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17th April 2009

Way to Go, by Geoff Hill
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Two of the world's great motorcycle journeys involve riding an Enfield Bullet from India to Belfast and a Harley-Davidson down Route 66. Dave Blendell enjoyed this entertaining tale... Way to Go - From Amazon

Way To Go is a book of two distinct parts. Unlike another well-known book produced in a similar format, it's thankfully not written in Old English, is somewhat shorter and is safe to review critically without risking eternal damnation... which is nice.

Geoff Hill is a well-known serial award-winning Irish travel journalist. He's had his work published in several of the more serious English papers as well as being the Features Editor of Northern Ireland's The News Letter, one of the oldest-established English Newspapers in the world. Indeed, Way To Go does often read as a series of newspaper articles stitched together to make a book as it moves from anecdote to anecdote, which is how Hill first told his story to the general public.

This could have made it a scrappy mess, but Hill is professional enough to pull it off. The book is a delight to read, not least because the author doesn't appear to take much in life too seriously and much of it is either laugh-out-loud funny … or sometimes groan-out-loud at some of the awful puns. Hill is no Ted Simon, but he doesn't pretend to be. He does however share Mr Simon's apparent horror at having to pay for anything himself. I'm as impressed with both authors' ability to blag free bikes, equipment, bike repairs, etc as I am with their tales of long distance bike travel.

The first part of Geoff Hill's book tells of how he and a mate bought a brace of Royal Enfield Bullet 500s from India and rode them back to Belfast, with sponsorship from a tea company paying for both machines. Before setting off, Hill had travelled roughly 30 miles on two wheels, and your Granny probably knows more about bikes than he did when he set off on his journey.

The entire trip only takes 133 pages, so rather than a detailed travelogue or an epic adventure motorcycling tale it's a light read that manages to balance interesting descriptions of some of the more exotic sights along the way, with a broader view of life in those countries the intrepid duo pass through and enough 'bike' stuff to keep enthusiasts interested. All this with a liberal sprinkling of jokes and banter throughout.

The Enfields come out of the whole thing quite well. Hill describes the exhaust note as 'like a hippo farting underwater', though how he knows what one of those sounds like he doesn't tell us. Things come loose, bits fall off, but both bikes make it the 7000 miles home, although Hill's companion, Patrick Minne, suffers a breakdown 200 yards before the finishing line in front of crowds of people and several TV cameras … so both bikes finished their journeys being pushed by their riders.

Incidentally, the fault was found to have been a bit of foil stuck where a fuse was supposed to be, and the only place that could have happened was before the bikes were picked up in India. Now that's scary!

Hill sums up the Enfield 500 with 'Indian economics meant that the solid construction of the original British Enfield had evolved into parts apparently made from old cutlery and tinfoil…'

Part 2 starts with Geoff Hill now having got the biking travel bug. He decides to travel Route 66 on a Harley; the biking equivalent of going to Disneyland in Florida. There are even 'Route 66 Cruisers welcome' signs outside stores along the way, and I don't think the trip would faze most readers of this review with the will, the free spirit and the credit card limit to pay for it. Happily, Geoff Hill's writing style throws a different light on a trip that every glossy bike mag has done to death, along with 'riding an Enfield in the Himalayas', trips that coincidentally are advertised in those same magazines. Me, cynical?

Once again our hero blags some motorcycling fun at someone else's expense. On this occasion Harley-Davidson lend him a machine, despite him dropping one loaned (by now we're getting the impression that Mr Hill's arms don't reach as far as his pockets) by a dealer in Northern Ireland previously.

Way to Go, by Geoff Hill - From Amazon

The second run is written up differently to the Enfield trip. I suspect that it was always intended to find its way into a book, as opposed to the first part, which was apparently culled from a series of newspaper columns. It's more of a travelogue; the anecdotes are less personal and more about the various quirky stories thrown up by places along the route. Like Ted Simon's 'Dreaming of Jupiter', it's very much a tale of what has gone as much as what Hill finds along the way. He describes the places in his guidebook that have disappeared completely or been boarded up, the characters he was looking forward to meeting who had moved on or died.

Harleys on eBay.co.uk

The bike doesn't feature much, mainly because it just does what it's meant to do, so what's to say? Maybe somewhere this part of the book is missing something. In the first part and in the books of Ted Simon and others the bikes are out of the comfort zone, and there is a story in how they shape up; riding a Harley down an American highway, no matter how long, should be uneventful machine-wise, and that's how it proves to be. The second tale is as much Bill Bryson territory as a biking book. At least it would if Mr Bryson also had an imaginary rabbit as a friend (Hill's humour verges on the surreal).

Apart from learning that the Harley sounds like 'a pair of flatulent elephants making love underwater', we learn very little else about it, though once again we wonder exactly what Mr Hill gets up to, to be able to share this sort of information.

I enjoyed the book very much, but reading it in one hit confused me a little. Each part is written in a totally different style. Not everyone reads books cover to cover in one hit though, and for most this won't be an issue. Geoff Hill is a funny guy, be it the slapstick of the first part or the more sardonic humour of the second there's plenty to laugh at.

Reviewed by Dave Blendell

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Way to Go: Two of the World's Great Motorcycle Journeys by Geoff Hill

  • Published by Blackstaff Press, ISBN 978-0856407659
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