Although it’s unfashionable to say so, I was never a Monty Python fan; I didn’t even find John Cleese ranting and raving in Faulty Towers particularly amusing but for some reason, I always had a soft spot for Michael Palin. There is something about the cheeky, boyish charm, incorrigible enthusiasm and good nature that makes him very appealing. Of course, it’s a long time now since he firmly established himself as an intrepid traveller but I recently revisited the first step of his journey in Around the World in 80 Days to see how it stands up twenty years after its publication in 1990.
The book follows the TV series in which Palin retraces the journey taken by the fictitious Phileas Fogg, 115 years earlier. Rather than travel solely by hot air balloon, Michael employs a variety of means of transport but only those that would have been available to the original traveller. This rules out air travel and creates some tricky deadlines and connections along the way and much complicated red tape and hassles at borders.
The book is based on Palin’s diary notes and is presented and reads very much like a diary. Each day provides an entry of around two to three pages with the book totalling around 250 pages. Interspersed with the text are photographs from each of the major points en route as well as pictures taken with people and crew members that he meets. These are definitely not worthy of National Geographic but are much more like personal holiday snaps. People familiar with Michael Palin may notice how young and dashing he looks although many of the shots are rather posed and you feel you hear the camera man say, ‘look thoughtful, look interested.’
The journey sets off from the Reform Club in London and heads off on the Orient Express to Venice, then onto Greece, Egypt and beyond. The TV series had something of a stage managed feel with ‘chance meetings’ with interesting characters being rather contrived and inevitably, this transfers to the book. Whilst Michael keeps his stiff upper lip, firmly in full British fortitude mode, he betrays his public school background when he shows surprise and disconcertion at the sight of hot water coming from a cold tap and is clearly a man who has not spent his life roughing it. However, he always retains his humility and we feel he finally leaves the west behind and starts to relax on board a sailing ship through the Indian Ocean despite the very real risk of piracy. The TV series showed Palin’s most endearing quality of his easy, natural touch with people and his ability to connect with them regardless of the language difficulties and how different their lives and backgrounds may be. This is captured in some of the pictures but is harder to find in the text.
For fans of Michael Palin and the TV series this book will have a high nostalgia quotient and provide an enjoyable Christmas read however, it is not a literary work of art. Despite his writing competence and eye for absurdity and humour, the script is rather dryly delivered with plenty of detail but not much colour. Mirroring the original story, he is interested in latitudes, time zones, compass points and food and it is perhaps to be expected that it reads like a ‘Boy’s Own Adventure’, coming as it does, from the hand of an eternal school boy. Top marks for effort and Palin’s a good sort but perhaps a job in television would be more suitable.
As for Around the World in 80 days, if you have it on your shelf, you’ll enjoy revisiting it; if you’ve never read it, you might find it a bit tame compared to the many excellent travel blogs you can now find on line.
My edition is the hardback version and was published in 1990 by Guild Publishing by arrangement with BBC books.
I can’t find an ISBN number as such only a number that reads CN 1800.
I think I picked this up at a charity bookshop many years ago so probably paid about 75p for it. The new hardback copy has been updated with a new cover and varies in price drastically from £10.34 to £44.96. You can also purchase the paperback copy from around £3.49.