The chance to meet one of your heroes is rare, so when I heard that Michael Palin was visiting Chorleywood Bookshop to sign his new book I snapped up a couple of tickets. Erebus: The Story of a Ship is a thoroughly researched and readable account of an exploration vessel which disappeared in 1845, and was finally found in 2014. But I wouldn’t have considered a purchase had it not been bundled with the opportunity to meet the great man. Craig, who accompanied me, was probably one of very few in the long queue with a genuine and deep interest in naval history.
Palin, sitting at the table greeting customers and signing books as quickly as his charm and good manners would allow, wore a slightly weary demeanour suggesting he was conscious of the transaction to which he was party: he wasn’t promoting a book so much as selling meet-and-greets. Perhaps to counter this perception (we were told he had a strict deadline to leave for another engagement) it was announced that photographs weren’t allowed, and he wouldn’t be posing for selfies. This would not be the occasion to recite your dead parrot lines.
Michael Palin has had a wonderful career. After the brilliant success of the Monty Python TV show and films, he has written and starred in other shows, been a successful writer of fiction, non fiction and children’s books, and a film actor. He has travelled the world many times for his documentaries, and served as president of the Royal Geographical Society. In 2019 he received a knighthood.
But he knows that it is his early work with Monty Python, touched with genius, which will endure, and is the reason why so many people are here. Today he’s in the business of selling books, and he does it very professionally. But I can’t escape the feeling that he’d rather be somewhere else.
Kelly Holmes became one of my biggest sporting heroes after I saw her win both the 800m and the 1500m in the stadium at the 2004 Athens Olympics. She had seemed surprised to win the 800m on 23 August, but five days later was imperious in the 1500m. She ran a relaxed race, in eighth position at the bell, and steadily moved through the field on the final lap to be right on the shoulder of the leaders coming into the home straight: she was unstoppable, and the British contingent in the stadium went crazy.
Her event was not just a signing: there was an interview in Christ Church Chorleywood, illustrated with video. She entered with a limp acquired during a 5k – testament to her continuing competitive spirit – but otherwise looked in excellent shape, capable of being first finisher at any parkrun she chose to enter, fourteen years after her Olympic triumphs.
She spoke movingly about her childhood, acknowledging the support from her mother – while describing her absentee father as ‘the sperm donor’ – and about her struggles with injury, which at one point caused her to self harm. To much applause we were shown videos of her gold medal winning performances, which, she admitted, she never tired of watching. Why would she? Once, after swearing, she looked around guiltily and said ‘Oh sorry! In a church! Or what is it, a cathedral?’
We queued to buy her book – a lifestyle guide, which again, I wouldn’t otherwise have bought – and more importantly, meet her. The queue was long, but she had time for everyone – she seemed to be enjoying every minute. When my turn came, I told her I had been in the stadium cheering her victories, and thanked her for making those Olympics so special. She was lovely: she signed my book and posed for a photo.
When I showed this to my wife she pointed out that I had put my arm around her waist. My god, so I did! How did I dare? Sorry, I can only suggest that she was such a friendly, approachable presence that it seemed natural, and that she seemed so small (5 feet 3) that it made me feel protective. Of a world beating athlete.
Sir Michael Palin and Dame Kelly Holmes have some things in common. Both have huge achievements to their credit, some years in their past. So why should their attitudes to continued celebrity be so different? Neither is likely to regain their previous heights.
But this is surely easier for Holmes to accept: every athlete realises they will start to slow after reaching 30 – in fact Holmes was 34 in Athens, and retired a short while later. She had, perhaps, the perfect timeline, in that she crowned an inconsistent and often frustrating career with brilliant success. She was able to go out on a huge high, with no regrets: this allows her an uncomplicated enjoyment of her celebrity.
Creatives like Palin, however, are likely to have a different perspective. His best work was as a writer and comic actor, nothing too physically strenuous. Why should it not be possible to maintain success at the same level into his old age? Probably because it is very difficult to sustain cutting edge creativity over a long period. Some comedians, of course, maintained a very long career: Bob Hope and George Burns spring to mind, but they were hardly revolutionary.
Monty Python, by contrast, was mould-breaking, and moulds can be broken but once. To sustain that level of creativity, of continuous surprise, is hardly possible. Spike Milligan possibly succeeded, but he was a once in a generation comic genius. It is much more common for comedians to follow the route, as Palin has, to writing books and acting.
When Peter Cook died, some obituaries regretted that he had never fulfilled his early potential. Jonathan Ross pointed out that Cook had simply fulfilled his potential early. So it is for Palin and the rest of the Python team. They could never hope to match what they achieved in those early years. Just ask Paul McCartney.