Michael Palin, the Python turned TV documentarian, has long delighted in sharing tales of his family, whether through his diaries – he has published three volumes so far – or through his film American Friends, a fictionalised account of the courtship of his great-grandfather, an Oxford don, and his American wife. In Great-Uncle Harry, he turns his attention to Henry William Bourne Palin – known as Harry – who died in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 at 32. Palin was alerted to his great-uncle’s existence by a cousin who gave him a “stash of Palinilia, among which were some photographs. One of these caught my eye. It was of a young man in a military uniform wearing a wide-brimmed hat and throwing a guarded glance at the camera.” Years later, while working on a documentary about the last day of the first world war, Palin saw Harry’s name on a war memorial in a Somme battlefield. “I knew then that I had to know more,” he notes.

Palin brings the same curious tone and twinkling charisma to his narration that he does to his TV travelogues. Piecing together the story of this “very small fry in a very big war” takes some doing, not least because Harry, the youngest and least driven of a high-achieving clan, struggled to find his place in the world. Harry wrote about his wartime experiences in a diary, though his entries were clipped in tone and short on detail. Palin is nonetheless able to build a picture of his movements and learns how, like so many of his peers, war was both the making of Harry and his undoing.

Great-Uncle Harry by Michael Palin is available via Penguin Audio, 7hr 46min

Further listening

The Twat Files
Dawn French, Penguin Audio, 5hr 49min
The doyenne of British comedy chronicles a lifetime of mishaps and cock-ups in this entertaining memoir-cum-self-help manual in which she exhorts listeners to embrace their “twattishness”.

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The Invisible Hour
Alice Hoffman, Simon & Schuster, 7hr 44min
Jessie Mueller reads Hoffman’s story of a pregnant teenager who is rejected by her family and decides to move in with Joel, the charismatic leader of a cult – a decision that has chilling ramifications for her and her unborn child.


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