Easily in the bottom five books I’ve ever read. This is a truly appalling book, not just because of the sentiments uttered within but because of the more dangerous aspect that so many people connect with the author’s words – this latter part demonstrated by a quick look at the kind of reviews given on Goodreads.
The premise to this book was a good one: send a British guy who’s a bit of a wally to far-off lands and cultures to enjoy how much he struggles and laugh at his ineptitude while enjoying learning about foreign destinations and people. I’ve not seen the TV series from which this book originates but I understand that much of the text is word for word what Pilkington says in the show. I can imagine this making good comedy and, I confess, from time to time he makes some witty comments. Hence the single one star rating I’ve given (otherwise it would be a zero).
But there’s a much more worrying and sinister undercurrent inherent in Pilkington’s views; so worrying that I actually researched him before writing this review to make sure he was genuine and not playing some kind of pale imitation of a Sacha Baron Cohen type caricature. Sure enough, he isn’t; Karl Pilkington is the real deal.
To be ignorant of cultures and play up your ignorance makes for good comedy – British comedy, anyway. To make jokes at the expense of other people and ridicule them as backwards and all but inhuman is not. Yet this is exact the kind of ‘humour’ with which Pilkington poisons every page. Whether in Egypt, India or China – at any of the ‘seven wonders’ he visits – he trashes their importance, beauty and meaning and demeans his hosts with, quite literally at times, toilet humour. No culture seems to live up to his expectations (which can be summed as basically “be British”) and it is no surprise that at the end he wishes he’d never left home.
I would love to believe that this is in fact the ‘idiocy’ of the book and that’s the intention of co-creators, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, but it quickly becomes clear that the comedy is meant to be more slapstick – Pilkington’s horror of riding a camel or eating an amazonian worm and so on. I could go for that kind of ‘Get Me Out Of Here’ humour – I’ve been there as an Englishman abroad coping with very different traditions and eating habits in Asia. Pilkington’s views, however, are not sent up in anyway at all. Indeed, his TV show was highly acclaimed and spawned a sequel series and other spin-offs. Moreoever, as I mentioned at the beginning, reading reviews in Goodreads (presumably by ‘ordinary’ readers rather than paid ‘professional’ book critics) was horrifyingly disappointing. The book was loved and Pilkington considered intelligent and on point in his views. Honestly, the mind boggles.
And this is why I find the book so gut-wrenchingly awful. In a post-Brexit world we can’t afford to let such prejudiced views – which border on being openly racist – have any ground. Pilkington and his followers shows us that British colonial thinking is alive and well and flourishing in the UK today. If his views were more overtly extreme or were challenged in some way, I could accept it. But the things he says (which boil down to, ‘it isn’t right or natural what these stupid people do’) are too close to the things I hear in British pubs and read in the press and social media every day. Pilkington isn’t loved because he’s some Basil Fawlty type person whose outrageous views are laughed at because they are so obviously wrong. He’s loved because he’s ‘stupid’ enough to air his views without filter and people sympathise with his ‘plight’ on these travels while agreeing wholeheartedly with his moans and complaints.
In short, I believe this book to be only a few shades short of being guilty of ‘incitement to racial hatred’ disguised as comedy. That may sound extreme but I don’t think it is. Not in today’s world of UKIP and Trump victories and various right-wing groups baying for blood on the edges of mainstream politics. The popularity of the book and series are serious indictments of the true sentiments of much of the British public. The Empire, it seems, never really left our souls.
Social Entrepreneur, writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Ken has two new books coming out soon – don’t miss them!
Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org