An Englishman abroad

In 1988 Michael Palin set out to go around the world in 80 days for a BBC TV series. Following as closely as possible the route taken by Jules Verne's hero Phileas Fogg, Michael and his film crew crossed Arabia, sailed by dhow and container ship, took trains across China and India, and dog sled and hot air balloon across America. It was a thrilling ride in a very English eccentric tradition. Throughout the journey they were met with friendship and kindness, only in England did they receive a grumpy greeting.

At the time the journey was extraordinarily difficult. In Fogg's day passenger liners crossed the seas. By 1988 the only liner that Palin encountered was the Queen Mary enshrined in concrete on the west coast of the United States, while the former exotic liner harbour at Le Havre was slowly rotting away. This was to prove to be a huge obstacle as the BBC raced to find merchant vessels that were willing to take on an intrepid film crew with vast amounts of baggage.

If at the time the journey was difficult I would think it was well near impossible today. Although the journey has been repeated with other travellers for charity recently, it took a very different route avoiding the potential trouble zones of the Middle East. Part of the interest of the book and TV series was quite simply their reflection on changing times. Much of the enjoyment of both was down to the sheer likeability of Palin himself who took everything in his stride from sickness to eating snake to being (ironically in view of his past as a purveyot of dead parrots for the Monty Python team) attacked by a cockatoo.

It's very much a tale of an Englishman abroad with all the best attributes of the race to the fore. Great good humour, tenacity, and unflappability in the face of all obstacles. Sadly Palin's return to England was greeted by the face of being British that we would all like to forget - grumpiness, ill humour, unhelpfulness, and a complete inability to adapt for any reason whatsoever. However the downside of his return shouldn't mar what is a great and very funny travel journal. Well worth reading, often a complete hoot, and with some travellers' tales that are unforgettable.


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