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10th February 2010

Hard Way Round by Ernest Bell / Ian Whitehead
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In 1954, an adventurer set off on an overland ride from Britain to Australia, aboard a Norton Dominator. These are his diaries, which we asked Dave Blendell to read...

The Hard Way Round is more of a thick pamphlet than a book, taking 44 pages of A4 to tell the tale. There is also a map and foreword -- more of which later. The booklet tells the story of the late Ernest Bell, a former member of the Household Cavalry who had found himself driving buses for a living after his stint in the military. Bored with bus driving, Ernest answers an advert placed by a couple of Australians intent on riding home and with a handful of other adventurers joins them on their trip. This is in March 1954 and the intrepid travellers set off with less back up and forward planning than Ted Simon two decades later. The book is the project of Ian Whitehead, whose sister was Ernest Bell's sister-in-law and inherited the diary.

Hard Way Round differs from other RTW tales in that it was never intended to be published in the first place. Basically it's a diary that Ernest Bell made along the way and as such it can prove frustrating. Ted Simon was a journalist, Ernest Bell was a bus driver doing a trip purely as an adventure so we're lucky that any record remains at all, and as such Hard Way Round is tale that might never have been told. Because of this, the book can be very frustrating. Characters appear and disappear with little explanation at times, and Ernest's female travelling companion seems to turn into a girlfriend with us being none the wiser as to how and when this happened.

There appears to be friction with the Australians with but no real explanation of why. These are just a couple of examples; not a criticism as such but demonstration of how someone else's diary doesn't always tell the whole story. Ernest wrote it for himself and obviously knew the background to the various mysteries that crop up now and again.

The actual trip is pure Ted Simon. Gradually the initial group go their separate ways and the story is of Ernest and his pillion Val. They meet all kinds of people along the way, experience different cultures and enjoy the vagaries of bureaucracy on several continents.

The bike is a Norton Dominator that had 20,000 miles on the clock when it left Blighty, another 26,000 on its return, with no off-road modifications, no Sat Nav and no support truck. Sadly the only major damage the bike suffered was when it was vandalised in New York and so badly bodged by a so-called mechanic that it limped into the docks with only one working gear.

'Adventure' bikes on :

Hard Way Round is very much of it's time and reads like a Boy's Own adventure. Ernest definitely has a touch of the old 'Empire attitude'. Various ethnic groups are described in ways that might offend some and would probably get you arrested if you used them in the street today. Ian Whitehead does warn of this in the foreword. Like Jupiter's Travels, it's a look into a time that has long past.

The sad part about this publication is that there is an excellent 'real book' that will never be written. By its very nature, a lot of very interesting parts are mentioned in a couple of sentences. There are two fascinating human interest stories that Ernest doesn't dwell on, because he's more interested in documenting the actual travelling. Why was Monty Joseph's behaviour, the Australian they left Britain with, so hostile and often bizarre? When did Ernest and Val change from travelling companions to lovers? Sadly Ernest has passed away. I really think a good ghostwriter with Mr Bell's input and memories could have made a best-selling book out his story. As it is, it can be frustrating. We don't hear what Ernest or Val did after the trip and incidents that grab the interest only get a couple of lines.

I really hate to appear overly critical of what is obviously a labour of love but apart from the actual diaries, The Hard Way Round could be a lot better. It's riddled with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors .The 'Forward' (presumably 'foreword') is confusing. It actually appears on the second page and much of it repeats what's written on the first. A lot of Ian Whitehead's input is confusing as well. The notes to Chapter 2 ; 'The Lady Disappears', tell us that 'Val is taken off on a motorbike and sidecar by an unknown German'. The actual content mentions neither a German or a motorbike and sidecar, merely that Val disappears in Belgium and re-appears in Austria a couple of days later. Ernest doesn't explain the circumstances and whether this is Bell's omission or Ian Whitehead's I don't know, but the reader is left in the dark.

The introduction, like the foreword, is confusing and repetitive as well. As I've said I really hate to be harsh but The Hard Way round really could do with the attentions of a knowledgeable Editor. We do however owe a debt of gratitude to Ian Whitehead for telling the tale of what would otherwise have been an untold story that deserves to be told. If I'd been given it as a gift then I'd be happy with it: as a reviewer who's views might just encourage someone to part with their hard-earned money, I have to tell it like it is.

Knowing I was going to be critical of parts of this book I've saved the best until last: the photographs. There are a lot of them and they convey the spirit of the journey perfectly. My favourite is of Ernest crossing a river on his trusty Norton deep enough for the bike to not be visible -- bear in mind this is a 1950s roadbike, not several thousand pounds-worth of BMW factory-fettled enduro. Apart from a few punctures and a change of spark plugs, the bike needed very little maintenance. Only vandalism and subsequent ham-fisted repairs managed to break it.

To sum up, this is a fascinating story but potential buyers need to be aware that they're not buying the kind of thing they'll find in Waterstones. It does need some proper editing but apart from that an excellent read about an amazing trip. A lot of work has gone into The Hard Way Round but it is a flawed gem.

Reviewed by Dave Blendell

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The Hard Way Round is available from ian.whitehead@mypostoffice.co.uk for 8 plus postage.

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