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A Message from Michael Palin

When I first heard of Ernest Hemingway I was a teenager living in Sheffield, an uncompromising industrial city without a hint of glamour, until recently, when the demise of its industry became the subject of a film called "The Full Monty." A few days before my thirteenth birthday I was sent to a boarding school at Shrewsbury. When the time came to take my "A" level examination in English, Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms," "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "The Old Man and the Sea" were the most, indeed only, modern works offered on the course. My teacher recommended them and, as a taster, I took them with me on the annual summer holiday to Southwold.


Just like the famous look-alikes in Key West, Palin discovers a Hemingway bust that looks nothing like him. He found this particular non-likeness in Cojimar, Cuba.

As the grey North Sea rolled on to the wind-swept Suffolk beach I trudged through the unfamiliar prose but at night I couldn't get it out of my mind. The sense of place, the intensity of smell and sound, the sheer physical sensation of being taken somewhere else was fresh and powerful and exhilarating. I would lie in bed and follow retreating armies down dusty Italian roads and feel the heat of Spanish squares and stare up into the wide skies of Castile and sense the cold at night in a pine forest.

Hemingway's world was close and uncomfortable and itchy and sweaty and frequently exhausting. It was, I felt, the real thing. To experience it would require the ability to absorb a little punishment, it would demand an open mind and a degree of recklessness. But it could and should be done. This stuff was too good to be wasted on exams, I must be bold and fearless and go out there and do it for myself.

Unfortunately, in the late 1950s there wasn't much call for provincial English schoolboys to carry mortars up Spanish hillsides, and though I had a goldfish I hadn't fought for seven hours to land it.

So boldness and fearlessness were put on hold and I packed the books into the back of the car and looked out at the Newark Bypass as my father drove us back to Sheffield, holidays over for another year. But something was different. After reading Hemingway I felt I'd grown up a little. Lost my literary virginity. Books would never be quite the same again.

Life, on the other hand, was just the same.

I passed the exams and never read Hemingway again for nearly thirty years. Then someone gave me a copy of his collected short stories. It took just one of them - "Hills Like White Elephants" - to bring it all back.

Nothing more than that. An image, clean and simple, which was to me as intense as opening a window and gulping in the air. And at that moment the phone rang. It was someone from the BBC asking if I would be prepared to take on a new sort of challenge. To travel round the world in eighty days, non-stop, no cheating, no aircraft.

Well, of course it didn't happen quite like that, but it is true that from the moment I started out on what became three long television journeys I realized that the pleasure I was getting from often uncomfortable and frustrating adventures was not a million miles from the buzz I had felt on those days on the beach when I first encountered Hemingway's world.

More recently, when it came to writing my novel, who should come muscling his way into it but Ernest Hemingway, and where was it set - in a small town on the Suffolk coast. It was clear that we were on a collision course. For my research I began to read more about him. His letters, his journalism, more short stories, biographies and memoirs and the less fashionable novels. And in everything I read, good, bad and indifferent, the same quality that attracted me thirty-five years before attracted me all over again - the unforced, unsensational, uncomplicated and magical ability to bring the world to life.

And this is how the Hemingway Adventure was born. His centenary supplied the spur, the BBC and PBS supplied the interest and I finally had the chance to experience those places that had fermented in my imagination for so long.

At the end of it, well, Hemingway's world remains his. Great writing survives because it cannot be replaced, and because the process that created it can never be unpicked and replicated. And anyway, nothing stays the same, not even a mountainside or a pine forest. But I feel I've come closer to him. I have met people he met and travelled the way he travelled. There have been high times: in Venice, and chasing marlin on the Gulf Stream off Havana, and low times: finding the remains of his crashed plane in a small, fly-ridden town in deepest Uganda, or walking through the house at Ketchum where he ended his life; but there was not a day on the road when I didn't think of him, this irascible, egotistical, obdurate figure whose writing had such ability to inspire.

I don't think Ernest Hemingway and I would ever have got along. I don't have the requisite amount of competitive energy. I don't really care about catching more fish or shooting more ducks or having more wives than anyone else. He didn't have much time for the British and he called London, where I live, "too noisy and too normal." And comedy was never his strong point.

Our common ground, other than a fondness for cafés and bars and writing about the weather, would, I like to think, have been a love of adventure. Hemingway was the sort of man who made things happen. He was always making plans and going off to places and coming back and making more plans, and not just for himself but for everyone around him. It was a great ride and very few people managed to hang on all the way. And when it ceased to be an adventure, when he could no longer play the Pied Piper, when other people started to make the plans, he lost interest and quit, in the way he wanted to.

Photo credit: © Basil Pao, 1999. Text excerpt: "Michael Palin's Hemingway Adventure" by Michael Palin © Michael Palin, 1999 Used with permission of Cassell & Company. Buy the book in the Palin Store.

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