Trains and the Brits Who Love Them: Monty Python’s Michael Palin on Great Railway Journeys

What is it with Britons and trains, any­way? Hard­ly just the title of col­lec­tion of Irvine Welsh’s sto­ries of hero­in and degra­da­tion, the term “trainspot­ting” actu­al­ly refers to a real, and fer­vent­ly pur­sued hob­by; trainspot­ters exist, just as do bird­watch­ers and sports fans. In terms of obses­sion with the design and oper­a­tional minu­ti­ae of their own trains, Britain falls sec­ond only to the even more dense­ly rail-laden Japan. But we Amer­i­cans, pos­sessed of a train sys­tem few would call robust, can’t quite bring our­selves to believe it. Per­haps we just need to hear it from the mouth of Michael Palin, writer, come­di­an, tele­vi­sion host, Python — and avowed trainspot­ter. Most of Pal­in’s fans know him first through his char­ac­ters in the Fly­ing Cir­cus: the shop­keep­er, Lui­gi Ver­cot­ti, Ken Shab­by, and the most mem­o­rable Gum­bys, to name but a few. But some of us know him best as the cen­tral trav­el­er of the globe-span­ning tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­taries in which he’s starred since 1989. Around the World in Eighty Days, Pole to Pole, Full Cir­cle, Michael Pal­in’s Hem­ing­way Adven­ture, Sahara, Himalaya, New Europe, and now Brazil with Michael Palin. Here we have a man who knows how best to get from point A to point Z, and all in between.

But before all of those shows came Pal­in’s first episode of the BBC’s Great Rail­way Jour­neys, a long-run­ning series whose very exis­tence speaks to the vital­i­ty of Britain’s train-relat­ed enthu­si­asm. 1980’s “Con­fes­sions of a Trainspot­ter”, view­able at the top of this post, fol­lows Palin as he makes his glee­ful way from Lon­don to Kyle of Lochalsh in north­west­ern Scot­land on a series of trains fast and slow, long and short, old and new. This estab­lished him as a tele­vi­sion trav­el­er; four­teen years lat­er, he returned to the pro­gram for “Der­ry to Ker­ry”, where he traced his roots along “that best-kept of all trans­port secrets, the Irish rail­way line.” “Is it just us who are like this?” Palin asks. “The British, I mean. Are there any trainspot­ters in Sici­ly? Do Bel­gians go misty-eyed with the thought of see­ing the 12:16 to Antwerp? Do Swedes save up all year for a Has­sel­blad to pho­to­graph a Stock­holm to Gothen­burg coal train crest­ing a 1‑in-57 gra­di­ent?” Per­haps the most defin­i­tive answer comes from a fel­low rail fan he meets mere min­utes lat­er. Palin asks the man if he has always loved trains. “Very near­ly,” he replies. “There was a short peri­od when I became inter­est­ed in girls. Even­tu­al­ly, I got mar­ried and went back to rail­ways.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

Amer­i­ca Needs More Palin … Michael Palin, That Is

An Epic Jour­ney on the Trans-Siber­ian Rail­road

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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