A short autobiography by David Palin
I was born in West London, close enough to Heathrow Airport that my mother was convinced the chestnut tree in our garden was used as a marker by the planes. I inherited sport-madness from my father and a certain Celtic melancholy from my mother, when she wasn’t railing against pilots. My folks were born in India in the days of Empire and the tales they told of that mystical place were probably the first things to whet my appetite for the dark and mysterious. When I first saw Roald Dahl’s Poison on television in Tales of the Unexpected, I was reminded of my mother’s tale of her own close encounter with a deadly krait. As my father died when I was young, spending a large part of my formative years with my mother and sister may account for the strong female characters that inhabit my writing.
After leaving school, where I showed my versatility in a production of Julius Caesar by playing the stretching roles of a cobbler, the fourth citizen and a soldier, I studied English and German at university, spending a year teaching English down near the Black Forest in Germany. The Cold War was still in full stalemate, so trips to East Berlin and Weimar were illuminating. It was strange going back to Berlin a couple of years ago. In many ways it symbolises what inspires me to write; the co-existence of different worlds; the darkness of the past living alongside the shadows of the present and the future. It’s impossible to wander around Berlin and not feel you inhabit two places at the same time.
Even when I worked in Frankfurt at what was then the world’s biggest chemical company, it was fascinating to be there at a time when the huge 150 year old concern was starting to break apart. The original dyestuffs shed was still there at the centre of the plant, hidden away as the company grew outwards; pipework snaked around offices; two worlds side by side – till an explosion, which I witnessed one morning, killed an employee and hastened the end.
I live in Berkshire now. My wife is a South African of German parentage, which continues the ‘strong woman’ theme in my life, ensuring that, even when working from home, I will never be boss. We love to travel. Of the many wonderful places we’ve seen, Venice and, as mentioned before, Berlin had a similar impact. They resonate with the past, and always, you have one foot in history.
When I stop to think about it, I’m struck by how the films I love all seem to have an element of duality and co-existence – of times and places; of people. In The Lord of the Rings the ancient ways of honour, though on the retreat and hidden, still live side by side with modern ways and the advancing evil from the East; a rumour of the magic that once was. (By the way, thank you, Peter Jackson, for turning my favourite book into one of my favourite films). The Usual Suspects hangs on the reality of Verbal Kint and the myth of Keyser Soze. The very title of Back to the Future questions our expectations. In Gladiator, Ridley Scott hides the true identity and intentions of Maximus behind the mask of the protagonist. Finally, in Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) the DDR agent spying on the suspected dissidents finds fulfilment and rediscovers his conscience through his secret observation of their world.