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Around the World in Eighty Days, by Jules Verne. And by Michael Palin.

Jules Verne's adventure novel, Around the World in Eighty Days, is an enduring  classic that has captivated generations of readers. Adventure stories were common enough in the 1870s when this was first published, but Verne’s book was unique in its subject, about a man trying to outrun the clock as he circumnavigates the globe in order to win a wager. The core of the book is the idea of a journey around the world, which in 1872, was just becoming possible with the establishment of steamboat connections and the laying of railway lines in many parts of the world.

The book begins with Phileas Fogg, a gentleman of precise habits and very particular requirements, firing his manservant for bringing him his shaving water at 84℉ instead of the 86℉ that he requires it to be at. We learn that Mr Fogg is around forty years old, a quiet, private gentleman, a fanatic about punctuality, never doing anything unexpected or out of character. This is what Jean Passepartout, his new manservant, hears about Fogg.

At the Reform club, while playing a game of whist, Fogg and his companions discuss a recent theft at the Bank of England. The thief, who apparently dressed and looked like a gentleman, showed up at the bank, and quietly made away with a sum of 55,000 pounds. It’s an audacious theft, and all of London is abuzz. The police are on the hunt, guarding every port and train station.

Speaking about the thief and his chances of escaping, Fogg notes how much easier it is to travel in the age of steamships and steam engines. One of his companions brings up a newspaper article that has made the calculation and has claimed that it is indeed possible (in 1872) to make a journey around the world in the very short time of eighty days. Fogg agrees with this calculation. This is something that he’s given a bit of thought to, as a man of science.

His companions scoff at him, and wager that it is impossible. Fogg accepts the wager, laying a sum of 20,000 pounds on the bet that he will go around the world and return in the stipulated period of eighty days. Phileas Fogg and Passepartout leave that very night. They travel across Europe and on to Suez with nothing more than a carpet bag with a few clothes and 20,000 pounds.

At Suez, they encounter Inspector Fix, on the hunt for the bank robber from London. Taking one look at Fogg, Fix decides that he’s got his man, and is even more convinced when he learns, from Passepartout, of Fogg’s sudden departure from London. Inspector Fix creates all manner of obstacles for Fogg, trying to delay him at every step, so that a warrant for Fogg’s arrest can reach him. But the warrant remains elusive. This, in addition to all the unexpected delays and difficulties makes the journey a real challenge.

As adventure stories go, this is one of the best we’ve read. Phileas Fogg is presented with one obstacle after another, and he finds interesting and unexpected solutions to all of them. Passepartout proves to be invaluable, helping Fogg out more often than not. We don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that Fogg ultimately succeeds in this journey. It wouldn’t be much of an adventure story if the hero didn’t win out in the end, would it?

And now from fiction to real life adventure. Unlike Phileas Fogg who had the advantage of being fictional, and could therefore have his creator write him out of difficulties, Michael Palin had to go on the same journey, take whatever came his way, and make the best of it. In the late 1980’s, someone at the BBC had the bright idea of making a travel show based on Jules Verne’s classic adventure. It was, of course, possible at the time, to circumnavigate the globe in 36 hours by aeroplane, but the idea was to do it the way Phileas Fogg had done it, using mostly trains and ships.

To quote Michael Palin, “The reason why Phileas Fogg’s 80-day journey retains its appeal is that it is still the minimum time needed to go around the world and notice it…” Palin set out on 25th December, 1988 from the Reform Club in London, with a camera crew, whom he called his ‘Passepartout’. In addition to his clothes, he carried with him an inflatable globe, a few books, and a diary in which to record his eighty-day journey.

Around the World in 80 Days by Michael Palin is a classic travel narrative. Aside from the novelty of the literary connection, it is an account of a journey around the world that had to be completed in a given amount of time, adding significantly to the drama inherent in such a journey. Add to this Palin’s personality, his charm, curiosity, and genuine desire to learn about the people and places that he encounters, and you have everything you need for a travel book that reads like a modern-day adventure.

As Palin says in the introduction, “…challenges help to make an adventure, and an adventure was what I was after when I signed up. This diary is a record of success and failure, of euphoria and deep gloom, of friends made, and advice and help that was generously given on what must still be the ultimate terrestrial journey.”







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