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Michael Palin


Michael Palin brings life to the story of some frozen Victorians

„Erebus“ was inspired by the discovery of the wreck of HMS Erebus in 2014 in the Canadian Arctic – a discovery that shed new light on one of the great mishaps of early polar exploration.

By Chris Cummins

Sometimes it’s the subject of a book that draws you in, sometimes it’s an evocative cover, but sometimes it’s the author. Usually a historical account of a marine tragedy involving English explorers of the 19th century wouldn’t have grabbed my attention. There’s too much cold stoicism about the Victorian-era, too much cold in general, and too much talk of God and Empire. But Erebus: The Story of a Ship, is by Michael Palin. I was intrigued.

I have an ocean-wide soft spot for Michael Palin. I admire how his gentle self-deprecation hides a steely determination to push his own boundaries. After the frontier-exploring surrealism of Monty Python he took to film-acting with A Fish Called Wanda and The Death Of Stalin. But it was his TV travel series, which began when I was an impressionable schoolkid, that cast me under his spell.

The series, starting with Around The World in 80 Days, introduced us to a traveller who exudes curiosity about the world but also a great empathy and sympathy for the ordinary people that he meets. It’s those qualities that also make good historians.

The Two Uncles

As Monty Python’s Flying Circus celebrates 50 years since its first chaotic silly steps, the surviving Pythons, seem to have become archetypes of the uncles who turn up for Christmas lunch.

The once hilarious, John Cleese, who has been gamboling with Michael Niavarani in Vienna recently, has turned into that rather boorish, pompous uncle. You know the one I’m talking about: the one who drinks all the port, dwells on past glories, complains about his ex-wives, tells you your children are misbehaving while he tub-thumps about Brexit and then falls asleep in front of the telly.

Palin, on the other hand, is the quieter, gentler, more reflective uncle, more inquisitive, more likely to ask questions himself. The one you can discuss books with. He’s tried writing novels, such as the charming Hemingway’s Chair, about a mild-mannered English postmaster who is obsessed with Ernest Hemingway. He has published volumes of revealing diaries. Now he is delving into marine history with the story of an infamous tragedy that involved great loss of life. Not much room for jokes here.


Mare Verlag

„Erebus. Ein Schiff, zwei Fahrten und das weltweit größte Rätsel auf See“ von Michael Palin ist in einer Übersetzung von Rudolf Mast im Mare Verlag erschienen.

Lost in the Frozen North

The book was inspired by the discovery of the wreck of HMS Erebus in 2014 in the Canadian Arctic – a discovery that shed new light on one of the great mishaps of early polar exploration. Together with its sister ship HMS Terror, Erebus had been trying to chart the final unknown channels of the North West Passage in 1840 when it disappeared. This loss dented the self-confidence of Victorian society and providing a mystery that has endured for over 170 years.

Perhaps this tragedy shouldn’t have been the shock that it was. When the ageing explorer Sir John Franklin was preparing to set sail with two ships to a way through the North West Passage, a renowned and outspoken Arctic expert of the time, Dr. Richard King, warned that the two ships and 129 men on board were being sent on a suicide mission “to form the nucleus of an iceberg”. The ice was too thick, it couldn’t be done. It’s not just that global warming hadn’t set in; modern ice-records show that Franklin and his crew had set off in the coldest sustained period in the Arctic in the past 800 years.

Glory and Riches

But this was 1845 and British pride, or hubris, was at its apex. Naysayers were dismissed. Besides, the two ships were both innovative and tested. Adapted squat “bomb vessels”, their hulls had been reinforced with several layers of thick oak and metal and they had recently survived two record-breaking trips to the Antarctic. Their captain, Franklin, meanwhile, was famous for his resilience. He was known already to the tabloids as The Man Who Ate His Boots. His ambitious overreach in an earlier expedition on land had left him and his team so starved that they’d had to nibbled on the leather of their footwear to survive.

Most importantly, the North West Passage would mean a short cut to Asia and if the Victorian Brits didn’t discover and administer the route, their rivals from Russia might. Amid the geo-politics of the 19th century, these cold men on boats had a nation’s considerable expectations on their shoulders.

Love Sick and Drunk

The book works because of Palin’s curiosity for the psychology of the men involved. He brings these long lost figures vividly to life. He has an eye for mundane but relatable detail that makes the characters three dimensional. There’s the joy when the ship’s cat has kittens. There’s the unrequited love-sickness of the sensitive but melancholic second-in-command Francis Crozier. There’s a drunken escape on the Falkland Islands that ends up with the dreaded stomach-pump.

Dancing on Ice

The final mystery of Erebus and Terror is a story often-told, but Palin takes us right back to the beginning of the ship’s eventful life. We meet the ship-workers set to work to create a ship robust enough to withstand polar storms and daggers of ice, we join the Erebus on its early boring years as a military ship on patrol in the Mediterranean and then on its hazardous but triumphant voyages to Antarctica where, iced in on New Year’s Day, the crew celebrate with rum-drinking and dances in the icy vastness. Palin writes:

“As I picture the sailors capering about, dancing waltzes and eightsome reels, the only human beings in the whole southern end of the earth, it seems a stunningly surreal image: ice, so often portrayed as a grim adversary, transformed briefly into a shining white dance-floor.”

I read the book at the beginning of the summer in the English-original, when I was trying to coax my hero Palin to appear on my FM4 Adventurous series. Then I re-read it this month in Rudolf Mast’s German translation which was published by Mare on the 1st October. Mast has excellently captured Palin’s easy manner of story-telling and his gentle wit. The kindly uncle is there, interesting you deeply in a subject that in other hands could feel so distant.

This is a story set in the age of imperialism, featuring men with a sense of cultural exceptionalism that is from today’s perspective deeply troubling. Their attitude to nature as something to be conquered or harnessed feels like a haunting premonition of what was to follow. A sheep on a southern island in the 19th century is a step to rainforests being turned into palm oil plantations in the 21st.

When the ship’s biologist arrives on uninhabited islands, his first instinct is to shoot all the fauna. Ecological vandals, they leave behind goats and sheep hoping to turn every spot of land into part of the agricultural machine. Knowing what we know now, it is hard to applaud them.

But in Palin’s hands it is a story about brave men, full of wonder, occasionally full of self-doubt, who dared go beyond the horizon and dare see what no man had seen before. They showed comradeship and self-sacrifice and, ultimately, they died miserable deaths, freezing, full of scurvy and lonely. There are cold stone monuments in London to their sacrifice. This book is a warmer testament to the pioneering lives they lead.