An Idiot Abroad

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An Idiot Abroad: The Travel Diaries of Karl Pilkington By Karl Pilkington, By Ricky Gervais, By Stephen Merchant, book reviewI find travel writing irresistible. The best travel books inspire me and the worst give me plenty of material for writing damning reviews about just how awful they are. I was pretty sure that ‘An Idiot Abroad’ was going to fall into the second category but having finished it, I’m still not sure. It surprised me in ways I wasn’t expecting at all.

It was pitched as a humorous account of a naïve traveller’s trip to see the Seven Wonders of the World. It sounded like an idea with potential but what I hadn’t counted on was the involvement of two unstintingly irritating and annoying celebrities in what might otherwise have been an interesting project. I also hadn’t realised that it is the companion book to a SKY TV series and books about television programmes don’t have a great record. If you see the series before you read the book, you might well have a very different perspective. I didn’t so I was reading this blind.

I have never heard of or seen Karl Pilkington before getting this book. His role in the Idiot Abroad project is that of ‘Everyman’. He’s the innocent abroad, the Englishman abroad or in this case, the ‘idiot’ of the title. He is not by any stretch of the imagination a man you could describe as ‘worldly’; he prefers Devon to Dubai, a caravan park to a camel caravan and thinks eating a full English on the Costa del Sol is exotic. I think we all know people like Karl Pilkington and most travellers are a bit snooty about the Karl’s of this world.

An Idiot Abroad is the short version of the title. The book is actually called (deep breath) “Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant send An Idiot Abroad – The Travel Diaries of Karl Pilkington”. What you’ll soon realise is that Karl did the travel, wrote the book, got filmed doing stupid and often painful things for television, ate disgusting beasties, suffered all manner of unspeakable local toilets and when the book came out, Ricky and Stephen got their names ABOVE the title. This is a sad indictment of just how low male friendship can dive and just what scumbags his friends are. Think your friend is really stupid and pathetic and needs to broaden his mind? Thankfully most people don’t have access to a TV station, a film crew and a big travel budget with which to set about the ritual humiliation of another human being. Karl thinks that the Wonders of the World are a bit rubbish so Ricky and Stephen decide to make him eat his words (and a lot of creepy crawlies). The word that was buzzing through my mind for the first few chapters was ‘patronising’.

We’re told that Stephen wants only to help Karl to broaden his mind. Ricky describes him as “A Moron and a completely round, empty-headed, part-chimp Manc” . They call him a ‘freak’, a ‘real life Homer Simpson’ and say he only goes on holiday if his girlfriend forces him. Stephen thinks that travel will broaden Karl’s mind and make him a richer person whilst Ricky just wants him to hate every minute of the experience by making him stay in horrible places and subjecting him to “mind-blowing degradation”. I know what you’re thinking – with friends like this, who needs family?

“Pilkington is quite possibly what Tony Blair would have dubbed ‘The People’s Philosopher’.

Over the course of just under 300 rather lavishly illustrated pages, we travel with Karl to the Pyramids, the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, the Taj Mahal, Chichen Itza, the Great Wall, Petra and Machu Picchu. Notice anything odd about the list? Yes, it’s only six of the seven wonders – they didn’t bother to send him to Rome to see the Colosseum. They probably thought he might enjoy the pizza too much. I have to admit that I didn’t realise that these WERE the 7 wonders and if the book inspired me at all it was to check out why these are on the list. Apparently over 100 million votes were cast worldwide and on 07.07.07 a new list was announced as the official ’New7Wonders’. Some were a bit of a surprise – I’m thinking that ‘the big Jesus’ and the Mexican pyramid could well have been missed out – mind you, where would have been the fun in sending him to Salisbury Plain to see Stonehenge or to Athens for the Acropolis?

An Idiot Abroad is written in diary style and for a guy who’s supposed to be stupid Karl is not a bad writer at all. That’s not to say that some of his opinions don’t make you cringe or groan or even despair for the future of international relations. You really shouldn’t go to the Taj Mahal and comment that it’s quite nice but probably doesn’t look very good from behind (it DOES); it‘s missing the point to observe that Petra is “just a cave”; and saying that Chichen Itza looks like a pyramid with a bungalow on top or that the Pyramids in Egypt aren’t very well finished will leave you thinking that there must be more joy in travel than Karl can find. This really isn’t a book that’s going to teach you anything about the Seven Wonders or much about the countries where they are found, but there’s an outside chance that it might teach those of us who are a tad snooty about our travel exploits to get off our high horses and enjoy the innocence of the uneducated traveller.

In addition to the diary entries we get cartoon maps that summarise his adventures, lots of photos of Karl looking slightly disturbed and dressed in ridiculous clothing to suit each destination and verbatim accounts of the awful phone calls from Ricky and Stephen that they probably thought would make them look clever but generally serve only to make them look like evil manipulative gits.

I admit that I started off pretty much despising Karl Pilkington. He dismissed India, the country I adore, as horrible and just seemed to be missing the entire point of travel. As the book progressed, I grew to like this stranger and his odd approach to seeing the world and came to enjoy his very different experience. In spite of myself, some of Karl’s theories and observations made me laugh out loud – that Mexico is like Grand Theft Auto, that the Chinese are hung up about their so-called ‘Great’ wall but can’t be bothered to get a bit of MDF and build toilet cubicles, and that the lizard who ate his Hobnobs had experienced something that no human in its country had ever managed. And if everyone in the world had access to Sudokus a lot of the weird stuff people do wouldn’t be necessary.

“…8/10 to Karl Pilkington for showing a very different side to travel writing and travelling than you’d ever get from Michael Palin”

Pilkington is quite possibly what Tony Blair would have dubbed ‘The People’s Philosopher’. He travels with Twix bars and Monster Munch, gets withdrawal symptoms if he can’t speak to his girlfriend every day (she’s put up with him for 16 years – although a local was very upset in Jordan when he thought Pilkington said his girlfriend was 16 years old), finds joys in the little things most people would miss whilst turning a blind eye to the so-called Wonders. Regardless of how spiteful Ricky gets in lining up tortures to which to subject him, Karl just plods on with a very British sense of making the best of a bad deal. They make him go through Israel to get to Jordan (his Dad tells him not to let his Ma know as she’ll worry), they arrange kidnap training and forget to tell him it‘s only training, they send him to the Kumbh Mela one of the world’s largest religious festivals despite knowing that he hates crowds and religion, tell him about deadly fish that can swim up a stream of urine and generally attempt to scare the living daylights out of him but the joke really is on his tormentors. Karl actually has quite a fun time and after getting over my initial reluctance, I had quite a good time with him.

8/10 to Karl Pilkington for showing a very different side to travel writing and traveling than you’d ever get from Michael Palin and 0/10 to his so-called friends for being smug gits who probably wouldn’t understand why I despised them even more after reading this than I did before I started (and that’s saying something!)

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant send An Idiot Abroad – The Travel Diaries of Karl Pilkington by Karl Pilkington, Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant
296 pages, published by Canongate Books, Sep 2010
Thanks to Canongate for providing a free review copy of the book.

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An Idiot Abroad - The Travel Diaries of Karl Pilkington
by Karl Pilkington, Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant

8 Comments on "An Idiot Abroad"

  1. eilidhcatriona
    22/09/2010 at 14:59 Permalink

    I’ve seen the adverts for the TV show, and it looks truly awful – why would anyone want to watch two guys humiliate their best mate? If they wanted to do it for a joke, fine, but I don’t understand why anyone would think it a good concept for a TV show. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant come across so badly in the adverts. Interesting that you found yourself not hating the book, maybe it’s easier to take on the page than onscreen (and I say that only having seen adverts!!!)

  2. koshkha
    22/09/2010 at 15:19 Permalink

    I agree – it was probably because I was so disgusted with the way they treated Karl that I came to quite like the later chapters of the book. I think I was backing the underdog again!

  3. Rob
    14/10/2010 at 16:03 Permalink

    You know, there are very few programmes I watch on TV these days but this is one of them. I enjoy it immensely. And the thing is Gervais and Merchant aren’t picking on anyone. Pilkington is a very clever and intelligent man and is merely playing in a role. And he does so to great effect.

    Delighted the book turns out to be a worthwhile read.
    Warmest regards

  4. Vladimir
    14/10/2010 at 16:15 Permalink

    Thanks for your comment, Rob.
    I was a big fan of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant but it seems to me that they are too aware of their success and it is a too big burden sometimes. I think they have 5-6 TV programmes on the go in the UK at the moment. That also does not sound right.
    Unfortunately I do not watch An Idiot Abroad as I don’t have Sky1 but I see it is getting popular. Will watch a bit on the web and then write a letter to Santa if I like it…I am sure DVDs will be there for Christmas…

  5. Hollie
    24/11/2010 at 09:52 Permalink


  6. eilidhcatriona
    24/11/2010 at 10:54 Permalink

    Everyone has a different sense of humour. It would be boring if everyone was the same. Along with the author of this review, I don’t think the TV show sounds funny at all and I don’t like Gervais and Merchant. Clearly a lot of people do given their popularity, but they don’t appeal to my sense of humour. Nothing wrong with that at all.

  7. Jo
    28/11/2010 at 22:13 Permalink

    This was the funniest thing on televison this year, I’m sure Karl Pilkington is certainly not an idiot, but it made for highly hilarious viewing in this mundane world!

  8. Timothy Stanley
    12/03/2011 at 03:55 Permalink

    My wife and I just got to watch the last three shows and I haven’t had so much fun. I will be going to buy the book and if I can find it the dvd. I would go as a travel mate anywhere with him just too funny. Thanks for the look about the world. Can’t wait to start the read. Tim Sherry Canada.

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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