Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Michael Palin's invaluable diaries of the 70s

I'm working on a book about 1971 and so I'm picking up any diaries that cover that time. Found this unopened hardback copy of Michael Palin's 1969-1979 diaries for three quid. Very glad I did.

Without meaning to it perfectly evokes the small irritations of daily life in the days when things didn't work. He and his wife and small child set off to France on holiday in an Austin Countryman. They drive to a tiny airport on the south coast where they board one of those front-loading planes, car and all, to make the short hop over the Channel. On their journey through France the car's exhaust breaks in two and he has to find a garage that can weld it back together.

When his wife goes into labour with their second child he has to take her to the hospital, then drop Child One off with a neighbour, then go home and ring the production office on the set of the Python film and hope they can rearrange the shooting schedule so that they can do without him for a day. Then back to the hospital where she's already given birth. Nobody expects anything to be easy or convenient. Python record a talk show on the West Coast in 1973 without stopping because the tape has to be flown to the next timezone to enable it to be broadcast simultaneously.

He's excellent on the morale-sapping reverses which are the showman's lot. They show the Holy Grail to the investors, who include members of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, and it's only then that they realise it's not all that funny and in fact it's a bit depressing.

He's good on the politics of being in a band, which is what Monty Python were. Some members need the band more than others but none of them ever entirely escape it. He's the one who's always brought in when somebody's drinking gets out of hand, the BBC need stroking or some press chores need handling.

His diary reveals the difference between the person he thinks himself to be and the person he's become, as diaries often do. He frets about inequality while taking the £5,000 he's offered for one day on a commercial. He wanders around London wondering how long it will be before this or that much-loved old area surrenders to the wrecking ball. The funny thing is he's wrong about that. It's all still there. And of course nowhere in the diaries does he entertain the idea that they might all reform in their seventies in order to boost their pension pots.

That's the great thing about diaries. The hindsight is all ours.


  1. The abiding memory I have of Palin's
    diaries of that period is of how exasperated people were that 'things' didn't work and Britain wasn't working properly as one wild-cat strike after another disrupted day-to-day life.

    For the USA in the 1970's David Frum's 'How We Got Here' is worth a look.

  2. Did you keep a diary in 1971 David?

  3. I was sitting my eleven plus that year. The sound of my childhood was listening to my Dad and our neighbours fruitlessly trying to get their Austin Allegro and Morris Marina to start in the morning.

    The smell of the period was wet wool. We walked everywhere, usually in damp duffle coats that were never quite fully dry.