Culture Little Letterhole

Little Letterhole: Arise, Sir Michael

Even the most ardent opponent of our (admittedly incredibly flawed) honours system must find it difficult to argue that Michael Palin doesn’t deserve his knighthood.

Unlike the knee-jerk, zeitgeist-y decision to award an MBE to Harry Kane, Michael Palin is in the twilight of his career, and his knighthood represents decades of achievement as a member of Monty Python, an accomplished actor, and as the gentlemanly world traveller. In a small way, it’s also a victory for a very gentle, relaxed form of masculinity in a world so desperately in need of positive male role models.

I’ve always been a fan of Michael Palin. His travel programmes – particularly the first two, Around the World in 80 Days and Pole to Pole – are triumphs of the genre. He’s a genial, relaxed travelling companion with a very generous, even-handed attitude towards the world; and unlike many British television travellers of his generation, he approaches people and places without that patronising, quasi-imperialist arrogance. He manages to give an authentic portrayal of the world without weaving in any artificial narrative to his journey, or pretending to have struck out on some grand voyage of discovery.

Instead, Michael Palin has always let people and places speak for him, helped along by his wit, charm and good humour. Even in North Korea this year – where he was understandably restrained – he allowed viewers to glimpse through the cracks of the country’s artificiality and unease, instead of pontificating about the evils of the regime.

And it’s this attitude, this persona of the ‘nicest man in Britain’ that makes him, in many ways, such an important figure. Michael Palin’s knighthood demonstrates the worth of being uncompromisingly nice and generous and patient and decent. I’ve written before about the danger of toxic masculinity, and to a certain extent Michael Palin can be a model for a more positive alternative. I’d like to imagine that his knighthood is a reward for that, just as much as his career.

Indeed, I think it’s telling that his far more successful Monty Python colleagues, John Cleese and Eric Idle, have not been knighted alongside him. Both are notoriously difficult, arrogant men, and although they’re responsible for some of the most iconic moments in British comedy, to award them an honour would send entirely the wrong message about the sort of people our society wants to reward.

Yes, okay, knighting Michael Palin doesn’t fix all the ills of the world, but it does show that being decent pays off. And that’s a positive message to take into 2019.

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