Less a book than it is a dead tree.

A review by Jim Yoakum
Thursday, 5 October 1995

Martin Sproale is a mild, conventional assistant postmaster in his mid-thirties living in an English coastal town. The only exceptional thing about this model of small-town conformity is his passionate obsession with the life, work and personality of Ernest Hemingway… But when an ambitious young outsider, Nick Marshall, is appointed postmaster over Martin’s head and starts to transform the friendly, old-fashioned local post office for privatisation…, Martin is faced with a choice – to be his usual agreeable self and go along with the drastic changes, or to be like his hero and fight for what he believes in.

[from jacket, “Hemingway’s Chair”]

Whilst reading the latest work by Michael Palin I was struck by two things: struck by his phenomenal grasp of situational humor, and struck by a wayward ashtray. It was lobbed at me by my wife who complained that I was spending too much time reading and not enough time with her. While the ashtray hit its intended mark, I’m afraid that Michael’s book did not.

It is the tale of a postal worker named Martin Sproale (a close cousin of Arthur Putey) and his twin obsession’s: keeping the town’s antiquated post office from falling into the hands of Nick Marshall, the villainous new postal manager; and with a deep-sea fishing chair that once housed the bum of Sproale’s hero, Ernest Hemingway. I found it somewhat bothersome that Michael never really gives us an explanation as to why a milquetoast like Martin would have as his idol the ultimate man’s man, and things certainly take a turn for the farfetched when he starts to actually channel the spirit of the “old master.” Also troublesome is the rather convenient coincidence of Ruth, the American scholar who turns up in Theston to write a book on Hemingway and his women. (Why on earth was she in Theston? Hemingway never traveled there. She is merely a plot device to get Martin his beloved chair.) And the way Michael built-up and then totally abandoned the character of Elaine (Martin’s almost love interest) was also confusing. And, oddly enough, the book just isn’t very funny.

Now lest it sound like I am being unduly harsh on Michael (after all he has not had too good a time of it recently with his side projects: “American Friends” tanked at the box office and his play, “The Weekend”, was shat upon at a great height by London’s West End critics), I must say that he shows again his masterful command of character and in creating setting. I actually felt as if I were there with Martin in the sleepy seaside village of Theston. This is good and bad, because Theston is not a very exciting town to be in.

In summation, the sensation I felt while reading “Hemingway’s Chair” was not unlike that of experiencing Michael’s famous sketch “A Minute Passed” first-hand: “A minute, which seemed like an hour, but was only a minute….passed.” That is to say that not much ever seems to happen to old Martin, and that same “not much” continues on for 280 pages. In fact, it is not until the last half-dozen pages or so that the book begins to take off – and that’s when it ends. I would have to say that I can not recommend you rush out and buy “Hemingway’s Chair”, but that’s mainly due to the fact that it’s not available yet in the U.S.

Michael, you know I’m kidding.

  • Methuen Books, 1995 (Canada) ISBN 0-443-39713-6 (hardcover) $27.99 Canadian
  • Methuen London, Ltd., 1995 (U.K.) ISBN 0-413-68930-1 (hardcover) £14.99 U.K.

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