National treasure Sir Michael Palin’s latest book is a dedicatedly-researched biography of his Great Uncle Harry. The two men never met. Harry’s life was cut short just after his thirty-second birthday. Like thousands of other young men, he was killed during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Over twenty million people died as a result of the Great War, and millions of survivors were wiped out by the ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic of 1918/19. Barely a family, let alone a village in the UK was unaffected by tragedy during those terrible years. Harry’s premature death in the line of duty was a fate shared by so many others of his generation. His story was left untold, until now.
As Palin admits in ‘Great Uncle Harry’, he was aware of his great uncle’s personal affects, including his diaries that were returned from the Front to the safekeeping of the family, for some years before Harry’s story pushed itself to the forefront of his mind. There was a series of ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ to write and film, and then many other projects came along in a rich, varied and rewarding career that has also spawned countless travel documentaries and accompanying books.
Now the time has been ripe to delve into the archives and conduct his own investigative research into his family’s history. Palin has clearly relished his genealogical adventure. Although his immediate descendants were not public figures, their lives reveal much about recent British history. In ‘Great Uncle Harry’, Palin vividly captures the late Victorian and Edwardian eras as revealed through his relatives’ encounters with historical events. As just one example, he divulges his great grandmother’s experience of the Irish Potato Famine. He also brings elements of his own life into the narrative, such as comparing his memories of education at Shrewsbury with his great uncle’s time at the forbidding public school.
As Palin documents, his Great Uncle Harry was something of a free spirit, although another less generous interpretation might be a lost soul. Probably, like so many of us, Harry wandered between the two. Despite that, there were opportunities for him in the final decades of the British Empire, and Harry spends much of his young adult life abroad. First, he works in India, failing to make much impression, ultimately leaving just as the Monsoon season dries up. He later moves to the other side of the world and finds work as a farm hand in New Zealand.
However, as with so many young men who happened to be born at the end of the Nineteenth Century, he soon becomes caught up in international events as war breaks out. Serving with the New Zealand Division, Harry sees action in Gallipoli before being transferred to the Western Front. As he records in his diary, the Battle of the Somme saw the first use of tanks in warfare. Shortly after receiving a promotion, and finally having his talents recognised, Harry’s diary entries end.
Through his investigative research, Palin uncovers the truth about the fate of his Great Uncle, or at least the testimony of a friend and soldier who served beside him. The author retraces his relative’s steps and finds the location of his death to aid in the writing process. He records how it is a struggle to imagine the innocuous countryside as the hellhole that claimed Harry’s life just over a century earlier.
Palin’s ‘Great Uncle Harry’ neatly traces the societal changes from the buoyant confidence of the late Victorian era into which Harry was born through to the hell of the Great War. During Harry’s short life, society and the world utterly changed. Palin’s success with the book is to signpost these changes to his reader, never failing to tell the human story, never lapsing into a dry history lesson.
The first part of ‘Great Uncle Harry’ documents the jolly adventures of Harry’s father, Edward, which provides a contrast to the fate of one of his sons. By the chapter in which Palin wraps up his account of Harry’s life, the mood of the book has changed starkly. There is no anger in the author’s tone, just pity for the waste of human life, and immense compassion and sadness for the unimaginable grief that his forebears went through.
Palin creates such a compelling portrait of his great uncle that by the end of it, the reader can’t help but feel immense sorrow, and perhaps even shed tears. In so doing, the trauma of World War I is brought home by detailing the life of one soldier. From Harry’s romances to mundane details about military drills, it’s possible to see that he was just an ordinary man. Like everyone whose life was cut short by the horrifying events of war, often sacrificed as machine-gun fodder through the brutal orders of High Command, Harry had hopes, dreams, loves and disappointments.
Ultimately, readers will remember Harry’s journey through the war that Palin guides his readers through. The powerful closing chapters that pull on the heartstrings will live long in the memory after reading it. The introductory chapters, which are necessary to establish the family life that Harry was born into, arguably hold up the main narrative for too long, though Palin reveals his interest in telling at length the story of Harry’s father, Edward (whom the author later played in a film).
‘Great Uncle Harry’ is also available as an audiobook which is read by the author. A talented actor like Michael Palin brings plenty of nuance to his narration. There’s a warmth and an authenticity to his tones as well. As a masterful storyteller, Palin keeps listeners engaged as he leads them through myriad emotions on this deeply personal journey. Coming to the end of the story, the reader can only imagine that Great Uncle Harry Palin would be beaming with pride at the achievements of his Great Nephew, as well as feeling gratitude for presenting his all-too-short life as such a moving and compelling story.
Publisher: Penguin Random House UK audio Narrator: Michael Palin Publication date: 28th September 2023 Buy ‘Great Uncle Harry’