Say you were going to meet Monty Python's Michael Palin for dinner. What would you bring him?

I did. And I brought a can of Spam.

Some English friends of mine know Palin, my favorite member of the brilliant British comedy troupe. When I learned he had a book coming out, I asked if they could arrange a dinner party where I could meet him. It wasn't a potluck, but I couldn't arrive empty-handed. What could I offer?

Spam, of course, is Minnesota's innovation in the inscrutable-dense-meat category. Spam, thanks to a sketch by Monty Python, is also the word for undesired emails. Palin, as a member of Python, was part of the original skit.

It would bring the world full circle to present Sir Michael Palin (who was knighted in 2019) with Spam, from Minnesota, carried across the ocean by a Minnesotan. The dinner was arranged, and off I went.

Of course, I had 468 questions about Monty Python, but I knew I'd be the 468th person to ask them. So, should I ask him about his travelogues, ranging from "Around the World in 80 Days" to his most recent journey to Iraq? Or his post-Python work, like "Ripping Yarns," the blockbuster movie, "A Fish Called Wanda," or 2017's "The Death of Stalin"?

Maybe we could talk about the movies closest to his heart: "East of Ipswich," a coming-of-age piece about a summer stay in a Suffolk resort, based on his own tale of meeting his future wife. Or "American Friends," a 1991 movie inspired by his great-grandfather's life as an Oxford don. Then there are the art documentaries. Or what about his three-volume set of diaries?

Instead, we talked about a book he's written about another man's diaries. Great-Uncle Harry was the man, and the name of Palin's latest work.

It's a remarkable work of forensic genealogy, reassembling the absent bones of a man who left scant clues, told with quiet, affectionate persistence. There was an obstinate opacity to the man, and yet Palin manages to revive him.

"I was drawn to it because it was a difficult thing to pull off," he said. "There's no trail. But there's something about it: Why did no one in the family talk about him? He'd given his life for his country at the age of 32. So that was the hook. There was something about Harry I wanted to find out.

"I saw this was a fascinating story about a comfortable, fairly confident, sympathetic, intelligent family, compassionate about the people around them. They seemed to have everything. He was born into this family, but he was born too late. He never actually I think got the affection or attention that the rest of the family received. The result was, he seemed to be a classic failure. Nothing seemed to work. He was never employed for long. But then I got the one thing that really kept me going — the diaries."

Palin used government records and letters to trace Harry's lackluster tenure in colonial India, working for the railways. The diaries, capturing his World War I service, came in handy later.

"From the moment he joined up in New Zealand, and through Gallipoli and the Somme, he kept a diary all the time. It's not articulate or literary, it's perfunctory. And yet it is something he's written every day. It wasn't about 'Why I am here, what I am doing,' the heroism, or lack of it, but the reaction of someone in 1914. He joined up because it's all going to be over by Christmas. But instead of going home he goes to the most savage battles.

"I haven't read many books about the war that saw it through the eyes of someone like Harry. He's somewhat innocent and naive in some ways. He survives Gallipoli — raking machine-gun fire and putrefying bodies, and he never complains."

Harry went next to France, to labor in the trenches. It's a tale of terror and boredom. But he goes on leave, returns to England, and the story suddenly blooms into something unexpected. Harry seems alive and happy — and in love. He goes to see Margie, his best gal, and asks for her hand.

"It's poignant. He's coming back in the taxi, and he pops the question. It wasn't reciprocated. For me, the saddest, most bleak moment, is the day she said she didn't want to marry him, for whatever reason. He wanders around London, without much to do. Looking at the buildings. The person who really brought him back to London is gone. And then he has to go back."

Harry died at the Somme in 1916.

"The records say 'minor casualties' for the attack in which Harry was killed," Palin said.

Through his painstaking research, Palin has not only found the spot where his great-uncle fell, he found photographs of his service, thanks to director Peter Jackson.

"He has a large collection of World War I photos, and he found two he almost certainly thinks are Harry. It was quite something when we found these pictures of Harry in the trenches. A slightly louche figure, smoking."

There's much more to the book than Harry's tale. It's a story of the British empire at its zenith and nadir, of the rural life and tony schools. The miseries of Suez heat and perilous ocean crossings. And, shining through it all, the British postal service. On the worst days of battle, Harry would note in his diary that he got a package of socks, or 10 cigarettes from home.

"In Gallipoli I couldn't believe how often the post arrived," Palin laughs. "The mail service comes out very well."

After talking through the evening, we all said our goodnights. Palin walked off into the faint fog of a London autumn night, carrying the gift of Spam. You could imagine Harry walking alongside in silence, until he said what everyone who's known Palin's work says eventually: Thank you, Michael. That was brilliant.