This October, comedian, actor, writer, presenter and all-round national treasure Michael Palin celebrates three momentous decades of his life, as chronicled in his published diaries, in one-man show ‘Michael Palin: The Thirty Years Tour’. Now he divulges why the age-old hobby of writing a diary is essential in the modern world…
How would you sum up The Thirty Years Tour?
It’s different from the last tour (Travelling to Work) in that it covers all 30 years of the diaries, from 1969 to 1999. I’m using video clips and extracts that I haven’t used before or are rarely seen like Monty Python’s case against ABC Television in New York in 1976 and a short, wonderful spoof of Around The World In Eighty Days. There’ll be an element of my travels but it will look at how many different things I’ve done in my career, why I’ve done them, why some things worked and others didn’t. It’s a 30-year autobiography. Live on stage.
What are the elements that make up a good diary?
It must be personal for just one reader (at the beginning anyway) – yourself. It’s part confessional, part narrative of your day, part reflection, part dreams but the great thing is, you judge what goes in. Don’t think anyone else is necessarily going to read it. That’s why some of the best diaries work so well – because they’re intimate. A diary should be as candid and personal as you want it to be. Don’t worry about the future or the past – it’s about that day.
Why do you think it’s so important to keep a diary?
It has enabled me to look back on my life and rediscover why I did certain things and how I felt, so it feels like hardly a day is wasted. If you don’t write things down life becomes a blur… or you look back and make up what might have been. Memory plays strange tricks, so a diary is a good storeroom of information. Diary-keeping is a good discipline for a writer. It’s a good test of my powers of description, and how to use words effectively and economically. I have a short amount of time in which to not only record, but bring to life the people I’ve met and the situations I’ve been in during that day.
How different are you to the man you were 30 years ago, which was the starting point for the first volume of your published diaries?
I’m less carefree but I’m more secure. I was 26 when I started keeping a diary and anything was possible; London felt like a place of infinite possibilities. However, I had a family to support and we were struggling financially so I worked all hours writing comedy which I don’t have to do now. I’ve learned how I operate most effectively. The general span of someone’s working life I’ve been through and survived. I’ve learnt lessons along the way but deep down I’m not really any different – I’ve still got the same restlessness, a feeling of ‘I want to do something I’ve never done before, quite soon’.
With the advent of social media, selfies etc do you think people have lost the art of diary writing? Or are they just diaries in a different form?
We’re recording our lives in a way we’ve never done before – it’s very much ‘of the moment’ and immediately shared. There’s no time for reflection. If you want to say something in a more roundabout, discreet or inventive way then social media is not particularly helpful, but it offers us extraordinary access into people’s lives. But I’m not sure where it’s all going to go. A diary written on a piece of paper exists as a thing, whereas blogs and selfies exist somewhere in the Cloud. Keeping a hand-written diary is different; it’s a way of stepping back and allowing yourself time to write something purely for yourself. Once you’re playing to an instant audience you start to distort things to please them so it reins in your creativity. People showing their bedroom all day, because they know three million people are watching, will tend to stay in that bedroom, rather than climb Everest or learn the saxophone or do something else to open out their lives.
When it comes to your published diaries, do you edit them with hindsight or leave them as originally written?
I have to edit them due to the sheer length – the published diaries are around 20% of what was actually written – but I avoid changing the words because how you expressed yourself at the time is important. Some days you write in a hell of a rush so it all looks disjointed, but it has freshness. If there’s an opinion which nowadays sounds outrageous don’t be embarrassed to keep it in. I remember writing about the first time I saw the first draft of A Fish Called Wanda and thinking it wasn’t good. The next day I re-read it and thought ‘This is great’. You see the course of life as it really is – not a smoothly planned flow in one direction or another, but something that goes up and down and has jagged moments. There also has to be a mix of all that is part of your life – family, friends, work, worries, triumphs and failures – a good diary reminds you of how life is a rollercoaster.
Interviewer: Simon Button
‘The Thirty Years Tour’ comes to Aylesbury Waterside Theatre on 9th October (box office: 0844 871 7607) and New Victoria Theatre, Woking on 17th October (box office: 0844 871 7645). Both shows start at 7.30pm, tickets are £33.40 (fees apply).
For further information on Michael’s tours as well as books, diary extracts and upcoming television appearances, visit www.themichaelpalin.com.