Around the World in 80 Days: in Fogg’s footsteps | Review

A colourful train at the platform of a station in India.

The gentle wonder of Around the World in 80 Days, Michael Palin’s account of railing and sailing the globe in the pursuit of good telly.

Comedian Michael Palin left London’s Reform Club in September 1988 with one intention: to return within 80 days. In between he had merely to circumnavigate the globe following, more or less, in the footsteps of Phileas Fogg.

Like the protagonist of Jules Verne’s 1872 novel, Palin and his Passepartout – here a BBC camera crew – would attempt to travel “around the world in 80 days”. In keeping with Fogg’s journey there would be no flying, a condition that in our era means slower, more circuitous or more appreciative journeys.

“The reason why Phileas Fogg’s 80-day journey retains its appeal is that it is still the minimum time needed to go round the world and notice it.”

Around the World in 80 Days

Nowadays all this would be coming to a YouTube channel near you. Back then, it was in the name of good telly. The series aired in the UK in 1989, with a book – this book – accompanying it.

There’s a whiff of the TV tie-in to Palin’s written account as a result, though that’s forgivable. This is a mix of travel itinerary, diary and back stage pass, and in any of these capacities it’s funny, charming and endearingly sincere.

On the other hand, it’s brief, almost breathless, in its coverage of continents, local colour and misadventure. Perhaps that’s no surprise: for the full story you’re meant to look up the TV series, after all. Luckily, that’s no bar to enjoying the book in its own right.

Revisiting Around the World in 80 Days

I first read, and then compulsively re-read, Palin’s Around the World diary on and off through the 1990s. For the purposes of this review, I’ve since read the 2008 updated edition – but have still yet to watch any of the series. After all this time, the characters, places and adventures of the book feel quite personal to me, in a way that TV footage would quickly reveal as delusional.

This book is a gateway to the world. Palin broadly follows Fogg’s route via (deep breath): Venice, Athens, Egypt, Dubai, India, China, Japan, whistle-stop across America, back to France and finally the steps of the Reform Club. But can he make it by the deadline?

With no recourse to air travel, there are instead long-distance rail journeys and berths on creaking container ships. Not a luxurious way to see the world by any means, but there’s romance in it.

“Above me two shooting stars fall through a clear sky; below me a sleeping man’s arm falls across my feet.”

Around the World in 80 Days

One of the most memorable legs sees the team cross the Indian Ocean by dhow (a rudimentary sailboat, this one with a precarious outdoor toilet). It couldn’t be more different from the caffeinated buzz of reality travel shows, but it casts a spell over the book.

It seems to have cast a spell over Palin and Co, too. In 2008 they returned to India in the hope of reuniting with the dhow’s crew. This is the reason for the newer edition; it’s another brief chapter, yet very moving for all sorts of reasons.

A fish called wander

“‘You want woman?’
We walk on for a bit.
‘I can show you fifty thousand women.’
This is a bit of a leap. ‘Fifty thousand?’
‘More, more,’ he adds hastily, misinterpreting my surprise.”

Around the World in 80 Days

Perhaps Palin got lucky in meeting a cast of characters so memorable, spirited and unfailingly generous. Or perhaps it’s that the author has a generous, humanising way of seeing the world. Either way, it makes for a gently uplifting experience, an antidote to cynicism and restless impatience.

You can’t solely rely on Around the World In 80 Days as a travel schedule any more, but what no longer exists is part of its appeal; it’s a window onto a vanished time.

As Palin leaves England, the Channel Tunnel is a huge scar sliced into the landscape and not yet a pipeline to the Continent. Dubai is burgeoning, but there’s no Burj Khalifa. When the author tells us he’s eaten falafel, he helpfully brackets what they are (deep-fried vegetable balls).

It’s a throwback to a time when we weren’t quite so knowing, before the likes of Tik Tok opened a 24/7 portal to the four corners of the globe.

Something that hasn’t changed is the sheer amount of garbage on route. On one train, bagfuls of punctiliously collected waste are emptied out of a window. At sea, a school of dolphins leaps precariously amongst plastic and polystyrene detritus.

It’s this mix of wonder and waste that brings the voyage alive, though. It’s the little things – the smells, sounds and petty bureaucracies – that burst the fantasy of imagined exoticism. Perhaps that’s a good thing.

For all the distance, politics and cultural differences that separate us, in many ways we’re remarkably similar.

Around the World in 80 Days, by Michael Palin (1989)

Quoted edition published by Orion, 2010

What to read or watch next
  • Around the World in 80 Days (Jules Verne)
  • Around the World in 80 Days with Michael Palin (TV series. Occasionally streams on BBC iPlayer in the UK)
  • Monty Python, Life of Brian (Michael Palin)
  • A Fish Called Wanda (Michael Palin comedy released in 1988, features liberally in the book)
  • Bill Bryson, Paul Theroux (travel writers)

Picture credit: Frank Holleman