Queen Elizabeth II

Ni! He’s a lumberjack — and now a knight — so he’s OK.

It was his presidency of the Royal Geographic Society what done it, as the English say.

That, and the James Joyce Award, bestowed by Dublin, Ireland’s Literary and Historical Society, not to mention the Livingstone Medal from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and — just so the (ex) colonies aren’t shut out entirely — a gold medal for achievement(s) in geography from the Royal Canadian  Geographical Society.

Also, by all accounts he’s a swell guy, judging from his self-description as being a man of “amenable, conciliatory character.”

Perhaps this charter member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus troupe can wear the mantle of “Sir Michael” after all, despite being a willing participant in some of Monty Python’s most irreverent — and anti-establishment — sketches, including the Lumberjack song (“I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK; I sleep all night and I work all day” / [chorus] “He’s a lumberjack and he’s OK; he sleeps all night and he works all day”) and the Parrot sketch, arguably Monty Python’s most famous — certainly the most readily quoted — sketch, inspired by Michael Palin’s trip to an auto mechanic who refused to accept there was a problem with his car.

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

In my previous life as an entertainment-industry reporter, I talked to Palin a couple of times — most notably when he was promoting Sahara, his 2002 BBC docuseries account (film and book, both) of his transect of the Sahara Desert, “meeting people and visiting places.” There was the pink touring bus in Libya, his remark on revisiting Tunisia that this is where he was crucified (in Life of Brian, filmed in part in Tunisia 12 years earlier), and his sheepish admission that his Sahara expedition almost ended before it began, when he twisted his ankle while playing a pick-up game of beach soccer with street urchins in Morocco. When I asked him about possible future expeditions, in 2003, he seemed ready to admit that, at age 58 and with considerable prodding from his wife of 37 years and growing objections from BBC’s in-house travel insurance advisor, it was perhaps not a good idea to keep returning to war zones for the sake of a TV show. 

(How to stay married for 49 years, Palin told The Telegraph in 2015: “Sex has nothing to do with it.” How English!)

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

Why not follow in the footsteps of the early English explorers’ search for the source of the Nile, I suggested. I’m sure Sudan is a safe place to travel, BBC camera crew in tow, I told him. As for Uganda, how bad can the Lord’s Resistance Army be? They’re with the Lord! They’re doing the Lord’s work, where it’s most needed — in the wetlands of northern Uganda and South Sudan. Your wife would be thrilled. I suggested.

Once a Python, always a Python: He laughed.

He never did do Search for the Nile, but he still racked up the travel miles, camera crew in tow: the Himalayas in 2004, “new Europe” in 2007, Brazil in 2012, and this past year, North Korea.

He admitted his fellow ex-Pythons were somewhat mystified by his sudden post-Python wanderlust: In their eyes, truth be told, it was kind of weird.

No matter. Fast-forward to the New Years Honours list, the 2019 edition, when Palin, already made a CBE in the year 2000 (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), became the first member of the Monty Python comedy troupe to be given the full knighthood. Sir Michael it is, then. Palin, now 75, was knighted for his services to travel, culture and geography, and for being a global “Ambassador for Britain.”

©BBC/Michael Palin

©BBC/Michael Palin

Palin took the honour with characteristic British understatement. What, you were expecting him to go the full Mick Jagger? (When the Mick became Sir Michael Phillip Jagger, knighted for his 40 years of service to popular music at Queen Elizabeth II’s official birthday bash at Buckingham Palace in 2002, Rolling Stones biographer Philip Norman sniffed, “Jagger does not deserve a knighthood.”)

The Queen personally avoided bestowing Sir Mick with the honour, because she believed him an inappropriate candidate for the honour, owing to his anti-establishment views — or so it was said at the time.

The Monty Python comedy troupe wasn’t exactly pro-establishment in its day, but that geography thing — Pole to Pole in 1992, Around the World in 80 Days in 1992, going Full Circle around the Pacific in 1997, following in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway in Hemingway Adventure in 1999 — helped tip the scales of atonement for his sins of irreverence during the Python years.

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

After learning that he had made the Queen’s New Year Honours list, Sir Michael hinted to the BBC that he’s getting a little old to trash a hotel room, Mick-style.

Instead, he told the Beeb, he may “just have a quiet celebration, just myself and a glass of Horlicks, and then go to bed.”

Horlicks, for those not in the know, is a malted hot drink developed in the early 20th century by founders James & William Horlick and sold as “Horlick’s Infant and Invalids Food,” with “Aged and Travellers” added to the label later. 

Don’t buy this “Ready for Retirement” act for a second, though. Sir Michael always knew the value of a good sound bite.

Instead, look to an admission made earlier in his career — but not so long ago that it’s forgotten by now — when he said, “Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote, and I know that I shall be happily infected until the end of my life.”

There are some miles to go yet on that particular road. Think of it as a road less travelled.

“I enjoy writing, “ he wrote in Michael Palin, Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years. “I enjoy my house, my family and, more than anything I enjoy the feeling of seeing each day used to the full to actually produce something. The end.”

Simplicity sells: Staying on message in the fight to save the planet.

‘Sex sells,’ used to be the old saying, but today that saying could just as easily be, ‘Simplicity sells.’

The message of conservation can too easily be obscured in a blizzard of statistics, climate models and scientific jargon.

Today, Thursday, April 12th, the Cambridge Conservation Initiative hosts a panel discussion and international symposium — to be streamed live and archived for posterity on YouTube — titled, “Setting a New Post-2020 Biodiversity Agenda: The Communications Challenge.”

The Cambridge Conservation Initiative is a collaboration between 10 different institutions. The initiative’s bricks-and-mortar headquarters is in the new Sir David Attenborough building at the University of Cambridge, recently granted $10m USD in funding from the charitable fund Arcadia — funding that will assure the group’s future, at least for the time being, unlike the increasingly vulnerable environment the Conservation Initiative seeks to protect.

The world hardly needs a history lesson now, but it’s worth remembering that as recently as 2015, 196 countries signed onto the Paris Climate Agreement — the result, most people with working brains understand, of a message that resonated across different cultural and political boundaries, underscored by a willingness to work together, in harmony, in pursuit of a cause higher than themselves.

“There now needs to be a similar movement and momentum focused on biodiversity,” according to the symposium’s official notes. “As with the Paris Agreement, the landscape around the development of a new biodiversity strategy is extremely congested and not always coherent: there are many players, many audiences and many complex and in some case, contested messages.”

Or, put more simply: “It’s complicated. But we’re not going to get anywhere without talking to each other in terms we can all understand.”

©Deep Ghotane/Pixabay

©Deep Ghotane/Pixabay

No matter the cause, scientific jargon often does more harm than good, especially among the unconverted.

A line like, “Lessons from the Paris Agreement illustrate how critical it will be to distil this complexity into messages that resonate with decision-makers,” is a turn-off if ever there was one — especially if the idea is to reach Trump voters (or Viktor Orbán voters, if you happen to live near Hungary) and not just Cambridge academics, keyboard warriors and enviro-crusaders who already know the difference between climate and weather.

Instead, how about, “The Paris Agreement teaches us that, if we want to get something done, we need to talk to each other in ways that are both respectful and considered ahead of time, with specific examples backed up by facts and not just opinion — you know, kind of like the way science works.”

While I might prefer, “A Post-2020 Biodiversity Agenda: Wake the Fuck Up, People,” communications consultants might blanch at the choice of words. It’s hard to imagine the rector of St. John’s College at Cambridge, for example, signing off on such a symposium

“Communication” is the key word here, though, and the great, edifying gift Sir David Attenborough has given the world is not his almost childlike enthusiasm, even at age 91, and undying curiosity of the natural world and everything that makes it tick, but his gift of communication — his ability to take the most complex subjects, even those that are ethically and biologically controversial, and touch people’s minds and hearts the world over, regardless of creed, region or religion.

©BBC NHU/Gavin Thurston

©BBC NHU/Gavin Thurston

Not once, in his seven decades of communicating his sense of wonder and admiration for the natural world, has Attenborough talked down to his audience, or even across to his audience. His unique, almost eerie ability to talk with his audience might well be the one thing the scientific world misses most when he finally calls it a day, or fate finally catches up with him.

(This past weekend, the English tabloids had a bit of fun with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II — also aged 91 — escorting Sir David around her gardens for a new film documentary, The Queen’s Green Planet, which will premiere in the UK next Monday on ITV1. 

Asked by reporters how two nonagenarians are still going strong, still fighting for the planet, Attenborough replied, “We must be very lucky in our constitutions — there are very many virtuous people I can think of who can’t walk at all at my age, so it’s a matter of luck, isn’t it?”)

Attenborough has been raging against the dying of the light more often of late, and not just because his Blue Planet II documentary drew near record audiences to their TVs earlier this year.

In an article he penned for this month’s issue of New Scientist, Attenborough urged people to recognize the effect of “The Plastic Age” and the impact of unchecked population growth on the natural world. Recent scientific surveys — including one this past week from Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) — have cited the world’s human population as a key factor in biodiversity loss.

More than three times as many people are living on the planet today than in 1950, Attenborough wrote in New Scientist.

“They all need places to live and roads for their cars and hospitals and schools and places to grow food. . . . In the most part, it is going to come from the natural world, so the natural world is steadily being impoverished.”

Simplicity sells. And Attenborough’s message is simple enough that almost anyone can understand it.

“The situation is becoming more and more dreadful, and still our population continues to increase,” he wrote. “It’s about time that the human population of the world came to its senses and saw what we are doing — and did something about it.”

Easier said than done, yes. A simple message is a start, though.