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20,000 Miles too long
Long Way Round - Ewan McGregor
Member Name: fizzywizzy
Long Way Round - Ewan McGregor
Advantages: learn about some out of the way places
Disadvantages: Pompous, whining pseudo-heroes
When we succumbed to the advertising and bought a set top digital television box, we were rather disappointed (an under-statement) to find out exactly what you get for your (one-off) payment of fifty quid. I can safely say that during the first three months the only thing we made a point of watching was "Long Way Round", which had already been screened on Sky One.
My feelings about the book more or less mirror what I thought about the television series but I bought the book on impulse when I saw it on e-bay without having seen a copy in the shops. Therefore I did not know whether the book accompanied the series (in which case I hoped that it would enhance what I had already seen and add some new details which hadn't been seen on the show) or whether it was merely a verbatim book version of the TV show.
"Long Way Round" is an account of a motorcycle journey from London to New York, via northern Europe, Russia, Mongolia and (after a quick hop across the Bering Sea by plane) the entire breadth of the United States. This is exactly the kind of story that usually appeals to me; readers here may know that I love to travel and regularly review travel books. But I have long moaned about the fact that there are few travel programmes these days devoted to independent or adventure travellers. Why would some one suddenly commission one now?
The answer must, surely, be that this expedition was carried pout by Scottish actor Ewan McGregor and his friend and fellow-thespian Charley Boorman. I wonder if two nobodies proposing this trip would have been quite so lucky in landing a book and TV show deal. Admittedly both are eloquent and intellligent young men eager for adventure and with the confidence to meet strangers but soon into the story you begin to question their dedication and commitment to the task in hand.
The book is written by the two with Robert Uhlig credited as a co-writer and the account is told in three voices. Sadly I found this meant that there was a lot of "insight" into the feelings of the two riders and how they felt about the trip though not much about how they felt about what they had seen and the people they met. A great deal is given over to the pair's complaints about the amount of publicity they are attracting and how tedious it is to have to attend presentations and be greeted on their arrival in a new town by the local big-wigs. It does make you wonder why they took so many signed "Star Wars" photographs....
It is difficult to review the book without making mention of the television series; the two are inextricably linked for several reasons. Firstly, the filming of a television series usually requires a film crew and this is no exception. Driving a massive motorbike through some of the terrain the lads encounter is no easy task and sometimes, after a fall, two people are needed to right one machine. Basically, a camera man is needed so that the two stars can ride safely. Then a back up team is needed in case of emergencies and to carry the equipment that the riders can't carry, and to transport a doctor and often an interpreter (and, if you're as cynical as me, probably to carry all those things that McGregor and Boorman claimed they didn't have!). It would be perfectly feasible to make the journey by bike, later presenting your experiences in a book, but - for obvious reasons - less likely if making a television show.
Furthermore, while two Brits on huge motorbikes is likely to raise an eyebrow in some of the more remote parts of the world, it is even more remarkable when a film crew is close behind them. As one would expect this generated a great deal of excitement and could have led to some interesting encounters but the emphasis was always on the trip and getting the miles in and one feels that the book is really about the making of a television programme rather than an account of the wonderful and unusual places and people the two were exposed to.
There are some great sections on individual parts of the trip. The two are invited to take part in a traditional Mongolian wrestling festival and are terrified one evening when their host comes downstairs with a machine gun in one hand and a guitar in the other, intent on showcasing some Kazhak folk numbers. They meet orphaned children elswehere when representing UNICEF but, while this is an admirable stop-off, there is simply not enough of this type of activity in the book. What they see there humbles them for a short while, it's not long before they are grumbling again, often at the slightest setback and all this with the best support team they could possibly have.
In it's favour the book is well written and anyone who has not seen the television show will probably find some of it fairly gripping. There is adventure a-plenty in terms of the cycling - falls, injuries, roads that vanish altogether, being carried on lorries across fast-flowing icy rivers where bridges have been washed away. This is clearly why McGregor and Boorman made this trip; the location is irrelevant, they could have cycled 20,000 miles over arduous terrain anywhere in the world. Anyone expecting a fascinating and insightful accounts of the countries taken in on the trip will probably be disappointed; motorcycle enthusiasts will be more lilely to enjoy "Long Way Round". I would liken it (though on a much smaller scale) to the achievements of Ellen MacArthur - travelling the world but seeing so little of it. I do not doubt that the two met some wonderful people whom they will never forget and saw some amazing sights, I just wish they had been more vocal about them in this book. "Long Way Round" is more about the execution of the challenge than joutney itself.
Quite soon into the book I became irritated by McGregor and Borrman's dejection when things went wrong or their "Boy's Own" bravado when they successfully overcame a challenge. They became the worst kind of toff's - the members of the rugby team you avoid in the pub, swearing like troopers and wanting it all their own way (apologies to rugby-ists). Much as I like Ewan McGregor I do not feel he brought anything special to the book; I am not particularly a fan of these documentaries where celebrities are sent to the jungle to rescue elephants or cast away on desert islands to make shoes out of an old bra (a la Joanna Lumley). I would much rather see an ordinary presenter specialising in travel do the job (of course that's not how things are done these days when every celebrity gets the chance to try their hand at pretty much whatever they like).
There are some good photographs in the book but it's not enough to make up for the disappointment of the direction taken. Next time, lads, focus a bit less on the old bikes and open your eyes to what's all around you.
Published by Time Warner Books
Available from £5.59 in paperback through Amazon
Summary: Great in theory, disappointing in reality - this book is a let down!