Tuesday 19 November 2019

Waking hours with... Michael Palin: 'I find it very easy to unlock plots when I'm running'

Michael Palin (72) is a writer, actor, comedian, TV presenter, and one of the original members of Monty Python. A former president of the Royal Geographical Society, he was made a Bafta fellow in 2013. He lives in north London with his wife, Helen Gibbins

Michael Palin decided to get fit before doing travel programmes around the world.
Michael Palin decided to get fit before doing travel programmes around the world.

Emily Hourican

I usually hoist myself out of bed around about 7.30am. I like to ease myself gently into the day, and doing some exercise is quite important to me. I gave up smoking when I started writing the diaries [Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years; he has since published two further volumes], and I started regular running in about 1979; both were to try and keep myself fit. When I first started the travelling in 1988, I realised it was going to be tough - I was middle-aged, and I was going to be travelling around the world and getting up at all hours and climbing mountains, so keeping fit became part of my life. So now I do 20 minutes of Pilates in the morning while I listen to the Today programme.

Then I will go and have breakfast with my wife. Getting up and being across the table from her is nice. We never say very much, but it's a nice thing to do in the morning to reaffirm the relationship. Then we go off on our various ways. I start the day with a papaya, because I read somewhere that it has very good properties for digestion.

I'm at my desk by 9am. I try to write the diary first, recording the events of the day before. I love spending a morning writing and looking out over the small garden that we have, and feeling that that's as far as I need to go in the day. But most days, there are other things that come along. I have an office in Covent Garden, and I might have to go down there. If so, I walk up to the local Underground station and travel through London. If there is a project on, very often I'll have a meeting to discuss that. Someone who read my diaries did say at one point, 'You seem to have an awful lot of lunches!' Well, yes, I do. I'm freelance; I don't have to go to people's offices. If I'm going to meet somebody, I'd like to get to know them over a meal or a drink.

In the afternoon, if I'm doing a bit of acting, I may have to go off and have a costume fitting or rehearsal, and twice a week I like to build in an hour-long run. I'm a solitary runner. I don't go on marathons or big fun-runs. For me, it's just something I enjoy, especially if I've been sitting at the desk, writing. We live in north London, and Hampstead Heath is just two minutes from my house, where I can get lost in 800 acres. That's very therapeutic. My mind is fairly open as I run. The effort of running takes more work now that it did before, but the thoughts still come. I had an idea for a film that got made while I was running on the Heath; that was The Missionary, made in 1982, with Maggie Smith. I find that if you let your mind completely drift and just enjoy the trees and the sky, often something will come up that will break a little deadlock. I've written a couple of novels, and I find it very easy to unblock plots while I'm running. I'm 72 now, and as long as my knees and body can continue doing it, I will.

I try not to get involved in more than about an hour's emails every day, but they do keep coming. You have to push back all that stuff - otherwise you'll spend the day reacting, not creating. The thing about being 72, though, is that there are a lot of people now who have seen my work, and are interested in what I'm doing, so there are frequent requests to give a talk, or be a patron.

Every now and then, I take a leap in the dark, and say yes. One of those recently was when I was asked to be president of the Royal Geographical Society, which is an enormously high honour. I'm very glad that I did it, but it did take up one or two evenings a week. Otherwise, in the evenings, we tend to eat out quite a bit. I used to eat lots of sausages and processed food, and there's nothing I don't like except tripe and sweetbreads, but I realised that my digestive system can't really take very heavy, spicy foods, so I tend to eat a lot of fish these days, and fruit and vegetables.

We might go with friends to see a film, or go to the theatre. All of our three children live in London, so we might see them. We've got two grandsons, and every weekend they'll come round. On really enjoyable nights, we stay in and watch something on TV. We're currently watching all of The Sopranos.

I like to get to bed fairly early. We watch the BBC News and that's the start of our sleep. There's something about the news format that sends me off. I'm usually in bed by 11.15pm. I don't get enough reading time during the day, so I try to read at night. I tend to read novels at night, and non-fiction during the day. I fall asleep very easily and sleep very deeply. Being an old incontinent person, I now have to toddle off to the loo - sometimes twice a night - which is a bore, and by dawn I'm beginning to wake up and think about the day, but I'm generally in quite good shape, so I can't complain.

The current tour is 19 dates, stretched out over a period of about a month. It's not gruelling physically, it's more a mental effort. You've got to believe every night that you can go on stage and entertain people for the two hours without them wanting to get up and go. I value the connection with the local audience, so the show I do in Nottingham isn't the same as the show I'll do in Dublin. I've got to keep on my toes, keep up my concentration.

It's a strange way of spending the day, one I'm not really very comfortable with: you do this show, then you eat late and go to bed. How do you spend the rest of the day? I haven't yet worked this out. That's why I like being on tour, because you're in a different place each day. You're driving around, seeing wonderful countryside, cities you've not been to before. I like being in a different place each night; it's refreshing, mentally.

Sometimes I think to myself, 'Maybe I should just stop where I am?' I've done an awful lot in my life, I've had a fascinating time. Maybe it's time to stop, and not try and do anything new. But I just can't do that. I've tried, but I'm just so curious, I want to get out there and have a look at what's happening in the world. I'll keep going until I drop.

'Michael Palin - The Thirty Years Tour' is at The Olympia Theatre on October 29 at 8pm. For tickets, see ticketmaster.ie

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