BOOK FESTIVAL – Michael Palin, From Sullom Voe to The Bay of Bengal

By Tony Bibby

‘Charm’ filled a packed main theatre at the Edinburgh Book Festival, exuded by the inimitable Michael Palin.

Introduced by Jenny Brown, she delighted in welcoming Michael back to the festival after a 25-year gap. A quarter of a century that has seen him as an actor, comedian, journalist, traveller and author – talents that have all grouped to inform his new novel “The Truth”.

He started the evening stating how much Edinburgh meant to him and how nice it was to be back. Reminiscing – he told the audience of his early years as part of The Oxford University’s “The Etcetera’s and his first performances at the Fringe, standing reading ‘rejected ideas’ from a dustbin.

Palin’s earlier novel “Hemingway’s Chair” was published in 1995, and suggested that the reason for writing this second book – was because he didn’t think he could be a novelist with only one book.

He went on to tell us that he had a file full of ideas – a series of ‘beginnings and endings that were without middles’ (Including one about the sewers in Glasgow, inspired by a drain cover he noticed in Segovia in Spain). He went on to mention his friend Alan Bennett, who also would suffer similarly and who once said “I wish there were a plot shop somewhere. Somewhere you could go and buy 3 yards of ‘ends”.

Palin had no such problem with the idea for “The Truth” though. He started thinking about the idea by basing it on his past experiences, his travels – specifically to India. But decided to create the main characters and take them on a journey inspired by his reading of an Amnesty International article about an aluminium refinery that was based on a range of hills that belonged to an isolated tribe of people.

Stirred by the article, he thought “this is the sort of thing that the main character in the book would be concerned with”. And so armed with this thought, and outline for the novel, Palin journeyed to India to gather more factual content for his book. He spent time with an endangered tribe and studied the aluminium plant that stood in amongst the surrounding paddy fields. This combined with political facts, in depth research and past travel experiences brought him back to his desk to write.

“Did you come back angry” quizzed Jenny Brown.

Palin replied that he did, but in different ways – and explained to the audience how mixing and talking with the local tribes had thrown up various ethical dilemmas in his writing. Dilemmas solved in different way by the book’s main characters – an idealistic journalist Keith Mabbut; A veteran environmentalist Hamish Melville; a literary agent Silla; and publisher Ron Latham of ‘Urgent Books’.

By describing the characters he teased the audience into the story and followed this up with a short reading from the book. Enough to capture the imagination of the audience, give a flavour of the pace and also demonstrate his witty, descriptive, flowing writing style.

While naturally focused on the novel – the evening tripped though other topics and recollections. From applauding the late Eric Sykes, to saluting the talents of John Le Mesurier and Arthur lowe.

The night wouldn’t have been complete without the obligatory Monty Python memories. Following a question from an audience member who asked if he was at the recent marriage of John Cleese – Palin replied with shock, as he didn’t know Cleese had married again! Added to which he has an invite to the wedding in September, and had the requested ‘Speedo’s’ ready for the occasion!

Michael has spent a lot of time bringing the world and its issues into our living room – now with his latest novel ‘The Truth’ – he’s brought a little bit more of it to our bookshelves.

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