Michael Palin talks about his compelling new book, Erebus: The Story Of A Ship

Gemma Calvert / 21 September 2018

The Monty Python star reveals six secrets about writing his book, Erebus: The Story Of A Ship...

HMS Erebus embarked on two of the most dramatic Polar expeditions in history - Antarctic exploration in 1839 then, six years later, an ill-fated voyage in search of the North West Passage. In 2014, 169 years later, the wreck was discovered in the Canadian Arctic. Michael’s historical non fiction debut charts both journeys and brings back to life all those who sailed on her. Here the Monty Python star reveals six secrets about his latest project…

1) He didn’t employ a researcher

'I wanted to see the archives myself rather than tell somebody else to find something for me. I was never going to be an academic and access all the archives everywhere so [my] attitude to the book was I wanted to know it from a personal point of view.

'Researching was part of the story and that’s why I went to The Falkland Islands and Tasmania and South West Passage.'

2) He wrote at home in north London

'It’s a very practical thing but I was using so many books, maps, charts and information that I had to be somewhere where they were based and that happened to be my work room at home. I had a great big board with pins in it which had pictures of the plans of the ships, what they looked like and various places where they’d been. The whole place was taken over.'

3) Bad news was good news, even in the 19th century

'Very few people have written about the Antarctic part, which is almost half the book. My theory is that people like tragedies and dramas, not things that have gone well and smoothly. When [John] Franklin took over the Erebus and went to the north west passage, that was a complete disaster. It fascinated people because of the enormity of what they’d done, the risk, the fact that the ice had closed in, the fact that cannibalism was mentioned - [it was] an awful, national tragedy.

'The Antarctic [part] all went very well. When they’d finished the Antarctic journey, Sir James Clark Ross sent back his report of these four extraordinary years and Lord Minto, the first Lord of the Admiralty [the Admiralty controlled both journeys], decided he didn’t want to publish this in the Admiralty Gazette, which published accounts of voyages. His reason was that no one had died. There was no blood and thunder, no tragedy, no juice. Have we changed much? I don’t think so.'

Michael Palin on history, life lessons and his novel Erebus

4) Like Michael, the explorers were buoyant

'They were all, on the whole, amazingly optimistic. They were going to places where there were no maps, no charts and where no one had been before. We can’t do that nowadays. We’ve got GPS, we’ve got Google Earth, we all know where everybody is all the time. You’re never alone.When [the explorers] went further south than anyone before, they were entirely alone. What were they going to find and how did they deal with that?

'From what I can gather, they dealt with it by not really making a big thing of it. Very British stiff upper lip. When I travel, I’m a great optimist and I think ‘it’s going to be okay’. I never really worry.'

5) Erebus the TV series isn’t happening

'I did talk to a broadcaster. We discussed the story and they gravitated to the tragedy. The whole stuff from the Antarctic about measuring magnetic fields and the depth of the ocean, people weren’t quite so interested in so I don’t think as a television project it would work doing both.

'I did think, at one time, it would make a really good radio series because [in] radio, you can recreate brilliantly the sounds then you can visualise it yourself. You’d have plenty of narration from the captain and the officers’ journals.'

6) Finishing the book made him sad

'Very sad. There was one wonderful guy called John Davis who went on the Antarctic expedition and he wrote one long letter to his sister that provided so many insights into what they’d gone through. He also had a great sense of humour and a lightness of touch. He talked about building a bar in the ice called Pilgrims Of The Ocean and he also, in the same letter, describes a near disaster when the two ships [Erebus and Terror] almost collided. [When] he finished his letter in the Falkland Islands, this man who I’d been so close to, I couldn’t talk to him anymore. That was it, that was over and I really missed him.

'I thought ‘if only I could have gone with him home to England’. I’d have found out lots of things.'

Michael’s new book Erebus: The Story of a Ship is out now. To buy it at a discount, go to wordery.com/saga

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