I’ve got that down to a fairly fine art now, but I still enjoy telling the story, and bringing life to it as I tell it. And that’s a great start to the evening.”
The second part of the evening is more to do with Python and Palin’s backstory – but it was Erebus which brought him to Pembrokeshire in the first place. “One of the first journeys I did was to find out where she had been built, which was Pembroke Dock. I was quite impressed that some of the old dockyard is still there. It’s a bit run down now, and a bit depressing in one way, but there was enough left of the old Georgian buildings of the early 19th century. This was a proud place, and remained a proud place for quite a long time. Until it was all closed down in the 1920s.”
So what will Palin be up to in Pembroke while staying here? “Staying overnight in Pembroke, and the next day I’ll go to see an auxiliary boat that’s going to go on the Sir David Attenborough to the Atlantic – an exploration ship.” Then a week’s acting, as soon as the tour finishes. “Almost too soon! I’ve got a number of things to do.”
Among this list are preparations for another tour, concerning North Korea Journal: Palin’s next book, due out in September and detailing his travels to North Korea last year. It documents 13 days spent in the notably secretive state, longer, he says, than most people get to spend, let along when bringing a film crew with them. “It’s quite an eye-opener.” A two-part documentary for Channel 5 was aired in September last year. “So this is the book to go with that. We may well go back – we don’t know yet.”
In terms of what inspires him to travel to certain places, and plan future destinations, there are various different approaches, Palin says. “Around The World In 80 Days really started my traveling career, but that was a BBC idea – they set all that up. For the second one, I worked with the director and said, ‘Well, where do we go after this? If we’re going to do another big journey, we’ve been around the centre of the Earth – let’s go north to south. So we thought up North Pole [to] South Pole.
“[2004 book and BBC series] Himalaya was an idea I had: I thought, well no-one’s ever been from one end of the Himalaya to the other – people go across it, through it, and that’s that. Brazil [documented by Palin in 2012] I’d always wanted to go to because I didn’t really feel it got the attention it deserved here. So these were all conscious decisions of mine and my team. North Korea came out of the blue: that came from Channel 5 and ITN, who said, ‘we’ve got access and Michael’s the man we’d like to take with us.’ So it’s a bit of both. You start a ball rolling on your own and then someone else runs with it, and up come ideas.”
Michael Palin – Erebus: The Story Of A Ship, Torch Theatre, Milford Haven, Wed 17 July. Tickets: £20. The book will be available for purchase, and to be signed by Michael, after the show. Info: 01646 695267 / www.torchtheatre.co.uk