Over the years, Michael Palin has developed a talent for mining his past. The first three published volumes of his diaries (a fourth is on the way next year) perfectly encapsulate the ebb and flow of a restless creative spirit. Released in 1991, the film American Friends, meanwhile, dealt with a chaste Oxford professor who found himself in a complicated holiday romance with an older American woman and her teenage daughter. The story was pulled straight from the diary of Palin’s great-grandfather, Edward.
And so it continues with Great-Uncle Harry, a biography of Edward’s youngest son. However, where American Friends presented a subject matter that could be mined for laughs, Great-Uncle Harry offers nothing of the sort. Harry Palin was a little known and, from all available evidence, misunderstood man. His brief and somewhat directionless life ended in 1916, at the age of 32, at the battle of the Somme. His body was never recovered. Palin assumes that Harry either “died from a single bullet wound and was buried where he fell” or “was obliterated”.
Great-Uncle Harry represents Palin’s attempt to get to know this apparently unknowable man. Short on words and ill at ease in family photographs, Harry was the youngest of a huge and distinguished brood, and spent the first years of adulthood bumbling around the world in search of work. Handed a job on an Indian tea plantation, he was moved on after managers bemoaned his lack of effort and intelligence. Eventually he found employment in New Zealand, as a farmhand.
Palin fills his prewar accounts of Harry with mounds of supposition, tending to guess at his motivations. The Palins have always been a family of some distinction, stretching back to 1651 when Thomas Paylin helped hide King Charles II from Cromwell’s army. Reading the first half of this book, you sense a desire to elevate Harry. Where the tea plantation saw a lack of intelligence, Palin imagines a free spirit unconcerned with the conventional order of things. A hippy, in other words, half a century early.
With war, however, the picture comes into sharp relief, thanks to military documents recording Harry’s movements, and the first diaries he ever kept. Entries are typically short and terse – Palin repeatedly expresses the wish that Harry’s journals could have been as elegant and descriptive as those kept by the other soldiers in his battalion, which are often reproduced to augment the former’s spare prose – but they do the job, to sometimes heartbreaking effect.
We follow Harry through two violently misguided military campaigns, in Gallipoli and the trenches of northern France. Short bursts of dates and locations slowly give way to longer dispatches, describing the act of sending thousands of men like him to their death without a second thought as “pure murder”. There are moments of breathtaking personal sadness, too. A long-distance courtship, perhaps the defining relationship of his life, comes to an end. “Put the question to her on parting, but I fear it’s no good,” he writes in his final few months. “God bless her. I love her and I think she loves me, but not enough to marry me.” It is a moment of quiet devastation in a book full of atrocities.
Palin has packed in an astonishing amount of detective work here, digging through work records, photographs and different people’s diaries. Harry might have been what his great nephew calls “a very small fish in a very big war”, but with this book he has finally been given a voice. An important historical record and a well-paced story in its own right, Great-Uncle Harry is also much more than that: a tremendous act of love.
• Great-Uncle Harry: A Tale of War and Empire by Michael Palin is published by Hutchinson Heinemann (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.