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Michael Palin: Going around the world in 80 days now would be a much less happy experience

In the 1980s, the Monty Python star retraced the fictional footsteps of Phileas Fogg. How would he fare if he made the journey today?

On October 2, 1872, Phileas Fogg set off from the Reform Club in London to circumnavigate the world in 80 days. His journey was fictional, but not fanciful.

French author Jules Verne was fascinated by the fantastical, but unlike previous books where characters journeyed to the centre of the earth or 20,000 leagues under the sea, Fogg’s voyage showcased how technology – specifically the steam engine – was shrinking the world, bringing people and cultures closer together. 

One hundred and fifty years on, being able to travel around the world has changed the world. International travel and trade have created unprecedented wealth while intensifying desperate poverty. Goods are manufactured wherever labour is easiest to exploit. Factories are built where environmental regulations are less strict. The race to secure resources has led countries to meddle in each other’s affairs if their own economic interests are threatened.

Then there’s ourselves. We’ve all become world travellers, able to jet off on a jolly holiday whenever and wherever we like, depending on our budget. But frequent flying has fuelled the climate crisis. Not to mention the pandemic. Lockdowns couldn’t contain a global population that depends on travel to work or visit spread-out families. Our international connectedness and interdependence led to all our lives being put on hold. Moving around has become fundamental to our lives, whether we’re the ones going places or it’s food and goods being delivered to us.

As we approach the anniversary of Fogg’s expedition, the aspects Verne celebrated in his story became the roots of conflicts and crises, grown more apparent today than they’ve ever been. Leaving aside the fact that you could do the trip by plane in 36 hours – or about 90 minutes if you happen to be in the International Space Station – traversing the globe over land and sea is as much a challenge in 2022 as it would have been in 1872.

It’s certainly more difficult than it was in 1988. That’s when ex-Python Michael Palin was recruited by the BBC to follow in Fogg’s footsteps. The resulting documentary, screened the following year, was wildly popular and turned Palin into the consummate Englishman abroad. Who better to serve as Passepartout as we explore the notion of going around the world in 80 days today?

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Map of the world showws Phileas Fogg's journey and Michael Palin's
Illustration: Matthew Green

 “Well, I’ve always felt that if you’re not careful, what turns out to be a nice little hook for a programme turns you into the world authority,” Palin says. “Being Fogg was not my idea, and I was chosen after many others had turned it down.” Fogg refusers included Alan Whicker and Noel Edmonds, but the job represented the completion of a full circle for Palin, who grew up devouring Verne’s stories. “I used to read them in an edition called Classics Illustrated, sort of graphic comics, really. It was nice being asked to do something about stories I’d enjoyed so much when I was young. I have to thank Jules Verne for starting a whole new career for me.”

Palin read modern history at Oxford before he got sidetracked by revolutionising comedy. “Jules Verne was a great celebrant of progress,” Palin says, “especially progress in machinery, the idea that trains and boats could take you faster around the world than ever before.

“The other thing Jules Verne was celebrating was that the world was opening up. It wasn’t just the west that had the technology, there were trains across India and China, huge ships that went across the Pacific and the Atlantic – at a time when the world was relatively peaceful. You could move around the world, it wasn’t dangerous, there weren’t going to be that many obstructions.

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“I think he was interested that countries were going to be brought closer together, people are going to meet each other. The connections in the world at that time were really quite unusual. Verne thought this may be the way the future was going to pan out. He was an optimist about science and technology making the world a better place and bringing us all together.”

 How did things pan out? Let’s follow Fogg’s route around the world today to find out.

From the Reform Club in London where Fogg wagered £20,000 that he could successfully make the trip, he took the train then ferry to Calais where today hundreds of other intercontinental travellers are stranded as they make their own overland journeys towards Britain. Getting from the UK to France is much easier now thanks to the Channel Tunnel and transferring to other trains to dash through Europe would be a breeze. Fogg aimed for Brindisi on the heel of Italy, Palin to Venice – both caught a ferry to Egypt.

The Venice-to-Alexandria ferry was cancelled at the outbreak of the pandemic, and currently there are no passenger ferry routes at all between Europe and Egypt. For millennia, since well before the ancient world when you could sail from the Colossus of Rhodes to the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the link between Europe and Egypt was a key, civilisation-shaping connection – now severed. From Egypt, Fogg (and Palin) jumped on another boat. The Suez Canal is still one of the world’s main arteries when it comes to trade, with close to 20,000 ships passing through annually. Travellers on a deadline would just have to be careful to avoid one running aground like the Ever Given did in March last year, holding up an estimated £329 million in trade every hour.

Fogg next stopped off in Yemen. That wouldn’t be advised today. Listed as one of the most dangerous places in the world, the country has been suffering a horrifying humanitarian crisis since conflict escalated in 2015. Tens of thousands have been killed, including at least 10,200 children, leaving another two million children internally displaced. This year, Unicef reported that 17.4 million people need food assistance. Not a good place for a stopover. Palin decided to drive across Saudi Arabia to Dubai – it was almost impossible for him to obtain a visa to do that in the ’80s; it isn’t any easier today. 

One way or another, it’s another boat trip then trains across India, sailing via Singapore to Hong Kong. Hong Kong still insists visitors quarantine for seven days in a hotel on arrival, not ideal for a traveller on a tight schedule. Then it depends on more shipping lines to make a transatlantic crossing. The Queen Mary 2 is the only passenger ship sailing from New York to Southampton, prices start at £1,299 per person for an inside cabin for the seven-day voyage. That would have suited Fogg fine, and it would be a rare leg of the journey where your comfort would be guaranteed. 

Michael Palin in Around the World in 80 Days
Palin about to board the Orient Express at the start of his journey. Image: AlexBale / Alamy Stock Photo

“I think it’d be a much less happy experience,” Palin says about making the trip today. “The idea of around the world in 80 days is still good, because it’s a way of looking at the world, evaluating the freedom in the world, the ability to travel and where we are. 

“If you took the difference between 30 years or so ago – since I travelled – and what would be happening now, you’d have much, much more difficulty. Largely because of Covid and the legacy of Covid, ships not being in the right place at the right time, not enough crews. Employment at sea is a big issue at the moment, how much people are paid and whether they’re allowed off the ship at places where they go into port. And, as you rightly say, a lot of the countries in the world would still be quite difficult to get across. If you wanted to do it by land, there aren’t that many options.” 

There are alternative routes contemporary Foggs could consider. Unfortunately, the most direct overland journeys go through Iran or Russia. The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office advises against British nationals visiting both countries. Up until very recently, taking the Trans-Siberian Railway would have made travelling 9,289km across Asia simple, but its lines into Mongolia and China are still closed. And when Russia invaded Ukraine in March, they cancelled the chances of British travellers catching their trains.

Current conflicts always have their roots in the past. “I mean, as soon as we could move around the world more, slavery extended because suddenly we had the ships and the men and the technology,” Palin says. “But I feel that being able to understand and visit other countries is the way forward. The more we put up barriers, whether it’s because of disease or for whatever reason, the more problems we store up for ourselves.” 

You may have noticed that many of Fogg’s stops were connected by a common thread. Egypt, parts of Yemen, India, Singapore, Hong Kong – they were all British colonies at a time that the sun never set on the empire. Very convenient for the international traveller, not always the case for the local population. 

“To say, if there’d been no colonialism, the world would be a better place, one can’t make that judgement,” Palin reasons. “There are always going to be people exploiting other people in some form. What one’s got to do is try and be aware of that exploitation, and that’s what we can do more easily nowadays.” 

The internet and communication are reshaping the world as technology and travel did 150 years ago. But so are the pandemic and politics. For two years, it was impossible to go anywhere. Some countries are still closed. The travel industry is struggling with staff shortages and unpredictable demand. Leaving the EU meant freedom of movement was lost for most British citizens. Could the period – coincidentally starting around 1988 when Palin was beaming the world into British TVs and ending in early 2020 as the pandemic spread – mark a unique time in human history where the world was as much of an oyster as it’s ever going to be? 

“Yeah, I think you’re probably right,” Palin says. “There was definitely an increase of prosperity in the ’60s and ’70s. In the ’80s we were beginning to spend it. It seemed as though we had it sorted out. The real change came with the crash in 2008, when suddenly, people realised there wasn’t enough money, it was borrowed money. That was when the gloomy theme music began to slowly build. And since about 2010, no one has quite believed that we have the freedom to keep going onwards and upwards, cutting prices and being able to enjoy everything in the same way.  

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“What’s happened since the pandemic, and this dreadful war in Ukraine, is that people realise that it’s going to be a long time before it’s the same as it was. The age of certainty, you could call it. It won’t be the same again for a long time.” 

It turns out that 1988 was probably the best point in history to try and go around the world in 80 days. 

Michael Palin
Photo: John Swannell

“There was a feeling things were a little more relaxed in the ’80s,” Palin says. “I don’t think the great powers – America, Britain or whatever – felt they were obliged to run the world. It was before social media so there weren’t so many choices to be made and to occupy and worry people. So I think in a sense, it was quite a good time, 1988. It was a good time for me because I wasn’t too old and I wasn’t too young.” 

Now 79 and a half, Palin is still on the road. Following his trip to North Korea in 2018, the edit is under way on the documentary of his latest trip, Into Iraq

“To go to a country, which has been so damaged by war and see how it had survived, that was the great attraction of going to Iraq. To see if I could still cut it, get there and travel around with an open mind and feel physically able and mentally able to digest what I was seeing. And that was OK, I was encouraged. So there could be somewhere else.  

“I am still fascinated by the world, I still read a lot of books about other countries. I’ve still got atlases open.” 

Michael Palin is on tour across the UK in October, bringing tales of two of the most extraordinary journeys he’s ever made to the stage. The ‘From North Korea Into Iraq’ tour kicks off in Colchester on 1 October and ends in Edinburgh on 21October. Tickets available from ticketmaster.co.uk

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