‘If I’m going to do a novel, it can’t be just because I did television,’ Michael Palin explains over coffee in his office in London’s Covent Garden. ‘In fact, that’s a very dangerous idea. You should only write if you have something to say.’
The last time Palin had a literary idea to get off his chest was in 1995, with Hemingway’s Chair, a story about love, literature and Post Office politics. ‘In Hemingway, I had something to say about the little guys against the big; the way things were being changed in the Post Office,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t the greatest story ever, but it was a good theme. And then for a long time I didn’t find anything I could write about. When the idea for The Truth came up, I thought this is something I’m interested in.’
This time, inspiration struck as Palin was strolling through Soho. ‘I suddenly had this idea about somebody who gets to write about his hero, about a totally good man, and finds out that the totally good man is compromised, like we all are,’ he says. ‘It all coalesced rather quickly and in the space of about 100 yards I got lots of the plot. Why it came at that particular time I don’t know.’
The central character is Keith Mabbut, a former crusading environmental journalist who has been reduced to knocking out puff pieces about oil refineries. When an opportunity to write a high-profile, highly paid biography of green icon Hamish Melville arises, Mabbut abandons his plans to write a novel and heads to India to track down his hero, where he becomes re-engaged in the green movement.
The Truth is a compelling and zippily-paced book. Palin was reading the likes of John Updike, Raymond Carver and Richard Ford as he wrote, and constantly told himself: ‘Don’t get too prosey, don’t get too flowery,’ as he worked. It’s not a funny novel – don’t expect The Life of Brian on paper.
Its central premise is that there are myriad versions of the truth, each with their own claim to validity. ‘I just felt it was an interesting idea that we are all encouraged to search for the perfect way to do things and how so many people claim there’s a perfect truth, but you know it doesn’t work like that,’ Palin muses.
Despite working on The Truth, Palin has not neglected his globe-hopping: he’s just made a new four-part series on Brazil for the BBC. Fuelled by a passion for travel and books, he has little time for the frivolity of modern media. We ask if he tweets: Palin snorts. ‘I’m 69 years old and I’ve got shelves full of books I won’t ever get through,’ he says. ‘Why would I tweet when I’ve not yet read The Brothers Karamazov?’
The Truth, from Dhs57 at www.amazon.co.uk.