Michael Palin’s diaries from 50 years ago this month paint an oddly familiar picture of a time of energy crisis, “non-government” and an underlying absurdity and silliness.
“Driving home has become quite an adventure now, for with the power-cuts I never know which traffic lights will be working and which won’t. Street lights have generally been turned off, and when there is a blackout as well it becomes quite eerie.”
This is Michael Palin, writing on the evening of Monday 15 February 1972, from his wonderful book The Python Years: Diaries 1969-1979. I often revisit this book for its beautifully observed insights into 1970s life in general and Monty Python life in particular, as well as for its endlessly upbeat spirit (well, almost endlessly). These diaries are a fascinating time capsule of the life and times of a Python, immersing us in a world that is not that long ago, but is gone and never to return.
This week I read through Palin’s published diary entries from 50 years ago this month. For a gent as perennially upbeat as Palin, it is striking how often he uses the words “gloom” and “gloomy” when describing the world as he saw it in February 1972. Some of the of the sources of the gloom on Palin’s mind in February 1972 feel oddly familiar to the reader of February 2022.
An energy crisis beset the UK in February 1972. To the gloom of winter was added unpredictable yet frequent and often extended power cuts. Once such outage hits the Pythons when (allegedly at the instigation of Eric Idle*) they decide to bunk off from work after a hard hour’s scriptwriting at Terry Jones’s house on Thursday 10 February 1972:
“Eric [Idle] suggested that we all be very naughty and go to see Diamonds are Forever, the latest of the James Bond film at the Kensington Odeon. Alas, [we] have not been in the cinema for more than 20 minutes when the film runs down. After a few minutes there is much clearing of throat, a small light appears in front of the stage and the manager appears to tell us that we are the victims of a power cut (this being the first day of cuts following four weeks of government intractability in the face of the miners’ claim). For half an hour there is a brief, British moment of solidarity amongst the beleaguered cinemagoers, but, as we were shirking work anyway, it looked like a shaft of reprobation from the Great Writer in the sky.”
The power cuts keep coming. The next day (Friday 11 February 1972), Palin writes:
“Home by 7.00 to a darkened house, so I reckon I have spent 11 of my working hours without electricity today. The news is exceptionally gloomy.”
The situation in Ireland dominated the news in February 1972. In the immediate aftermath of the horrific events of Bloody Sunday (which took place on Sunday 30 January 1972, with its 50th anniversary falling at the end of last month), Palin feels little confidence in the UK’s political leaders of the time. He writes on Sunday 6 February 1972:
“Mr Heath and this complacent, indolent, arrogant and unfeeling Tory government refuse to try and ease the situation.”
He pursues this theme further in his diary entry of Sunday 13 February 1972.
“It does seem that Heath and the Conservative government – who pledged themselves to ‘unite the country’ when they were elected – have, by the non-government, succeeded in polarising it more than ever.”
The Palin principle
The echoes of February 1972 are all around us in February 2022. Moving away from the1970s diaries for a moment, I would like to share some more recent and very wise words from Michael Palin on his underlying perspective on life.
We might call this outlook the Palin principle. I was struck by the truth of these words from the moment I first read them. I share them here today in the hope that they might speak to you, too, or inform your perspective on the world around you right now. They come from a Guardian interview with the great gent from September 2014. Palin says:
“My view of the world, really, is that if you screw your eyes up and look at the world, it is an absurd and extraordinarily silly place, with everyone taking themselves very seriously.”
These words were as true of the world in 2014, as they were in February 1972, as and as they are of the world as it is today in February 2022. They will no doubt be equally true of the world we will find ourselves in tomorrow, the day after, the day after that and the, etc.
Graham Chapman’s violent tirade against carpets
Let us close out here by returning to Michael Palin’s world as it was 50 years ago. The gloom of February 1972 was not all-consuming. Delightful moments abound in his recollections of that month, as they do throughout this book.
Another timely diary entry provides a lovely example of this. On Monday 21 February 1972, Palin invites some friends round for dinner. These friends include Palin’s Python colleague Graham Chapman, who reportedly arrives somewhat the worse for wear, and lets rip at what lies beneath his feet:
“At one he [Graham Chapman] point started into a violent tirade against carpets, and how much he hated them”.
Also present at that dinner was the dear departed Barry Cryer (who passed away last month at the age of 86 last month). Palin offers a beautiful and succinct pen portrait of the lovely Mr Cryer:
“Barry Cryer remains the same – funny, considerate, straightforward and modest, a winning combination, which has been absolutely consistent since he first introduced himself to me at my first Frost Report meeting six years ago.”
Barry Cryer remained absolutely consistent in displaying always this winning combination of being “funny, considerate, straightforward and modest” throughout his life, in turn enriching the lives of all who met him. Cryer’s delightful appearance on Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast (RHLSTP) last year demonstrates this beautiful consistency.**
Gentle reader: Please consider taking inspiration from Barry Cryer’s “funny, considerate, straightforward and modest” dealings with the world in how you approach today. Please also consider applying the Palin principle to the world you see before you today and tomorrow, and recognise it for what it is: “an absurd and extraordinarily silly place, with everyone taking themselves very seriously”.
May today be nothing but kind to you and yours.
* Eric Idle has also written a quite wonderful book about his life. I strongly recommend his “sortabiography” Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.
** Richard Herring also gifted the world a truly delightful interview with Michael Palin in 2020. This is a beautifully warm and good-humoured conversation. The twinkle in Palin’s eye and his extraordinary wit and charm are undimmed. Palin is a seasoned interviewee. So it is also delightful to see Herring throw some true curveball questions, putting the spotlight on parts of his epic career that likely no interviewer has ever even touched upon previously.