Author, Book review, Charley Boorman, Ewan McGregor, Non-fiction, Publisher, Sphere, travel

‘Long Way Down’ by Ewan McGregor & Charley Boorman


Non-fiction – hardcover; Sphere; 352 pages; 2007.

Three years ago fellow actors and biking buddies Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman set off on a voyage from London to New York the long way round. The resultant 10-part TV series following their 20,000 mile road trip across Europe and Asia proved a huge hit, as did the book that accompanied it. I came to the whole Long Way Round phenomenon quite late, having stumbled upon a repeat screening of the series on Sky TV about 18 months after it had been made. But I was immediately enraptured and thought it was one of the most entertaining travel documentaries I’d ever seen. I promptly went out and bought the DVD and the book.

Fast forward a year and the double-act were back on board their motorbikes, this time traversing the globe from top to bottom — from John O’Groats at the northernmost tip of Scotland to Cape Agulhas on the southernmost tip of South Africa — in a new 15,000-mile adventure being billed as the Long Way Down. The popularity of the first series had obviously paid off for them: this time the trip was being documented on a live website and the resultant TV series was being screened on BBC 2 during prime time Sunday night viewing.

I watched the series, although I didn’t think it was as good as the first. It didn’t seem quite as magical or as fresh as the original. In fact, in places, it just seemed too knowing, too calculated — and there were far too many participants involved. It wasn’t so much as two men and their motorbikes, but two men, their motorbikes, one wife, a dozen various “fixers” and a five-member support crew. Hmmm.

The book doesn’t really add to much to the TV series, other than you get a chance to find out a bit more about some of the UNICEF projects they visited and you get a better sense of the African people they met along the way. Like the original book, it fills in some useful gaps that weren’t explained or were simply skimmed through on TV.

At times it does read a bit like a stuck record, with both of them complaining over and over about the too-fast schedule and their inability to spend time in all the places they wanted. Coupled with Charley missing his wife and children all the time, and Ewan banging on about how privileged he is to do the trip, it began to wear thin in places.

Nonetheless it’s a light, entertaining read, funny in places, moving in others — a bit like the TV series. But it’s lack of intellectual insight or deep thinking about African history means this is really only a book for the fans. If you loved Long Way Down, chances are you’ll enjoy this one too, but if you’d rather just watch the TV series you’re not going to miss out on anything if you don’t bother with the book. And you could perhaps save yourself a lot of time by simply reading the tongue-in-cheek condensed version on The Guardian’s Digested Read, which isn’t so much a piss take but a crystallised version of the truth.

Africa, Author, Book review, Charley Boorman, Little, Brown, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sport, travel

‘Race to Dakar’ by Charley Boorman


Non-fiction – hardcover; Little, Brown; 320 pages; 2006.

As I write, the 2007 Dakar Rally is in full swing. It is the world’s most gruelling and challenging off-road endurance race for motorised vehicles. One motorcyclist, South African Elmer Symons, has already died in this year’s race and last year’s claimed the life of Australian Andy Caldecott.

So when actor Charley Boorman finished the 20,000 mile road trip from London to New York (the long way round via Russia) with his best mate Ewan McGregor in 2004, the Dakar Rally seemed like the next logical challenge. But, as Charley was soon to realise, there’s a big difference between riding a route you’ve organised yourself to racing along one that has been designed to test your off-road navigational skills, your physical capabilities and your mental strength to their absolute limits. It has often been compared to climbing Everest or sailing around the world it is such a difficult feat to achieve.

This book charts Charley’s attempt to tackle the Lisbon to Dakar route, via the deserts of Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Mali, Guinea and Senegal, with mixed — and often heart-breaking — results. It is accompanied by a seven-part TV series, now on DVD, which looks at Charley’s pre-trip preparation and planning through to the actual two-week 10,000km race.

But this is no solo attempt. Charley is clever enough to form a race team comprising two accomplished enduro motorcyclists, the unflappable cool-headed Australian Simon Pavey and determined first-time Dakar Rally racer Englishman Matt Hall. He also has a brilliant race support crew headed by producer Russ Malkin (who also managed the Long Way Round ride).

I loved the book. It’s easy to read and highly entertaining and gives you a slightly different perspective to the TV series. It’s written in a very chatty style and conveys Charley’s fears and doubts quite clearly — there is little room for ego here!

However, as with Long Way Round, I’m not sure the book would make the grade as a stand alone read without the TV series — you really need to SEE the terrain and the riding conditions (all that dust, all those dunes and cars barrelling out of nowhere) to fully appreciate the difficulty of the challenge.

But this is a wonderfully inspiring read about pushing the human mind and body to its limits. And you don’t have to be a bike nut to appreciate it.

Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Pan Books, Publisher, Setting, Walter Macken

‘Seek the Fair Land’ by Walter Macken


Fiction – paperback; Pan; 304 pages; 1988.

Seek the Fair Land, volume one of Macken’s acclaimed Irish trilogy, is an action-packed adventure story set during Cromwellian rule.

Dominick MacMahon, his wife slain in a bloody massacre, flees Drogheda with his two young children, Mary Ann and Peter, and a wounded priest, Sebastian, to set up a new life in the “fair land” which, according to an Irish proverb, is “over the brow of the hill”.

Dominick and his family battle ongoing starvation, deprivation and prosecution in their search for peace and freedom. But Coote of Connaught is on their trail as he relentlessly enforces the oath of abjuration across the land, forcing Catholics to abandon their faith in exchange for keeping their property and possessions.

In these dark and treacherous times priests are imprisoned or executed without question, a risk which endangers Dominick’s life on more than one occasion.

Written in 1959, Macken’s prose is vividly descriptive if the style is somewhat stodgy and old fashioned. But this does not take away from the dramatic storyline and the moving way in which he depicts his character’s struggles against a despicable enemy.