Michael Palin's talk on Charles Darwin

PUBLISHED: 19:10 04 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:12 20 February 2013

New boys and old: Jo Allan, Michael Palin and Eoin Bentick. Picture courtesy of: ALASDAIR DOUGAN

New boys and old: Jo Allan, Michael Palin and Eoin Bentick. Picture courtesy of: ALASDAIR DOUGAN

Old boy Michael Palin returns to Shrewsbury School next month to deliver a talk in<br/><br/>celebration of the bicentenary of another great Old Salopian, Charles Darwin.....

Although not in the action of preparing for another epic voyage across the globe, Michael Palin is clearly a very busy man. Palin has just added to his impressive workload by shouldering the hefty title of President of the Royal Geographical Society, and it is in this capacity that he comes to Shrewsbury School in October to give a lecture entitled, From Shrewsbury to the World: A Debt to Darwin. Amidst all this he still manages to find to time to work on his fourth fictional novel (not including various children's books and plays). It was not without a certain degree of trepidation, therefore, that we awaited his arrival in the roomy space of his manager's office, armed with a plethora of questions worthy of Parkinson and sweat patches that were in danger of forming a Venn diagram. Would the real-life Palin have the same effortless honesty and good-humour that is so appealing in the televised figure?

Our worries were soon put to bed when a familiar figure strolled through the door, his face creased up in the warmest of smiles and with a cheeky glint in his eye that harked back to his more absurd days (that clearly had not deserted him). He swiftly put us at ease, and, over the course of the next hour, gave a fascinating insight into his diverse interests and how Shrewsbury School has influenced his life and career.

Your talk is entitled From Shrewsbury to the World: A Debt to Darwin; what's your interest in your fellow Old Salopian?

I suppose it's about the spirit of enquiry, about travelling and learning and about how much there is still to know about the wider world. This is what Darwin really represented. It's about how he looks at the world. My viewpoint is similar but different because I'm not really a scientist; I'm more interested in people and human life but I do think his spirit is really important - he's a great Old Salopian.

Was it curiosity, therefore, that inspired your need to explore?

Yes, I always liked geography as a subject because it seemed to me a bit more relevant than learning about the Tudors and all that. Part of my curiosity is also trying to encourage people to look at geography with a little more excitement. I had a very good geography teacher at Shrewsbury. He was a bit of a rebel really. All the maps he had were German and he said they were the best maps you could get. This was fairly soon after the war so people were still worried about calling it the German sea or whatever.

In many ways you're one of the main cultural envoys of the world to Britain; do you feel a great responsibility?

No, I honestly feel I just have to do the best I can do. I believe there is always more to learn about countries and it's important that we do learn before we judge them. I try to keep the spirit of openness and communication; I push the idea of going for yourself and seeing for yourself. Personal experience is very, very important. Forget history books, guide books, just try to take it all in. I think there's no substitute for trying to just watch life going on and it's amazing how much you learn just sitting and having a cup of tea and seeing how people are.

You previously said that 80 days was the minimum time in which you could go around the world and properly feel it and sense it. Do you still feel that's the case?

Well in some ways it's smaller: you can get to places faster so a journey that would have taken six months in my father and grandfather's time can be done in six hours or so. But I think in many ways the task is more difficult because of our British attitude: the way we look on the world has changed a lot. When I was growing up we had the Empire, now we don't, we have to be friendly to everybody and treat them as equals, but I think that transition's quite a difficult thing and it's taking quite a long time. I think our generation will have a completely different attitude to the rest of the world than my father's generation might have had. I think that it means we have to listen a lot more; going to countries and finding out what people really think about us requires a certain amount of courage as well.

Did you ever have any problems in your shift from Monty Python's Flying Circus to your travelling shows?

Well it was an odd thing to do at the time and I debated with myself as to whether I really should be going off to do 11 weeks filming abroad for a documentary programme when I've just done A Fish Called Wanda, Python and all that sort of thing. I was even making fun of all these daft presenters when I was on Python. So was I taking myself too seriously? But once I started to do it, I realised that I was really enjoying myself; that actually seeing the world was what I really wanted to do. There weren't lots of times when I thought, 'I've got to get back to acting. I've got to get back to comedy'.

Do you still have that Python spirit in you, or have you lost it because of the travel?

Oh no, I think Python is a way of looking at the world and I had that before Python. When I was at Shrewsbury School I could see the absurd things in a situation whereas other people would see the serious problems. Comedy's always been a very big part of my life and the way I look at life now is still much the same as when I was with Python. Without a sense of humour, without the ability to laugh at yourself you might as well give up. The world has got no less absurd than it used to be.

Did your time at Shrewsbury School not only influence your resolve but also your sense of humour?

Yes, I do think it taught me a certain amount of self-reliance. I was educated at Sheffield until I was 13 and a half, so going away to Shrewsbury seemed an odd thing and I remember thinking, 'what am I doing? Why have my parents taken me here?' It was quite difficult to start with and I didn't really fit in to this strange environment. I remember finding it quite aggressive and hostile, and I think dealing with that was the start of it really. I was very lucky because, being in Rigg's (house), I was there with Hugh Brooke who was just a wonderful character and very funny and of course in my first year there was John Peel (then known as John Ravenscroft) and they used to have wonderful banter together. I remember thinking it was marvellous; he was a very funny man and used humour a lot and I learnt from him. So perhaps it honed my humorous skills and I never felt at Shrewsbury that I had to stop laughing. I always thought that humour had very much a place in life especially in building relationships and friendships. By the time I left Shrewsbury my sense of humour, if not stronger than it was before, had much more material to feed it.

You recently published your diaries on your Python years. Why did you choose to write a diary?

It was very personal. I had always wanted to write a diary in order to make a record of my life and so I started to do it for just that reason: to mark the passing of the days. I had just had my first child, Tom, and I wanted to record him growing up. I felt more inclined to write it down than take pictures and then Python suddenly happened so then I found myself struggling to keep up with this crazy, crazy thing we were doing. I never thought it would be published until quite recently.

Traveller, broadcaster, author, comedian and 'Python' Michael Palin presents From Shrewsbury to the World: A Debt to Darwin, an account of his travels around the world over the past 20 years, on Thursday, October 1st hosted by Shrewsbury School and the Shropshire Geographical Society. Proceeds of the lecture will be donated to the Field Studies Council Darwin Scholarship (www.field-studies-council.org) and to Shrewsbury House. For more details email: palinlecture@shrewsbury.org.uk

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