North Korea Journal – Michael Palin (Review).

As I may have mentioned once or twice on past posts on this blog, I enjoy reading travel books and one of my favourite authors (along with Bill Bryson) is Michael Palin. His travel books usually accompany a TV series of the same name as his books. Since 1989, starting with his first ever travel book and accompanying TV show, Around the World In 80 Days, he was connected, almost at the hip it would seem, to the BBC. Usually, his travel series have multiple episodes. This latest book however, is presented alongside a TV show in only 2 parts, which has already been shown on British TV Chanel Five / ITV productions.

See the source image

The last time Palin was anywhere near North Korea was back in 1997 for yet another travel book and show Full Circle, but he only got a glimpse of North Korea from the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone. This time he gets a tour of the demilitarized zone from the other side and a frank discussion with the officer in charge. North Korea or we should call it the DPRK – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – lays out the welcome mat and Palin, now in his 75th year, gets to see one of the most secret and mysterious countries on the planet.

Of course he doesn’t get free reign to go where he wants. He has two official guides who go everywhere with him plus other “ministry officials” who make sure that his guides don’t allow Palin to wander too far off the official track.

See the source image
Photo by Harvey Sullivan – The Sun.

He gets to see pristine cities where the streets are almost empty of traffic, giant statues of past “Great Leaders”, and symbols and buildings commemorating the “Great Leaders”. He also visits a state of the art airport – with no planes and no flights, a street of tower blocks built within a year, that seem to house very few people and a massive, symbolic hotel with no guests what so ever. The DPRK seems to be as a country, much like a show home is to a yet to be built housing estate. Everything is there, it appears, as a front, but there is little substance and in some cases no actual function for the building/hotel/airport. As my grandmother used to say – “All fur coat and no knickers”. This was evident in the state of the roads. Within the capital city, the streets were first class, pristine if somewhat devoid of traffic. Once outside city limits though the highways were cracked and uneven – so that every journey felt like a ride inside a tumble dryer.

The first three days – which according to Palin felt like three weeks as it was such hard work to be able to achieve what they wanted and every step had to be negotiated – Palin, his director and film crew are under strict observation and are quickly shut down and moved to another location if anything occurs that may show the DPRK in a bad light. The people he gets to meet are, to begin with, all prearranged, preapproved and very much pro the ruling regime. After a while though, once Palin and company have proved themselves as willing to follow their minders guidelines, they are given a little more rope and get to interact with the general public – some of them rather the worse for drink – at a party in a park and also to enjoy the scenery of the hills and valleys on a hike in the countryside alone when their minders, not dressed suitably for the hike, leave them to it.

See the source image
Palin with farm worker and the all important little Red Tractor

At one point they visit a farm – where the workers are in military uniform – and Palin “helps” a female farm worker with some weeding. The shoot couldn’t begin however until a tractor had been moved into the background – to prove that farms are not all manual labour in North Korea and that machinery is available (even if the tractor in question was around fifty years old). When Palin asked the female farm worker how he faired as a farmhand, she quite straight forwardly told him that he was “unnecessary”.

Even with the loosening of some of the rules, Palin only had to hint at a question critical of the regime or of the history of North Korea and he was pulled up short and sharp. He told one of his guides that in the UK “we are able to be quite rude about our political leaders”. But, not wanting to get drawn in to this sort of discussion she countered with “That’s what makes us so different. Our leaders are very great. They are not individuals, but represent the masses, so we cannot criticise ourselves, can we?” One wonders at what he and his guides discussed off camera that didn’t get put into the book – for the safety of the guides themselves.

There are a few extra pages at the end of the book, written by director Neil Fergusson, which covers his own earlier visit to North Korea to meet with officials and to discuss their filming schedule, rules and regulations. He had sent the North Koreans a wish list of places and people he would like to film, but on his arrival the “official schedule” looked absolutely nothing like what he’s asked for. Several days of negotiations followed before a schedule that was acceptable to both sides was reached. Despite promises and signed contracts it wasn’t until Palin and the film crew actually stepped on to North Korean soil that they realised that the shooting or the North Korea Journal was good to go.

See the source image
Palin with his two tour guides – Li So Hyang and Li Hyon Chol – his constant companions.

In summarising the 15 day whirlwind trip, Palin says that although there are certainly some differences between how North Korea and for example Britain function as far as regulations and freedoms are concerned, there were far more similarities than he expected.

North Korea feels that it can’t let its guard down even slightly due to the ever present American military threat – no wonder it has the 4th largest army in the world. Almost a quarter of the entire North Korean population are members of the armed forces. These military personnel however also man the farms, the factories and the building sites, so you don’t see them all wandering around the towns and cities carrying weapons.

To directly quote a section of the final paragraph of the book, Palin says “…the trip has been an eye-opener, a chance to look behind the headlines and see this secretive country as few other westerners ever will. As Pyongyang recedes into the distance, we turn and exchange smiles. Of relief, but also of regret. One thing we all agreed on at our farewell meal last night is that none of us would mind coming back.”

All of the travel books by Michael Palin are of good quality and this one is no exception, except for being of smaller format than usual, as you can see from the photo below. It’s an easy and enjoyable read, witty and informative – filling in some of the unknowns about North Korea without being in any way controversial or overly critical. Palin is too nice a guy to stir things up just for viewing figures, or book sales. He was Knighted earlier this year (2019) for services to travel, culture and geography following his career as a writer and presenter of documentaries that have taken him all over the world. I do fear, having reached the age of 75, that this could be Palin’s last travel adventure. I hope not, but time will tell.

Some of Michael Palin’s books on my shelves.

As usual thank you for reading this blog…comments, questions, likes and follows are all very much appreciated.

My Top 10 – Travel Books.

world map

I mentioned in an earlier post that I am a big fan of travel books. Travel guides, travelogues and books relating to TV travel shows.

This is my Top 10 list of travelogues currently on my bookshelves. All have been read and some are starting to get pretty old, but remain favourites.

My absolute favourite of all time…..and I’m going to cheat a little on this one. Is Bill Bryson’s “The Complete Notes” – It’s actually two books in one, comprising Notes from a Small Island (about travel in the UK) and Notes from a Big Country (about re-visiting the land of his birth – the USA, after 17 years of living in the UK). I simply love Bryson’s style of writing. He’ll give a half a dozen rather dry facts about a place and then pitch in a one-liner that reduces me to fits of giggles. He’s the sort of person who can get lost anywhere and wears the mantle of the “confused traveler” extremely well.  His travel books are always informative….and humorous ( amusing, funny, entertaining, comic, comical, chucklesome, witty, jocular, light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek, wry, waggish, whimsical, playful – and other such synonyms). If you’ve never read Bryson – give him a go – you don’t know what you’re missing. BUT – word to the wise – stick with his travelogues, some of his other books, I feel, can be a little lacking.

I’m a huge fan of Michael Palin (former member of the Monty Python team) for his many TV travel series and accompanying travel books. Starting with “Around the World in 80 Days” – where he set off on a quest to replicate Phileas Fogg’s journey to travel right around the globe in only 80 days….not using planes. After that he went “Pole to Pole”  and “Full Circle”, before starting to specialize more in specific areas such as “Himalaya” and “Sahara”. The books of the series have all been worthy of space on my “Travel Bookcase”. Again, like Bryson, Palin delivers facts accompanied by wit. He writes well and is a really nice guy….coming from Sheffield (my place of birth) gains him extra points. The books are also well illustrated with beautiful photos – mostly taken by photographer Basil Pao. Actually Basil’s own book “Inside Sahara” is also well worth a look and has extra photos from Palin’s Sahara trip which were deemed worthy of their own book.

Next is a book given to me in 1986 when I backpacked coast to coast across the USA…and back again. Tina Winn who gave us a roof over our heads at Newport Beach, California, was the lady in question and she gave a book to me and a different one to my travel companion Chris. Mine was “Blue Highways” by William Least Heat-Moon, about a journey by van along the blue highways (back roads) that link up all the little towns and settlements across the USA. It was his curiousity to see “the Real America” that took him on the trip of a lifetime….where he meets and mostly brings out the best in people along the way. I don’t have the original copy given to me by Tina (I had to buy a new one) because I swapped it with Chris so I could read his book…..which comes in as my fourth pick.

John Steinbeck – “Travels with Charley” – subtitled “In Search of America”. At the age of sixty, John Steinbeck and his French Poodle “Charley” climbed in to a camper van and took off on a coast to coast and back again adventure. I have read some of Steinbecks novels, but this true story of his travels – giving not only details of the trip and what they saw and did, but also wry observations about what it is to be an American – I think is his best work. And having gone coast to coast and back myself I could relate to much of what’s in the book.

A purchase from a second hand book shop….Pete McCarthy’s hilarious “The Road To McCarthy” – should probably be higher on my list if I’m honest about it. This man is a very funny guy – or i should say WAS, as he died in 2004 after a struggle against cancer. The book takes Pete and us around the world in search of McCarthy – or to be more exact in search of quirky places around the world with odd links to Ireland, the Irish and the McCarthy name. It’s a follow up book to his highly successful “McCarthy’s Bar” – in which Pete McCarthy makes a simple rule – never pass a bar with your name on it. He was an incredibly talented writer and humorist and having only recently discovered his books I was devastated to learn that he’d died. Such a waste of talent – a sad loss……but great books.

Kevin McCloud’s “Grand Tour of Europe” – another book of a TV series (this one on the UK’s Channel 4). The Grand Tour was a rite of passage for the Nobles, minor nobility and upper class wealthy young men which began in the 17th and 18th century. These hedonists cut a swathe across europe, visiting all the fashionable great cities, ruins and architectural marvels…..and partaking in the delights offered by bath houses, bars and brothels along the way. It was an oportunity for these wealthy young men to educate themselves in the world of european art and literature…..and if they didn’t take precautions – to also contract syphilis. McCloud takes us along for the ride and shares snippets of knowledge with us – the audience and readership….some of it carnal – as we visit the culture and history of Europe.

Paul Theroux – “The GreatRailway Bazaar” is my next choice. Unfortunately I only have the Penguin paperback edition, I believe that there is also a large format hard cover book complete with accompanying photos…..quite magnificent photos I hasten to add…by Magnum photographer Steve McCurry. Having said that, Theroux’s text is extremely entertaining, amusing (in places) and informative. He takes us on a four month journey, on a series of trains from London, across Europe, the middle east and Asia, eloquently describing the people and places along the journey. It’s a well crafted book which as well as being a travelogue also discusses subjects such as poverty, ignorance, colonialism and (being an American writer) American Imperialism. It certainly inspires this reader to hop on board and “slow travel” across the continents.

Rolf Potts book “Vagabonding” is a book that I wished I had discovered years ago rather than more recently. It’s a “how to” guide to the art of long-term world travel. Most people, for some reason, see the idea of long-term travel to exotic out of the way lands as being either the thing of dreams, or as requiring oodles of money squirreled away in the bank. Potts shows us that neither of these are true. With common sense advice he walks us through the steps we need to take to make living the dream a reality. And it’s not rocket science!

Hap Cameron’s – “Hap Working the World” – is a book that show’s us just how far a simple thought can take us. In 2003 New Zealander Hap Cameron had an idea that he’d like to live and work on every continent before he turned thirty. Eight years later with all seven continents ticked off, he’s experienced more than most of us will in a lifetime  -including being locked in a jail cell in the USA and almost killed by gangsters in Africa. Of course it’s a “coming of age book” – a book that not only takes us on Hap’s journey of discovery of the seven continents, but also his journey of self discovery and of meeting the girl of his dreams. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and by the end I really did care what happened to Hap. It’s fun and it’s an adventure.

For my final choice – it’s more of a choice of writer rather than of a specific book. I’ve read a few of Christina Dodwell‘s books….starting with “An Explorer’s Handbook”. She is one impressive woman. I first came to know of her on a TV series called River Journeys where she tackled the white water of Papua New Guinea’s Sepik River….and allowed tribesmen to cut the diamond shaped pattern of the skin of the crocodile into her arm – to bring her good luck and protection. She puts the intrepid into Intrepid Explorer. She spent 3 years, traveling twenty thousand miles in Africa – by any means including horse, elephant and camel plus 7 weeks in a dug out canoe on the Congo river. Any of her books are a thrill to read. Maybe her first book “Travels with Fortune” about that African adventure would be the one to start with.

That complete’s my Top Ten. It was a difficult choice and I’ve tried to pick a cross section of the books that I hold dear. There were a few others that could easily have replaced others listed above…..like I said, it was a hard choice.

Just as a P.S. and because I feel bad about missing him off my list…..If you’re a Francophile, I recommend any of John Baxter’s books about Paris. Look him up on line.