While vacationing in Ireland in October 1980, Michael Palin's friend, cartoonist Mel Calman, suggested they collaborate on a children's story. Palin started work on two ideas the next day, and that evening, he handed "the scribbled pages (snatched from Rachel's drawing pad) to Mel to think about." As it would turn out, Calman (best known for his "Little Man" newspaper cartoons) would illustrate neither. But three months later, Methuen, who had previously published Dr. Fegg's Nasty Book (a parody of British annuals) for Palin and Terry Jones, expressed interest in one of the stories.
Methuen promised Palin a 15,000 print run for his first story, Small Harry and the Toothache Pills, and tasked an illustrator named Caroline Holden with the artwork. Palin didn't fuss over the contract terms, as he had much bigger projects (i.e. movies) on his mind. He would later publish additional children's books, and Holden would illustrate the second story he wrote during that 1980 holiday: Cyril and the Dinner Party.
A year after his initial meeting with Methuen, in January 1982, Palin was attending a function at the BBC when who should he find next to him but the famous author Roald Dahl. By this time, Palin was a celebrity in his own right. Yet Palin went to "introduce myself and bother him with praise." Dahl advised him "that a good standard popular kids' book is the way to make money," and further added, "a successful children's author will do a lot better in the long run than Graham Greene."
Having read several of Dahl's stories, I'm not convinced that he (or for that matter Palin) ever wrote a standard kid's book. Both men possess an edgy, if unconventional sense of humor. Dahl even mentioned "he had received many letters of complaint about his books from teachers, and Danny [Champion of the World] was banned in Denmark because it 'teaches children to cheat.'" But he seems to be right about Graham Greene, as I've never read a novel about this Nobel-nominated author who saw many of his stories adapted into movies.
Chance meetings like this, between a young author and an idol who inspired his own writing efforts, offer another reason to get my work published as quickly as possible. It also amazes me that, even though he was on holiday, Palin leapt at the opportunity to write a story with his friend. With so many competing demands on his time, he could have put the idea off for later, or dismissed it as being unworthy of his time. (It wasn't as if the books would greatly enhance his fame or bank balance). Yet he grasped the opportunity when it was presented to him, and when he later met Roald Dahl, he met the man as, if not an equal, at least as a fellow children's author.
That must have been a good feeling.
P.S. I can't find much information on Caroline Holden's life and work, except that she later ended up in California, were she worked as a lifeguard during the final four seasons of the TV show "Baywatch." Probably not the same woman, but hey, you never know....
Related Internet Links
Mel Calman cartoons
Two short reader reviews of Small Harry and the Toothache Pills