Is it true, I ask Michael Palin, that the Dalai Lama once told him that he would like to be reincarnated as his assistant on his travels? “Well he’s supposed to have said that.” Palin pauses. “Although he goes around as a religious leader, I think he really likes doing what I do, travelling around and meeting people. “I have this conceit that we had a similar upbringing. He was in Lhasa in the Potala Palace, as he says, poring over atlases and looking out from his ramparts over this barren plain, wondering about the world. And I was in Sheffield — and there was no prospect of travelling then — looking at atlases, maps, conjuring up in my imagination what places might look like. So I’ve always thought the Dalai Lama and I have a lot in common!”
On a rare, sun-blessed day we are sitting in the back garden of Palin’s north London home, a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill Fields. Palin might be described as Britain’s most popular traveller. His BBC documentaries (a new series on Brazil is coming soon) are regularly watched by audiences of up to nine million, an astronomical figure for travel programmes; while his spin-off books — seven in all — regularly top the bestseller lists, shifting upwards of 300,000 copies a time — and that is in hardback. His standing as a novelist is less august. It is 17 years since his first novel, “Hemingway’s Chair” — about a man running a country post-office battling against modernisation — received tepid reviews. Now comes his second, “The Truth”, to which the reception is likely to be warmer.
The book tells the story of an idealistic environmental journalist, Keith Mabbut, who once won an award for exposing a factory that was poisoning local drinking water but has since been obliged to settle for corporate hackwork; his latest book, Triumph in Adversity, is a celebration of a new oil terminal in the Shetlands. Now struggling to write the Great Novel, and to salvage his disintegrating personal life, out of the blue, he receives an offer from a publisher of dubious celebrity bestsellers, Urgent Books, to write a biography of one of his great heroes, Hamish Melville, the crusading and publicity-shy “Action Man of the environmental movement”. A good man in a bad world, Melville’s reputation has been built on his steely resistance to the corporate rape and exploitation of tribal peoples around the globe. His publisher wants to investigate some unpalatable allegations about Melville, which Mabbut is convinced have no substance. But pursuing Melville to India where his “barefoot army with laptops” are engaged in a struggle against a multinational mining company, Mabbut discovers that the truth is anything but clear-cut.
“The Truth” is an ingeniously plotted, beautifully written and hugely enjoyable book that raises tricky questions about the cost of progress, and even trickier ones about our need for heroes, the price of personal compromise and what Palin calls “the uncontroversial assumption that truth is immutable”. Researching the book, Palin travelled to the Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa, where a local tribe, the Dongria Khond, have been fighting a long-running battle against an international mining conglomerate, Vedanta Resources, to protect their land from being mined for bauxite rock, the main source of aluminium. In “The Truth”, the Niyamgiri Hills become the Masoka Hills, where a conglomerate called Astramex is mining bauxite for an aluminium refinery “built on 23 local villages, and surrounded by a 10-mile barbed-wire fence”.
“Visiting there had a very profound effect on me, in terms of being able to place myself in the situation they’re facing,” Palin says. “The hill behind their village was going to be razed and stripped. It was as if someone was going to come to Parliament Hill and in a period of ten years just strip the place down by 30 or 40 feet. It would be a complete no-go area all the way round here; they would extract the bauxite, then cobble it all together again and say, ‘No problem!’ This is exactly what was going to happen to these people.”
Palin recalls walking up the hill from the village and stopping to photograph an elderly woman and her two grandchildren gathering wood, and being forcefully reminded of his own two grandchildren, Archie and Wilbur. Talking of this, he is moved almost to tears. “The children were skipping behind her. It was the most lovely image. Because there is an innocence. They have no idea that their life could be destroyed.”
In fact, the fate of the Dongria Khond is in abeyance. Following a campaign by the tribe, to which a number of international figures, including Palin, lent their support, in 2010 the Indian environment minister stopped Vedanta mining in the Niyamgiri Hills. The company is now appealing against the decision. “One feels that in the end,” he says, “money and power will have its way.” This is a difficult problem. As Palin says, “We all use aluminium.” In “The Truth”, the line between hero and villain is similarly unclear. “I’m very wary of idealism, what it is and where it may lead you,” Palin says. “We all know villains and rascals; we see them in the paper every day. But if there’s a good person who has to make compromises — which Melville does albeit, he thinks, for the right reasons — one’s got to recognise that, and get away from idealism, ‘the big truth’, the big ‘Right Thing to Do’.
“Mabbut’s a bit of an innocent, but he does believe that Melville represents something that will display all the goodness, and suck out all the badness, in the system. I think we all want to believe that of certain people, but I wanted to show it was unrealistic to expect anyone to behave like that. No one is perfect.”
Palin, a remarkably youthful 69, once defined real success as “enjoying what you do, but remaining the same person”. And by this criterion, he is very successful indeed. A man of steady habits — he has been married to his wife, Helen, for 46 years, lived in the same house for 34 — he is utterly devoid of self-importance, as nice as famously advertised. (Google “Michael Palin” and the predictive text delivers 45,700 results under “nicest man in the world”.) He is the embodiment of the sort of stolid, English middle-class decency, drollery and common sense that he spent years sending up, in “Monty Python”, “Ripping Yarns” and his film “The Missionary”.
It seems no coincidence that his hero Mabbut in “The Truth” should travel around India with a supply of Fox’s Glacier Mints in his pocket. One can imagine Palin doing much the same. However, the key to Palin’s popularity as a traveller lies not only in his affability, but in his curiosity. He is someone who believes that, looked at in the right way, almost anything can be interesting. “I do think travel is very, very good — good for me, I should say. The more I see of the world the safer I feel; less at the behest of those that interpret the world for you — and frighten you. I remember being in Pakistan fairly soon after 9/11; there was a Foreign Office advisory not to go there, but where I expected hostility I just found curiosity, interest. And I felt a great elation meeting these people. They didn’t want to kill me!
“I felt so much better, so much more able to take the press cant, and all the radio and TV stuff you get, particularly from America, about the rest of the world. Travel sharpens up your own life and your perceptions. It takes you out of your comfort zone, and I like that.”
In “The Truth”, Palin describes Mabbut as someone who “never thought of happiness as a natural condition. It was just the postponement of unhappiness.” “But happiness is a word that’s a bit like truth, isn’t it?” Palin says. “People will use it to try and tell you something or pull the wool over your eyes. ‘Drink this and it will make you happy.’ Neither are things that can be quantified.”
He describes himself as someone who has always enjoyed the good fortune of feeling secure in his family and friends. “I can go off and make my forays into the world and come back to somewhere absolutely secure. So actually what you’re doing doesn’t absolutely define your life. I don’t feel there is any particular need to say, ‘This is what I am. This is who I am.’”
But at the same time he confesses to nagging feelings of unworthiness and underachievement. “I always feel I’ve been an entertainer, and an entertainer has a certain function. I started off in comedy, where we made each other laugh and hoped we could make others laugh too. It made some people very happy, I suppose. But compared to being a heart surgeon, or an anthropologist or a biologist who is broadening our awareness of life, is it really useful?” Talking of this, one senses in Palin something of the feelings of his protagonist Mabbut, striving to write his great novel. Perhaps, for Palin, too, the novel might provide the answer to some larger existential question.
“Well, I do think if you think you can write, fiction is somehow the key thing, because there’s a real element of unique, creative imagination there. It’s something which is being said at this time by that voice and that’s the only way it can be said,” he says. “I really enjoy writing, and I really enjoy learning, each time, to try and write a little bit better. And when it works it really is terrific. And you can make up this lovely universe without anybody else getting in the way, or arguing about it.” He laughs. “The truth is that facts get in the way.”
–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2012