My Life in Cities: Michael Palin

As part of National Geographic's Cities Special, the travelling Python talks about his fondness for Calcutta, the excitement of Istanbul – and the two British cities he’s called home.

Published 8 Apr 2019, 22:31 BST, Updated 11 Dec 2020, 21:47 GMT
Michael Palin, traveller: "Sheffield defines me. I think anywhere you spend the first ten, fifteen years ...
Michael Palin, traveller: "Sheffield defines me. I think anywhere you spend the first ten, fifteen years of your life is going to define you, whether you like it or not."
Photograph by John Swannell

Sir Michael Palin was born in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, in 1943. An actor, author and member of offbeat comedy outfit Monty Python, since 1989 he has presented a series of travel documentaries that have taken him all over the world. He has lived in London for over 50 years. 
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My first memories of Sheffield were of contrast. We were very lucky to rent a house on the west side, and I remember feelings of steepness of the hills there… getting back from school, you had to climb up the hill. I remember stone buildings rather than brick. It was quite a tough and rugged sort of area. It was 800 ft up, so you got snow every winter and quite wild weather. Then there was the other side of the city which was the iron and steel-producing area, which was always literally sort of under a cloud. Very dark, and not somewhere that I went to very often – although my father worked as the export manager in one of the steel firms down there. There was a different feel to that part of Sheffield. When I was growing up a lot of it was recovering from the war, so [there were] great areas where bombs had been dropped. That was really the contrast: a big, huge, sort of smoky industrial area where all the steel forges were. Dust, noise. And the west, which borders on the Peak District, and is very beautiful and very leafy. Though less so since they started cutting down the trees. 

Ranmoor, in Sheffield's west: Palin country. "Growing up in a city of steep hills and rugged landscapes and solid stone walls and stone buildings was what I remember."
Photograph by William Robinson / Alamy

I was very proud of the engineering work the city was producing. It wasn’t glamorous, everything was sort of dusty and dirty and grubby. But it had that very strong identity, that without Sheffield we couldn’t have produced the steel we needed to win the war. That was a thing that I heard many times as I was growing up. And looking back I’m very proud of the tradition of craftsmanship and construction that there was in Sheffield during that time. I think that it still defines the city in the minds of people of my generation.

Modern Sheffield. "Without Sheffield we couldn’t have produced the steel we needed to win the war... that was a thing that I heard many times as I was growing up."
Photograph by Shahid Khan / Alamy

Sheffield defines me. I think anywhere you spend the first ten, fifteen years of your life is going to define you, whether you like it or not. I think it was [writer] Barry Took who said, the ‘thing about the Monty Python team is they are all from the provinces, they are all from outside London.’ I think he had an interesting point there in that we weren’t metropolitans, there was no sense of entitlement or belonging to the major city, or the big capital. It made us take risks and it made us all feel as though we could give a view from the outside of what was going on inside. 

I’m a Londoner now and have been for over 50 years. Being a Londoner is very different from being from Sheffield. London is such a huge city that your allegiance is with a small area that you live, rather than the city itself. 

North London and London City with The Shard, from Alexandra Park.
Photograph by Loop Images Ltd / Alamy

London is so big it seems a number of different cities. I think part of city life is feeling a part of the city – knowing it. You have to decipher a city, you have to work on it to know how to use it. 

In the time I’ve lived here I think London's become bigger, more expensive, slightly less personal. It is always changing, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad, but I think there are lot of bright ideas and a lot of very good people working here. I think also the great thing about London that attracts me is that it’s an international city. You have these wonderful conversations with people from all over the world. I know there are problems, but I think there’s a very high degree of tolerance [here] for the international community, and for new ideas and new ways of looking at things, which is important to me.

The first city abroad that made a huge impression on me was Venice. I first went in 1967. I took Jan Morris’s book with me which is still one of the best travel books I’ve ever read, and I thought that Venice was just totally and completely magical.

Venice's Grand Canal. "I thought that Venice was just totally and completely magical."
Photograph by National Geographic

“I think part of city life is feeling a part of the city – knowing it. You have to decipher a city, you have to work on it to know how to use it. ”

Michael Palin

Two cities I find really exciting are not necessarily the most beautiful. But they have a vibrancy, a sort of drama to their life and their location. I’m very fond of Kolkata [Calcutta]. Many people think it is a terribly dysfunctional city except that it isn’t. There are millions of people who make a living from the city, many of whom sadly have nowhere to go, and live on the streets. But the city sort of functions, and still draws people in. I think a city is about its people, and the energy and the ability of the people in a place like Kolkata to survive is incredibly impressive. You look and you think, wow, how do they do this? It just is a huge exotic, exciting working city. 

Istanbul is another, slightly different kettle of fish because it’s a very wealthy city. But it is again enormously exciting. There’s a lot of old Istanbul that’s been preserved with its spectacular buildings – and very few other cities in the world has its geopolitical significance. It’s literally on the edge of Turkey, Europe and Asia. (See the beautiful building that has been a mosque and a church.)

Calcutta, India: "I think a city is about its people – and the energy and the ability of the people in a place like Calcutta to survive is incredibly impressive. You look and you think, wow, how do they do this? It just is a huge exotic, exciting working city."
Photograph by Jake Lyell / Alamy
Istanbul: The Hagia Sophia, one of the world’s architectural marvels, rises near the Bosporus.
Photograph by Mehmeto, Alamy Stock Photo

I’ve never really felt that anywhere outside London would be my home now. But that’s only because my family are in London, my three children, my grandchildren. So that’s what draws me to London, that’s what makes me interested in what’s going on in London, what makes me feel very much a part of London. I love New York, I feel very at home there. I think the core of Manhattan is architecturally the most beautiful and extraordinary city on Earth. 

(See beautiful street scenes around the world.)

Wellington, New Zealand: "kind of compact, creative and pleasant. Very much aware of the environment, and how it can improve the environment of the people who live there."
Photograph by Robert Harding / Alamy

There are one or two cities I would love to go back to. I remember Cusco in Peru and Wellington in New Zealand are two smaller cities that have a real identity, which I think Sheffield has too, actually. I remember Cusco because of where it is. It’s high up, has an extraordinary legacy of the Inca craftsmanship skill in building. And Wellington in New Zealand, because it was kind of compact, creative and pleasant. Very much aware of the environment, and how it can improve the environment of the people who live there. 

I’ve been to Dubai a lotIt’s a city of a certain image, of people who like to live in enormous apartments in great comfort, but it’s quite skilfully put together. What I’m more interested in – and I’ve not been there, actually – is cities like Portland, Oregon. What I’ve read [about the way] they are dealing with public transport and making a very definite attempt to create a modern city that will use its resources, and its energy, well. I’d love to go there and see what’s going on.

So many people live in cities now. We are mostly urban people, and how we deal with the need to get away from cities, as well being in cities, interests me very much. A lot of city dwellers like to go where there’s lots of people. Getting away from it all is proving more and more difficult. 

Portland, Oregon: "A very definite attempt to create a modern city that will use its resources – and its energy – well."
Photograph by Melissa Jensen / Alamy

I’m very much an urban person. Born in one big city, lived the rest of my life in another. For me, growing up in a city of steep hills and rugged landscapes and solid stone walls and stone buildings is what I remember. When I’m in London, I miss the hills, I miss the views, I miss the ability to escape so quickly into rugged countryside. I love the loneliness of walking on mountains and the spectacular views you get, and the feeling of the fresh air away from the noise of cities. Yet I can only take so much of that before I have to come back, because there are so many things I find stimulating and intriguing and interesting in cities. The countryside, it’s very beautiful, but I can’t take it home. So my potential for happiness is considerable. I like cities, and I like being away from cities. So I’m going to be happy somewhere.

Michael Palin’s latest book, Erebus: the story of a Ship is published by Arrow on 30th May, priced £8.99.

This month, National Geographic features special reports from cities around the world. Click here to subscribe.

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This interview was edited for clarity.

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