It was a lot to digest.
I don’t mean the food, which was nice enough. It was the conversational menu that was unexpected – like eating food from a chef who figured he would serve up everything he had.
Or in the case of my lunch companion, Terry Jones, the British ex-Monty-Python comedian, director and writer, what he had in his head. I wasn’t sure what would be put on the table next.
In town to promote the humorous health videos ( MyHealthTips.com) he did with the late Toronto-based oncologist, Robert Buckman, for Lyceum Health, Mr. Jones was affable as he took his seat in a downtown restaurant. Dressed in a rumpled black suit, he spread his white dinner napkin over his knees, smoothing it flat with his hands, and immediately engaged with a friendly smile on his pale, rubbery face.
It wasn’t until mid-lunch that he said something that helped explain everything that followed: “To me, it’s like an adventure. You wake up in the morning and you think, ‘What’s going to happen today?’ ” He was talking about his writing projects, which are considerable and varied. But he could just as easily have been describing his life.
He spoke of the last time he saw Dr. Buckman, “a guru about the importance of humour with medicine,” whom he had met 30 years ago. They had just spent a week shooting the health videos. “He was his usual self, full of jokes and enthusiasm,” Mr. Jones recalled. They worked for half of the last day filming, then had a pub lunch before Dr. Buckman left to catch his plane back to Toronto. “It was a bit of a shock, “ Mr. Jones said in his understated British manner about learning that Dr. Buckman had died in his sleep on the plane.
There was the bit about growing up in a Welsh family that was “really very poor ... In primary school, I was writing about Christmas presents and saying that I was going to buy some new underwear for my father because his was all in tatters,” Mr. Jones offered, shrugging slightly as though he found the recollection odd.
He had the air of an absent-minded professor whose head is a jumble of people and places and ideas. Revelations dropped onto the table, almost accidentally, like notes from an over-stuffed pocket. Which is how the subject of his infidelity came up.
I had asked where he lives in London. “I live in Highgate,” he replied with a brief description of his North London neighbourhood, where other ex-Pythons, Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin, are frequent pub companions.
“Ten years ago, I split with my wife. We had been together 38 years. It was terrible,” Mr. Jones added without prompting, shaking his head. He produced an exaggerated grimace and ran a hand through his floppy, greying hair. He had fallen in love with a student at Oxford named Anna Soderstrom, he explained. “She’s Swedish, and she was doing French and linguistics. I was doing a talk on Chaucer and selling books,” he said. “And she couldn’t afford a book. I felt sorry for her so I gave her one. It’s the only time I’ve ever done it. I don’t know why I did it really.” He looked across at me, bemused and bewildered.
She is now 29. He is almost 70. “We have a little two-year-old girl,” he went on. Does he like being a father again? He has two adult children from his first marriage, both in their 30s. “Yeah, um, it’s lovely,” he answered. “I just can’t imagine the world without Siri.”
He has a grandchild, who is one year older than his latest child. “My two-year-old is auntie to a one-year-old,” he offered, laughing lightly at the strangeness of the situation.
The next course was Chaucerian. Mr. Jones has been interested in the Middle Ages since he was a child. But in addition to Monty Python treatments in The Holy Grail and Life of Brian, Mr. Jones has written serious academic books on medieval life. His best known, Chaucer’s Knight, The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary, offers an alternative view of Chaucer’s knight – not as a paragon of Christian virtue but as a typical mercenary who was potentially a cold-blooded murderer.
“It was after we had done The Holy Grail in the eighties so I didn’t need to work as much,” he explained. “I thought I would do something for the learned journals. It turned into a book and is still used in university. It’s required reading,” he said in his manner of mild astonishment.
“I like my stories once removed. I like fantasy. And history is fantasy in a way. You have to reimagine what was going on,” he said at the end of a long and fact-filled tangent about Richard II, castle design, the Crusades and the mysteries of the famous Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales,which he has studied under a microscope in the Huntington Museum in California.
Next we were on to the story of a doctor who was a dog. Mr. Jones had originally written it as part of a collection of children’s stories called Animal Tales. He turned it into a short opera for the Royal Opera House in London, England, last year when Anne Dudley, an Oscar-winning film and TV composer, approached him to collaborate on a work.
“It starts with a love song – what you think is a love song – and it turns out they’re talking about their doctor,” he said, raising his eyebrows in amusement. “The medical council don’t think he should continue practising, so he goes to try to reason with them. The commissionaire won’t let him in because he’s a dog. And he ends up biting the commissionaire on the leg and realizing that was bad career move.”
He stopped here for a little chuckle and another bite of fish, dabbing the corners of his mouth with his napkin before continuing. “And then he’s in the dog pound, and there’s another dog next to him who’s headmaster at the local school, and another dog is a waitress in a café. And they’re all about to be put down. So they sing this terribly sad song. It’s funny but it’s also very moving.”
There was much more. He will direct a movie, a science-fiction farce he co-wrote called Absolutely Anything, which will be voiced by ex-Pythons Mr. Gillam, Mr. Palin and John Cleese. We talked about more opera shorts he’s doing for the summer Olympics in London. “The idea is to do opera in unexpected places, on a barge going down the Thames. I’m going to do The Owl and The Pussycat. It’ll be just half an hour. And I’m doing what happened before they got on the boat. You’re a bird marrying a cat? What on earth? There’s a lot of drama there,” he said with evident satisfaction. And then there are the three books he published last year. Oh, and the heavy-metal version of The Nutcracker that he’s working on with songwriter/producer Jim Steinman in New York.
“I enjoy it too much to stop working,” he concluded.
Well, one more tidbit dropped out before the end of the conversation. “I need to pay my mortgage, too,” he confessed, his face all rubbery and rueful.
Editor's note: Terry Jones health videos incorrectly identified in an earlier version of this article. This version ha been corrected.