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Spot the Idiot


It's funnier than I expected

It won't teach you much about the 7 Wonders

Recommendable Yes:

Detailed rating:

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Would you read it again?

Degree of InformationLow

How easy was it to read / get information fromAn effort

How interesting was the book?Compelling

Value for moneySatisfactory

52 Ciao members have rated this review on average: very helpful See ratings
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Travel Writing - Does it Broaden the Mind?

I 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 amseldom left unmoved - whether positively or negatively - by travel writing. I expected to not like 'An Idiot Abroad’ and indeed for the first few chapters I was baffled about why anyone would bother sending someone who'd rather spend a fortnight in a caravan park on a trip to see the world's great wonders but having finished it, I’m still not sure. It surprised me in ways I wasn’t expecting at all.

The book is positioned 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 was otherwise 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 see it before I wrote this and not having Sky, I can honestly say my opinion is based solely on the book.

Karl Who?

I have never heard of or seen Karl Pilkington before getting this book probably because I loathe Ricky Gervais and Ricky appears to be the reason why Karl is sort-of famous. 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, not that he's happy about 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 Karls 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 - that seems fair enough. Ricky describes him as “A Moron and a completely round, empty-headed, part-chimp Manc’. 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?

What to Expect Between the Covers

Over the course of just under 300 rather lavishly illustrated pages (don't buy this one for your Kindle - the photos are excellent), 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 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 (very funny), lots of photos of Karl looking slightly disturbed (poor Karl) 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.

Does it work?

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.

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 travelling 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!)

After reading this I do want to see the programme but I'll have to wait for the DVD. Others disagree with me about the degree to which Gervais and Merchant are torturing Pilkington and apparently if you have seen the programme they come over rather better than in the book. However this is a book review, and I can only base my feelings on what I've read.


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.

Please note - I have to score this pretty low on the criteria that Ciao define because it's listed as a travel book but I actually think as a fun read (rather than something you could use to plan your holiday) it's a bit of a winner
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Comments about this review »

supercityfan 26.06.2011 21:58

My children got me this for Fathers Day which I'm looking forward to reading.

wigglylittleworm 21.11.2010 18:57

i never knew the 7 wonders had changed although since Poland now has the biggest jesus statue i wonder if that will chanhge the list

hiker 14.11.2010 17:28

Well reviewed - I think I'd hate it. Lx

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Product Information »

Product details

Subgenre Travel Writing
Author Karl Pilkington
EAN 9781847679260; 9781847679277
Edition Hardcover
ISBN 1847679269
Long Name An Idiot Abroad: the Travel Diaries of Karl Pilkington

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This review of An Idiot Abroad: the Travel Diaries of Karl Pilkington - Karl Pilkington has been rated:

"exceptional" by (33%):

  1. dippykitty123
  2. GillyMN
  3. Novabug

and 15 other members

"very helpful" by (67%):

  1. supercityfan
  2. tipsyrabbit
  3. silverstreak

and 34 other members

The overall rating of a review is different from a simple average of all individual ratings.

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