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When Boris lost his temper with Sam Leith...

Blog | Jan 30, 2020


At the Oldie’s January lunch, we welcomed the legendary Michael Palin, Caroline Kington and Sam Leith.

Palin’s book, North Korea Journal, charts his travels in the most secretive country on earth –which is also to appear in documentary form. In a country with no phone signal or internet, it was an odd experience.

The trip was planned in 2017, while there was some not inconsiderable tension between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un. It was, he told us, the first time that his wife had hesitated about him going on a trip - ‘usually she’s delighted’. One day he was due to wake up for filming at 6.30am, but his phone rang early. He was told the leaders of the two Koreas had shaken hands at the border. Palin thought this was great. His minder said: “Yes, but it also means we’ve aligned with their time zone – so you’re half-an-hour late.”

While out there, Palin celebrated his 75th birthday. It was an odd sort of celebration. He was on his hands and knees digging up the earth with a trowel on a collective farm. His minders, suited representatives of the state, who followed him about, were perfectly polite but there were a couple of odd moments. When he was filming his two-minute introduction to the programme – in front of the two 25-metre-high statues of the Great and Dear Leaders in Pyongyang’s central square – he was politely asked not to use that cut. Why? He had put his hand in his pocket in front of the statue.

He then went into one of the small shops of North Korea’s capital to buy some postcards. The selection included various graphic images of the disembowelling of American GIs and the destruction of the Statue of Liberty. He wanted to send one to his old American Python friend, Terry Gilliam. Turning away for a moment, the cards had vanished. But he could see one of his minders smiling broadly, while handing the offending items to a similarly beaming shop assistant behind the till. He was enchanted by his trip to North Korea and said that in spite of it all, he wouldn’t mind going back.

Next to speak was Caroline Kington. Her book was a compilation of her husband Miles Kington’s letters.

The legendary columnist – for Times, Punch and the Independent – started his writing career with the late great Terry Jones at Oxford. But their paths diverged. Jones going off to write with some chap called Michael Palin. And after badgering Punch for the best part of six years, he got his first column – at 28 – and the rest is history.

The book’s title, My Mother the Bearded Lady, comes from one letter he wrote to the features editor at the Daily Mailwho had asked him to contribute a piece about his mother. He replied that he liked the sound of the feature very much but would prefer not to contribute to out of respect for his mother. An excellent mother, she was also a circus performer known far and wide as Bridget the bearded lady.

The Spectator’s literary editor Sam Leith was the last to speak. His book, Our Times in Rhymes, gives a month by month account of the turbulent politics of 2019.

Before he got into the belly of the beast. He explained how his publisher had come to him with this guaranteed money-maker of an idea. What were the two things in 2019 that people hadn’t had enough of? Brexit and poetry!

As a self-professed, London-based, latte-drinking, anti-democratic member of the liberal elite – his words – he confessed that he had one or two biases! Essentially, he said, the book is a catalogue of his yearlong nervous breakdown.

Having worked for the Telegraph in the 90s and for the Spectator since, he realised that his old colleagues were now the ones holding the reins of power. While they were both at the Telegraph, Boris told Leith to ‘f*** off and die’. Here is Sam's poem on the subject: The man’s a former colleague, so I speak with some affection when I say I think him perfectly unsuited to the job./ He has a hack’s quick cleverness and shifting of direction;/ Puts hoof in mouth the moment that he opens up his gob./ He’s thinking with his ego when not thinking with his nob!

A splendid spread put on by Simpson’s and sponsored by the fabulous Noble Caledonia topped off another fantastic lunch.