Michael Palin scales Erebus: His voyage into polar history and its NZ connection

by Russell Baillie / 13 October, 2018
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Michael Palin. Illustration/Weef

He’s back on screen with a travel series about North Korea and a role in drama Vanity Fair, but Michael Palin’s biggest new project is a personal one – a book about early polar expeditions with a New Zealand connection. 

It’s early Friday morning in his London home when Michael Palin picks up the phone to the Listener. You almost hope the early hour and intrusion may render the nicest man in England slightly less genial. But he proves dangerously avuncular from the get-go. Catching Palin at home might seem lucky. After all, he has spent much of the past 30 or so years wandering the world accompanied by a camera crew, displaying his seemingly boundless enthusiasm and unflappability. Though, of late, it’s been acting gigs getting him out of the house. In Armando Iannucci’s black farce The Death of Stalin, Palin’s Vyacheslav Molotov had echoes of his put-upon Monty Python characters.

He’s playing another historical figure, William Makepeace Thackeray, in a new television adaptation of the writer’s Victorian sprawling social satire Vanity Fair. Palin’s top-hatted Thackeray introduces each episode like a circus ringmaster.

Meanwhile, his career as a travel documentary frontman, which has to some extent made him the David Attenborough of geography, continues. He’s just been to North Korea for a polite poke around. Being reminded he’s jumped from fictional Stalinist Russia to a non-fiction Stalinist state makes him chuckle.

“Yeah, I didn’t wear my Death of Stalin T-shirt while there, I can tell you that.”

Predictably, Palin and his crew were carefully shepherded in their fortnight in Pyongyang and outside the capital. Still, he says, the series will be revealing. He came away thinking maybe the place isn’t all that bad.

“We were very carefully supervised to make sure we didn’t look at things they didn’t want us to look at. But, on the other hand, we did film people in the street, we filmed people in a park having a day off and it didn’t seem a country under the oppressive gloom that is portrayed in the West.

“So, I think we do shed a little bit of light on the country, but it’s still a place that is very, very, very difficult to unravel.”

The Korean excursion served another useful purpose – as a deadline for finishing writing his latest book, Erebus: The Story of a Ship. It’s a delve into the history of the Royal Navy vessel, which, with sister ship HMS Terror, carried an expedition led by explorer James Clark Ross to find the magnetic south pole in the early 1840s.

In its pages, Palin quotes Captain Robert Falcon Scott: “It might be said it was James Cook who defined the Antarctic region, and James Ross who discovered it.”

After their expeditions to the southern continent, both ships, now under the command of Sir John Franklin, went in search of the Northwest Passage. Both were lost in the Arctic with no survivors among the 129 men. Searchers in the 1850s discovered evidence that after the ice-trapped ships were abandoned, and as the sailors succumbed to the cold and starvation, the flesh of those who died may have sustained those who briefly outlived them. An Admiralty report, describing the cannibalism as “the last dread alternative”, shocked Britain. Charles Dickens, a friend of Lady Franklin, waded in with a defence of the men, accusing Inuit, who had told British searchers about their encounters with survivors years before, of killing the sailors and eating them. Other theories have suggested scurvy and lead poisoning, from badly soldered tins of food, had done for them before the cold.

With decreasing amounts of polar ice making searching during the summer months easier, the wreck of the Erebus was discovered four years ago, largely intact, in just 10m of water. The Terror was found two years later.

Northwest Passage: The Erebus sails past an iceberg. Photo/Getty Images

Northwest Passage: The Erebus sails past an iceberg. Image/Getty Images

Tracking the Erebus

When news broke about the Erebus find, it stopped Palin in his tracks. He had just finished a season of Monty Python reunion shows in London and was looking for something to do next. Telling the ship’s story seemed the perfect idea. After all, he had other connections.

From 2009 to 2012, he was the president of the Royal Geographic Society, which had been a sponsor of the Antarctic expedition. During filming of his series Brazil, he’d happened upon the story of botanist Joseph Hooker, who had transplanted rubber plants from South America to Far East British colonies and eventually took over his father’s job as director of Kew Gardens in the late 19th century.

As a young man, Hooker was assistant surgeon and botanist on the Ross Expedition. When Palin was asked to give a talk in 2003 at London’s Athenaeum Club about one of the institution’s members, he chose Hooker.

As a boy in landlocked Sheffield, Palin had grown up on sea stories – the Hornblower novels and 1950s movies about the Royal Navy. In his television adventures, he’s spent a fair amount of time afloat – ranging from jet boats on the Shotover River to dhows on the Persian Gulf. In Pole to Pole he visited the Earth’s northern- and southern-most points.

He’d originally hoped his Erebus study might be another television series. He could find no takers but understands why.

“It’s such an enormous thing to do on television; there’s a lot of sailing, there’s a lot of ice, there’s a lot of people in sort of balaclavas. It’s very, very difficult to see how you would make it at any decent cost and do full justice to it.”

Slightly Amundsen-like, perhaps, The Terror, a series by Ridley Scott, got there first. It’s a drama, adapting the 2007 supernatural novel by Dan Simmons, which takes the Franklin Expedition tragedy and its suggestions of cannibalism and makes a horror story out of it.

A painting depicting Sir John Franklin and crew members stranded in the Arctic. 4. Sir John Franklin. Photo/Getty Images

A painting depicting Sir John Franklin and crew members stranded in the Arctic. 4. Sir John Franklin. Image/Getty Images

Gaining publisher interest for his non-fiction account, Palin soon had an Erebus book to write and 18 months to do it, all on his own, meaning he had to put aside television work.

“I quite enjoyed the freedom of being in control, really, of my own, ha, ship. If someone had to go to a library, it was me. Or, if someone had to go to the dockyard out at Woolwich to look at the plans, it was me. I felt people expect me to get a sense of the places where the ships went. So, I will go to Hobart and I will go to the Falklands and I’ll go into the Northwest Passage.”

And so he did, but his first archival port of call was the familiar surrounds of the Royal Geographic Society where, among the artefacts, are a pair of socks – the stockings worn by Hooker in the Antarctic.

“They were rather grey and shabby and a little bit crusty but they became the symbol of the research I would have to do.“

During his research, Palin ventured to Tasmania, where the ships wintered between their first two of three forays to the southern ice and where, at the time, Franklin was the local governor. He also went to the Falklands, where the ships underwent repairs on their voyage home. He hitched a ride on a Russian Arctic tourist vessel to see the area where the ships’ Northwest Passage expedition ended, only for floating ice to prevent him getting close.

“So, we actually encountered the conditions that Franklin encountered.

“I hoped the climax of the book would be me actually diving down and touching this ship that had been launched in Wales in 1826 … but I would probably knock something over and destroy the final notebook of Sir John Franklin or something, so it’s probably best that I didn’t.”

Palin’s book notes the Antarctic volcano that Ross named after his ship as the scene of New Zealand’s greatest air disaster. Ross’ own name lives on as a sea, island, ice shelf and dependency in the NZ-administered slice of the southern continent.

Sir James Clark Ross. Image/Getty Images

A Pythonesque tragedy

Returning to Antarctica via Sydney in 1841, the Erebus and Terror visited the Bay of Islands, 18 months after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. The crews were warned not to go ashore unarmed.

Palin writes about Robert McCormick, the naturalist-surgeon aboard the Erebus, meeting missionary Henry Williams and inviting him aboard. McCormick also called in at the Paihia printing office of William Colenso. The stopover was marked by tragedy, too – a royal marine in the company drowned when a dinghy overturned on its way back to the ship.

“It was an interesting period for the country and extraordinary to think about what New Zealand has grown to be in a relatively short time.”

Leaving Northland, Ross’ ships landed on the Chatham and Auckland islands, all part of a mission to plant Union Jacks in remote spots that didn’t have one yet. The first flag planting, on Possession Island in the Ross Sea, was into a bed of penguin guano. The birds pecked at the human invaders drinking toasts to Queen Victoria.

With his recounting of the expeditions into the Antarctic and Arctic circles, Palin’s book is also a story of empire in the relatively peaceful years after the defeat of Napoleon. The Royal Navy was the Nasa of its day.

“Our very well-trained navy was available to go around the world and, in fact, for a very short time Britannia did rule the waves. What they did, especially with the Erebus on the first expedition to the Antarctic, was carry out scientific expeditions. It was exploring the world, and it stimulated lots of research done by non-British people … all the people who wanted to know about the world, they used the British navy.

“But then, you know, you get to the Franklin expedition and it was a rather different feel, it was, ‘Let’s show what we can do. Let’s go through this Northwest Passage’ … but the Antarctic voyage, I think, was a wholly admirable example of empire.”

Palin agrees when it’s suggested that his account of so much nautical derring-do and eventual grim tragedy has some occasionally Pythonesque touches. After all, there was that sketch, “Lifeboat Cannibalism”, in which Palin and co played shipwreck survivors discussing who among them should be on the menu.

“I was very pleased to discover, in my research, the role that humour played in all of this … it’s really about confronting fear with the camaraderie of your friends around you. There was an awful lot of laughter there and I try to bring those moments out in the book as much as possible.”

He cites, as an example, the ships’ ordinary seamen passing the time, while stuck in Antarctic pack ice, by carving themselves a pub to celebrate New Year’s Eve in 1842, complete with an ice sculpture of their own Venus dé Medici.

Elsewhere, Palin writes with amusement about McCormick. He liked nothing better than discovering a new species of seabird by shooting them dead. With his specimen cases full of dead albatrosses and other species, and visiting Rio de Janeiro on the return voyage from the Antarctic, he bought two live parrots to take home as pets.

Erebus and Terror in search of the magnetic south pole. Photo/Getty Images

Erebus and Terror in search of the magnetic south pole. Image/Getty Images

You lucky, lucky bastard

Palin, of course, was part of the greatest moment in parrot-related comedy in a sketch, which first screened on Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1969.

He and John Cleese performed it again, at the Python reunion shows four years ago, in front of 200,000 people, an event he sees as the last hurrah for the group that changed the course of British comedy. Palin admits to mixed feelings about reunions since the death of member Graham Chapman in 1989. But the 10 London stadium shows were a fitting farewell.

“Here we are, all over 70, staggering onto the stage … we really had to step up to the mark, rather than do pale versions of what we did before. A lot of the sketches were the best we had ever done them. We remembered Python in the best possible way. There were lots of offers to go around the world with the show, but Python was made in England. We live in London. That was the place we should do our last show.”

Since then, Terry Jones, a friend from their Oxford days and whose writing partnership with Palin dates back to pre-Python times, has gone public with his dementia.

“So he would not have been able to do any future tours anyway. So I think it was a natural ending and I’m glad it went so well.”

And, as his book, his acting roles and his North Korean excursion prove, Palin has plenty of other things to be getting on with.

He’s been married to wife Helen, whom he first met in his teens, since 1966. Their three children are now regularly presenting them with grandkids. Handily, grandad has written some kids’ books in his diversified career.

Occasionally, when his children were growing up, his travel docos would mean he was away for months on end. It didn’t seem to worry his nearest and dearest.

Sir John Franklin. Image/Getty Images

“My wife is extremely good and patient dealing with my departures. She’s not a great world traveller herself, so she doesn’t feel that she’s missed out on something. I don’t think they really noticed my absences. Apart from the fact that I’m not there to sign the odd cheque.”

He’s just spent 18 months writing Erebus in his home office in their house, which sits on the edge of Hampstead Heath. “My wife couldn’t wait for me to get to North Korea or somewhere and get me out of the house a bit.”

The cover of Erebus looks quite Boy’s Own – the sort of book that might attract the young Palin, who grew up reading those sea adventures and for whom geography was a favourite subject. “I would read National Geographic and look up the maps in my father’s atlas and I knew I’d never see these places. No one from Sheffield ever did. But I could read about them and they were in my mind.”

So, what might a time-travelling 75-year-old Palin say to his younger self about his journeys to come? “I’d give him a great big hug and say, ‘Gosh, you’ve been lucky’,” he says with a laugh, adding a line from The Life of Brian: “You lucky, lucky bastard.”

Erebus: The Story of a Ship (Penguin) is out now. Vanity Fair is on TVNZ 1, Sunday and Monday, at 8.30pm.

This article was first published in the September 29, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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