Michael Palin brings story of 'lost' ship to Shropshire
Former Monty Python star and now travel guru Michael Palin gave a sparkling talk about his latest book. Sue Austin was one of the lucky guests.
Who else could bring an element of comedy to the tale of a ship’s expedition which ended in disaster but former Python turned traveller, Michael Palin?
The ex-Shrewsbury School pupil returned to the county on Wednesday to give a talk about his book that charts the polar voyages of the ship, Erebus, to its tragic end under the ice in the North West passage with the loss of all those on board.
Had the author and speaker been anyone other than the inimitable Mr Palin, then it would have been a dull, illustrated talk.
But the 500 people who snapped up tickets for the event at the Lion Quays in Gobowen, within 48 hours of them going on sale, were instead treated to an evening of laughter among the dramatic tale of the ship, its officers and crew.
He told the audience that he was very pleased to be back in Shropshire as, like his father and his grandfather, he had been educated at Shrewsbury School.
It was there that he developed a love of geography, taking his geography exams early.
Earlier he had quipped that he wasn’t able to visit a lot of Shropshire while at school saying: “We were restricted, a bit like I was in North Korea.”
He told the audience that when in North Korea he wanted to show how ordinary people lived, what they ate for instance.
“Horrible things have happened there but you can’t demonise a whole nation. The people we met were all very good to us.”
Palin’s most recent travelogue series on Channel 5 delves into the notably private nation in a two-part documentary.
He covered more than 1,300 miles in just over a week, from the capital Pyongyang to the snowy peaks of Mount Paektu.
He interviewed residents about life in the reclusive country, experiencing North Korea in a different way most Westerners never have previously.
And even showed his Government-appointed English-speaking guide a clip from Monty Python – the fish-slapping dance sequence to be more precise.
Palin, who like the little ship has himself travelled from pole to pole – just one of his highly successful travel programmes – told the audience he had been fascinated by the story of the Erebus, the wreck of which was discovered on a sea bed in 2014.
This is where Palin starts and he works backwards.
Labourers at the Pembroke dockyard built the warship and sent it into the waters off Milford Haven in June 1826.
Erebus spent two years patrolling the Mediterranean, then its life as a warship ended.
In 1839, accompanied by HMS Terror, it spent four years on an Antarctic adventure, they were the first sailing ships to break through the pack and the first to discover that an Antarctic continent existed. It disappeared in 1845, and by 1847, with no signal from the crew of Erebus, captain John Franklin’s wife Jane was leading the call for rescue parties to be sent to the Arctic to save him, sparking one of most dramatic searches in history.
Erebus was finally rediscovered in 2014 after centuries of searches.
Palin used diaries and letters home to bring the men of the Erebus to life with amusing anecdotes but also chilling excerpts that showed just how frightened many of the crew were as the Erebus’s second polar voyage to the Artic went disastrously wrong.
Erebus also reveals much about both exploration and the Royal Navy in the 19th century.
Although the story of Erebus has a tragic ending, Palin was able to bring his own style of comedy to the tale of the little ship, for instance revealing that the only reminder of the assistant surgeon on board, apart from a painting, was a pair of his “crusty old socks”.
Palin has written a number of books to accompany his travel series, Around the World in 80 days, Pole to Pole, Full Circle, Hemingway Adventure, Sahara, Himalaya and New Europe. He is also the author of a number of children’s stories, the play The Weekend and the novel Hemingway’s Chair.