The Great Travellers: The Man Who Mistook The World For A Bet

December 3rd, 2021
The Great Travellers: The Man Who Mistook The World For A Bet

In the first of a new series looking at great travellers whose journeys changed the world (and inspired our tours), a look at someone who accepted a completely ridiculous challenge and inspired a generation of modern travellers - including this writer. 

It’s the 2nd of October 1872, and an Englishman is about to set off on a once-in-a-lifetime journey that will inspire millions of people for over a century to come.

It’s a gloriously foolish basis for an adventure: a petty argument over a newspaper article. The Daily Telegraph has stated that with the opening of a new stretch of railway, it is now theoretically possible to travel around the whole world in less than 3 months. “Pshaw and twaddle,” say the Englishman’s friends - and in a fit of pique mixed with a restlessness that’s utterly alien to his humdrum existence to date, he calls them out. By the same time of day on the 21st December, he vows, he will have circumnavigated the globe and returned to them, and he’s willing to bet £20,000 of his own money to prove it - an astonishing sum in those days.

At 8.45pm that same evening, he departs London on a train bound for Brindisi, in Italy - and so one of the world’s most famous travel adventures begins.

Brindisi, Puglia, Italy

Brindisi, Puglia, Italy

None of this happened, of course. The gentleman’s name was Phileas Fogg, his journey was to take 80 days, and it’s nothing but one of the many fanciful yarns from the pen of the French author Jules Verne. You probably know the rest.

But then, one day in late 1988, fiction turns to reality. An affable Englishman - considerably less wealthy than Fogg, but with the support of his country’s greatest broadcasting house behind him - sits in the very same Reform Club in London that so inspired Verne, and asks one of Britain’s most famous travel broadcasters, Do you think I’m a lunatic for doing this?

His companion, the veteran journalist Alan Whicker, has already backed out from the project in mild horror. He was the BBC’s first choice - but when the project’s producer spelled out the discomfort, uncertainty and need for improvisation involved, Whicker quickly decided he was out. Writer Miles Kington and presenter Noel Edmonds also declined when asked. 

The man facing Whicker is the BBC’s fourth pick - and he’s really not sure of himself. "The realisation that this whole project is supported on my shoulders and demands not just my survival but my wit, energy, exuberance and enthusiasm quite terrifies me," he’ll write in his travel diary in the early stages of the journey. “Failure is unthinkable.”

His project is to follow Fogg’s footsteps around the world - or more correctly, his footsteps, tyre-marks, train-tracks and sea-lanes. Flying isn’t allowed, as it didn’t exist in the late 19th Century - and while the full might (and budget) of the British Broadcasting Corporation is supporting him, once he’s out there, he’s really out there.

Quite rightly, Michael Palin is terrified, and has no idea how it’s all going to work.

But - isn’t this cheating? With a title like “Great Travellers,” you’d expect this article to be about the great men and women who explored the world in ages utterly different to our own, using what seems like impossibly limiting technology and remarkable vision & self-belief to overcome staggering hardships and discover that wherever you go, in fact, folk are more or less the same, and the differences that define us nationally & culturally are always less than the similarities as people that bind us together, if only we can make the effort to connect. 

You know. People like the incredible Ibn Battuta (if his accounts of his journeys are to be believed), or the incredible Jeanne Baret, a French botanist who disguised herself as a man between 1766-1769 to officially become the first woman to circle the Earth. Those folk. 

How exactly does a presumably well-funded BBC presenter fit into all of this?

We’ll get to those people another time. And yes, their journeys are incredible and will blow your mind, and probably inspire you to attempt something similar. (That’s you warned.) 

Travel around the world

Travel around the world

But we’re starting with Michael Palin’s mad globetrotting escapade for two reasons.

Firstly, 1988 is truly an Age away from us now. (33 years!) It’s pre-Internet, and if you need a reminder of what that means, you should sit down with all eight episodes of the BBC’s Around The World In 80 Days With Michael Palin, or his follow-up adventures Pole To Pole and Full Circle. If you’re over the age of 40, it’ll bring back what it was like to travel back then - because you might have forgotten. It’s so, so easy to forget.

Those nerves that Palin’s feeling as his ship travels down the Adriatic never leave him - and if anything, they get worse, as more and more goes wrong on the journey. There’s no such thing as online booking, so arranging for passage on ships is done in person or on the telephone - and when things go sideways, as they so frequently do, this means desperately turning up at docksides first thing in the morning in the hope of wrangling a place on a ship that’s sailing that afternoon. It means constant improvising. Upon missing a critical connection to Muscat, the crew is forced to consider crossing Saudi Arabia - except only Palin and director Clem Vallance are given permission, with the strict caveat that no film cameras are allowed. Palin & Vallance hire a car and drive nonstop to Dubai, with the rest of the crew taking a plane there, and the journey is wrestled back from the brink of failure yet again…

Throughout, Palin shows a warm, likeable curiosity about the lives of everyone he meets - and keeps his insecurities in check when the cameras are rolling. His diaries paint a fuller picture: “there are people much better at this than I am." 

It probably didn’t help that he was accompanied by a director with a keen sense of what indignities audiences at home would enjoy watching Palin struggle with. As film-maker Roger Mills recounts in conversation with Palin: "People love to see you suffer; we found that out fairly soon. There's not a Turkish bath or hammam that you haven't been slapped or walloped in – or any medicinal mud that you haven't been smeared with."

Oludeniz beach, Turkey

Oludeniz beach, Turkey

It’s hard to convey the popularity of this approach, because it’s so absolutely everyday and everywhere right now. Just go onto YouTube or open up a travel blog or the travel section of a newspaper, and you’ll find someone trying to capture a little of this knowingly bumbling, increasingly desperate magic. To be a self-deprecating amateur out in the world is not just successful but actively encouraged, as any publisher of popular travel narratives will tell you. 

Yet before 1988, travel as popular entertainment was largely the realm of smooth, supremely confident veterans - like Whicker, who later sniffily described Palin’s 80 Days as “a seven-hour ego trip." It’s not hard to see how much he’s missed the point here: travel entertainment is an aspirational mirror for our most adventurous longings, and we can see a lot more of ourselves in Michael Palin than in Alan Whicker.   

And then there’s the second thing, which is equally easy to forget. Palin wasn’t travelling the route of some ancient traveller’s journey. He was tracing a work of fiction. Something that had captured the minds of readers for almost a century because, however intimidatingly improbable, it always seemed within the bounds of possibility. Tricky enough to make anyone sweat - but could anyone really do it, considering it was a piece of fancy from an author of fantastical tales? 

That said, no credit should be given to Palin & the BBC for doing it first. While it’s hard to say who that honour belongs to (as it’s possibly someone did it before Verne even wrote his novel), any mention of anything 80-days-related should include the book written in 1890 by journalist Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, writing as ‘Nellie Bly’. It’s her real-life account taking a similar 24,899-mile circumnavigatory journey for the newspaper she wrote for, inspired by Verne and even meeting him in France along the way, and carrying all her money in a bag tied around her neck. She did it in just 74 days, with a little help from a privately chartered train during the final stretch. 

(As Michael Palin might have said while touring as part of Monty Python- “Eeee, 80 days? Luxury.”) 

But it’s hard to overstate the impact of Palin’s travels, and his subsequent career as an unofficial travel ambassador for the UK, on the way travel is now depicted on TV (and all the new forms of it brought to us by the internet). He’s helped make it the realm of the enthusiastic amateur as much as the seasoned expert, and paved the way for the democratisation of travel and the gradual inclusion of everyone who doesn’t fit certain traditional sociographic types - including the ones Palin himself belongs to.

Bombay

Bombay

He’s also extremely funny. If the BBC’s aim was to add a little Monty Python-style madness to travel, you get many such moments as you watch all the show’s episodes. But it’s also humour of a particular type: wryly self-mocking (take the episode when he gets food poisoning while crossing to Bombay on a dhow), and always looking for the silliness in everything. It’s never mean or mocking at someone else’s expense, and it’s open to all. In a sense, it’s how Michael Palin travels - by connecting with the people he meets using the universal language of a good, daft shared LOL - and it’s a huge part of his legacy as an influential traveller. No TV presenter since has managed it so deftly. 

So yes, I’m a fan, and this is hardly an unbiased account. But as the world opens up again and we all rediscover our passion for exploring it, it’s worth taking to remind ourselves how to travel - not just giving ourselves reminders to feel gratitude over how easy it is these days with all our technological marvels, but also the attitude we bring to it - our good-natured tolerance of changed plans when things go wrong, our empathy in dealing with everyone we meet & curiosity about the lives they live, and a willingness to look for the absurd in everything, because life’s way too short and we could all do with a good laugh. 

If that’s the future of travel, I’m all for it.

*Michael Palin’s Around the World In 80 Days is currently available on DVD and streaming on iPlayer (UK) and Amazon Prime (US & elsewhere)*

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