What commands your attention? Is it the news, is it me, is it this review? Is it your life? Is it the thousand tiny nuances that connect one day to the next, the accumulation of which will be all that you’re left with when you try to explain to yourself who you really were?
For although we are inundated with innumerable devices to monitor and annotate every moment of our lives, and that we do so with a religious zeal that would impress Torquemada, are we really paying attention? Are we thinking about these seconds as they slip by or are we simply timestamping them with the monotony of a worker on an assembly line? Are we giving any thought to them as they happen, thought that will help us make sense of them as they are happening? Or are we just responding with a lizard brain reflex of fight or flight to every stimulus that pokes its boney digital finger at us?
Are we leaving a record of thought that gives us something to return to, days, weeks, months, years, decades hence – not for the self-destructive thrill of vilifying the foolish false steps and naïve hopes of our younger selves, but instead to uncover insight into that person who became the person we are now? For the simple cataloguing of our actions is not enough, will not be enough when we return in our dotage to swipe through our tweets and our snaps and our posts to make sense of any of what we endured.
That’s what one realizes upon finishing the first volume of Michael Palin’s published diaries. Covering what he calls “the Python years” they relate his rise from struggling staff writer for David Frost and “The Two Ronnies” to the kind of international celebrity that is, if not commensurate with, say, Yeezy, at least is iconic and legendary for a certain generation of English speaking comedy nerds.
For those not in that particular cohort, understand that Michael Palin was one of the founding members, writers and of course actors in “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” a landmark English sketch comedy show that ran from 1969 to 1974 and which spawned at least three movies and two Broadway shows, and influenced the comedic sensibilities of everyone from Lorne Michaels to Douglas Adams to Mike Meyers and beyond.
He’s also, apparently a diarist, keeping the kind of detailed, insightful and witty notes on everything he was engaged in that one would expect of someone who not only read modern history at Oxford University but also wrote and performed in the famous “Oxford Revue” (and whose other famous former members include Dudley More, Terry Jones and Rowan Atkinson)
And although at nearly six hundred pages “The Python Years” is a rather daunting volume, it is well worth diving into for several reasons.
First, it reminds us that often the most amazing things start as rickety, wobbly, half-baked efforts that no one in their right mind thinks will ever get off the ground. Remember this the next time someone asks you to help them with something ridiculous.
Second, that even when these things do get off the ground, they’re constantly teetering on the precipice of failure. There are unresolvable arguments. Insoluble problems. Spats, fights, disagreements and contretemps of every petty stripe that constantly threaten to break apart any fragile and minor success that’s been achieved. So remember that at work tomorrow too.
And third, that in spite of reasons one and two, life goes on. Here’s Michael on holiday. Here’s Michael at the dentist. Here’s Michael with his kids. Here’s Michael worrying over his football team. Yes, mundane as all hell. But a reminder nonetheless that the brilliant things we admire come out of the heads of people who still have to function as humans just like the rest of us. Somehow that’s comforting.
But Palin’s diary is valuable not only for these things, or its insight into English life in the 60s and 70s, or the trivia which keeps comedy nerds like this reviewer reading, or the observations about the universal struggles of creativity which are a staple of this site, but because it reminds us of the most important thing: that the un-examined life, as Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson or perhaps Socrates, said, is not worth living.
And while we are certainly not calling for a nation of diarists – the nineteenth century was rife with them and most of what they wrote was unreadable twaddle (“unreadable twaddle” being precisely the kind of language that makes them unreadable) – we are calling for better thinking. For meditation and perspective and contemplation and understanding. And attention. For as Linda Loman reminds us, attention must be paid.
And if not by ourselves, then by whom?
Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years by Michael Palin was published by St. Martin’s Press on 11/11/08 – order it from Amazon here, or Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).