In the first part of our epic interview with Charley, TNT discovers he was in cult classic Deliverance, he doesn’t know much Portuguese and he’s an insurance company’s nightmare…
We know you very well from the Long Way Down, and Long Way Round expeditions you did with Ewan. Can I kick off with a big open question about Charley and about you?
About me… Oh my God… I’m a borderline alcoholic and obsessed with motorcycles… Joke!
I suppose a lot of people know me from the Long Way Round with Ewan McGregor, I don’t know if you know who my father is, he’s a guy called John Boorman. He directed films like Deliverance and Excalibur and Hope and Glory. I started off in the film industry as an actor. There were four children and every time Dad made a movie and needed a kid in it, he would say don’t pay for one, I’ve got four who are free! So we used to get thrown into his movies.
I think the first film I was ever in was Deliverance. I wasn’t the banjo player by the way! My Dad said “look if you sit on that sofa with that bloke, I’ll give you a tricycle”. It all sounded a bit dodgy thinking about it, but I really wanted the tricycle! So my acting career started from there. I was terribly dyslexic and still am, I really struggled and my father saw that and was always encouraging about me wanting to be an actor. I found I could express myself better in that way despite having problems trying to learn lines, all that stuff was a nightmare.
As a dyslexic you really need to find people who are really good with dyslexia so that you can learn the tools or tricks of the trade to get you to be able to cope with dyslexia throughout your life.
I was very lucky, when my father was making movies we would all travel with him, when I was about six or seven, we were living in LA and I had a tutor who recognised it [dyslexia], and then I got tested. In Europe they were really far behind, whereas the US was really far ahead and so I got lucky.
I developed a terrible stutter when I started to read. There were all sorts of difficulties when I went along. It certainly wasn’t an easy route. You deal with the cards you are dealt, you just get on with it. I never used it as an excuse for anything. I actually think that as a dyslexic it’s actually a blessing, you think differently from everyone else, and I think that can be very valuable to a business or whatever you apply yourself in. People are taught to think in the same way. I don’t think if it’s natural or by necessity, you just have to find a way to do it and then it becomes interesting because you can see problems in a different way, there are often solutions which other people haven’t thought of as well. It’s always helped me and not stopped me. I’ve had to get more help with things like writing my books, but that’s often been a good way to explore the content in more detail and delve deeper into the situations they describe.
Moving onto your recent book Long Way Back – You’ve been through hell by all accounts! I was gripped to the pages throughout your recovery period. Could you tell us a bit about that day in Portugal and about the journey of recovery that took place after that?
Yeah it’s funny how things change in a heartbeat, you go along and suddenly everything’s changed again. It was one of those stupid yet classic crashes, I’d just left the hotel and was just overtaking a car and she just decided to turn left. The sun was very low and reflecting in the mirrors so both her car and my bike were having the sun reflecting in our eyes – maybe she didn’t quite see me.
I do remember flying through the air and heading towards a big curb and a wall and thinking ‘fuck this is going to hurt’. Everything went into slow motion, and I recall random details like there being paint on the pavement. I remember all sorts of things as I was heading towards it and I hit the ground, I’ve broken all sorts of bones in the past riding motocross, it’s all part and parcel. At some stage you’re going to break something. But I remember hitting the ground and thinking ‘Christ this really hurts’. It was a teeth rattling kind of impact hitting the ground, and then I remember trying to get up and looking at my leg and it was all flip floppy – clearly it was only holding on by muscle and skin.
I thought ‘ohhh’, and sat back down thinking this isn’t going to be good. As the hour or so went by before they put me in the ambulance, the injury just got worse and worse. I remember lying there, and clearly my left leg was broken, and then I kept looking at my hand and it was all swollen and bent. I thought ‘fuck that’s probably broken as well’. I also had a bit of pain in my ankle and I thought that was going to be ok, but it was actually dislocated and broken so it just got worse and worse! I remember lying there and looking at all the Triumph guys and saying to them “Give me ten minutes and I think I can pull myself together and I’ll be ok”. They were looking at me thinking I was some kind of lunatic, as there was all this blood coming out as all the bone had broken through the skin. It was really surreal, lying there and everybody was speaking a different language.
There was this lovely lady (Anne) who had seen me flying through the air and stopped her car and was there for me the whole time I was on the ground and looked after me, I kind of clung to her for support. I then had this terrible pain in my butt cheek, because that’s what I slid along on. They thought I had broken my hips but thankfully they were ok. When I eventually went into theatre I was so relieved to see the anaesthetist because she was able to take all that pain away, and there was so much of it.
When I woke up and they took me to a hospital room, the pain wasn’t really there anymore, but I looked down and both my legs were bandaged and my arm had a mass of bandage on it. The only thing I could really see was functional was my left hand, I thought ‘this really isn’t good’. All the conversations were all so bad, I thought ‘shit, you have to really hang onto the little glimmers of anything positive here’.
My understanding of the language was limited, so I didn’t know what was going on a lot of the time. I remember when I was lying on the road and they crammed something into my crotch and I’m thinking what the fuck are they doing, and then they’re shouting at me, and I was looking and thinking what are you talking about, and then they grabbed my leg and yanked it, as they had to put it straight into a splint.
Part of me thinks thank God I didn’t understand what they were trying to tell me. They were telling me they were about to pull my leg and it was going to be really painful.
I was in Portugal for a week and then they flew me back. They had done a lot of work to my left leg, and they had stabilised my right ankle and my hand and they were going to finish me up back in the UK.
My wife Ollie had come to Portugal the day after the accident to see me and she really helped because I wasn’t really in any state to do much and it was really difficult to get the flight back sorted and get into a hospital back in the UK. We had to be kind of sponsored to get into a hospital but they had to re-assess everything in London, so finally we managed to get into the Chelsea and Westminster, thanks to Ollie’s persistence and it all started from there. Trying to work out what to do with my legs, it was a nightmare.
It really came across in the book the severity of the situation and I really felt your tension and frustration of being bedridden, which must have been torturous for someone who thrives on adventure and travel. What did you do to get through that time and retain some sanity?
I spent over a month, perhaps nearly six weeks in hospital I can’t really remember now, my wife said it’s a bit like child birth, the really painful bits you forget; “Yeah I’ll get pregnant again, it wasn’t that bad”. Now I’m like yeah I’ll get on a bike because it wasn’t that bad (laughs). I was so banged up in the first few weeks I struggled to concentrate much anyway I was on a lot of morphine which I wasn’t that keen on, so I got off that quite quickly, it gave me really weird dreams and wasn’t very nice.
The first few weeks I slept a lot and there was so much being said about all the different limbs and so many operations. It was mayhem getting through all the different procedures. When I finally got home, my wife had cleared out one of the sofas in the conservatory and we put a bed in there. Luckily and just by chance or I don’t know if it was fate or whatever, but just before I left for Portugal I bought this really big TV (laughs), it was this monster of a thing! I said to Ollie this is perfect timing I’m going to be able to sit here and watch telly. The night times were particularly bad, I would lie there awake after everyone else had gone to bed and watch a film or whatever, but my mind would play tricks on me and I remember making up all these scenarios about my leg not fixing and I would finally nod off and wake up realising what a nonsense I was thinking. You just can’t stop your mind whirring.
I guess at that point there was a lot of uncertainty of how things were going to pan out?
(Laughing) Yeah loads of it, and there was mention of my leg being cut off due to infection. It wasn’t a prominent possibility – it was in the background, but certainly hanging around. You just think God! How am I going to get back on a bike with half a leg!
After that it was all stuff like moving from using a bedpan, to moving onto a commode and progressing to using a proper toilet. Then there was trying to get to Doctors appointments with Doctors without wheelchair access, and having to physically drag myself up flights of stairs on my arse.
Suddenly you realise by spending months and months stuck in a wheelchair you realise how unprepared England is for people in wheelchairs. You know it’s difficult, but I never realised how bad it was until I experienced it.
Then there’s the way people talk to you. They talk to you as if you’re in the third person. My wife would push me down to the local cafe to have a coffee, and people would come up to Ollie and say “So how’s Charley” (laughing) and I’m sitting in the wheelchair and I’m going I’m fucking here OK. They would say “OHHH….HEE..LL…OO..CHAR…LEY…HOW… ARE… YOU? in the most condescending way. I’m not a fucking kid, I’ve just got a broken leg! Some people would come up to you and go “So that’s it then? The wheelchair?” It was an interesting time.
In the book, there were incidents that I really liked, which resonated your rebellious streak, when you actually managed to escape in a car at one point but was unable to return back to the parking space to get your wheelchair which was left on the street.
Yeah there was no parking spot, and then I had no phone! I hadn’t planned anything past the fact that I thought I could get in the car. I had to wait until someone I knew came down the road who could help me. The other one that made me laugh was when I had finally managed to get myself onto the toilet. We have this toilet under the stairs with these two little steps down into it, it’s pretty small. I could shuffle myself onto the steps from my wheelchair and then hoik myself onto the toilet. The first time I did it I missed it and I managed to get myself wedged between the toilet and the wall on the floor. I was crumpled up there with this big metal cage around my leg with pins in it. I was totally stuck and thinking, ‘shit! how am I going to get out of this’. Just as I was thinking that, my daughter walked past, looked at me and said “What the fuck are you doing Dad?” I said “I don’t know, I’m a bit stuck I don’t know how I’m going to get out” (laughing). Oh man, that was funny looking back at it.
What does the future look like now? Are you back up to full health yet?
I had to go and have another operation as my leg wasn’t healing when they took the cage off. Every time I put a sock on you could see my shin bending, it was really weird. So they had to put a nail all the way through the shin from the knee to the ankle, through the middle and bolt it all in. Since then I’ve been able to start walking again. I managed to get back on a bike in January, I was really determined to get back on a bike. It’s still slightly broken, it’s still taking a lot of time for the shin to heal.
There’s not a full recovery yet, but it’s heading the right way. I reckon by August I’ll be almost back to 80% health. I’ve got a motorcycle tour in Africa with a bunch of riders and some big projects with Triumph and the books coming out, so there’s lots going on, so fingers crossed. But things just change in a heartbeat for some many people and there are people who have it much worse than me. Broken legs compared to some people’s problems are small!
There are some huge moments in life, and if it wasn’t for my friends ruthlessly taking the piss out of me all the time I would never have survived. Every time I try to mention my leg, they say “Fucking hell Charley, not again you always try to bring you leg into the conversation.”
Such an attention seeker!
Yeah such an attention seeker! (laughs)
Portugal wasn’t the first time you’d fucked yourself up pretty badly on a bike. The Dakar Rally was clearly another significant event. Can you tell us about Dakar?
Yeah the Dakar Rally, one of the toughest races in the world, one of the most dangerous races too. Especially on motorbikes! An incredible event over 16 days. A huge challenge, and I’d spent a year and a half preparing for it and getting the TV show together. The bummer part of it all was I was actually riding well, I was about 80th out of around 220 riders. I then just made a silly mistake, I came into an old river bed, with quite a steep entrance. I just clipped a rock under some sand, and went down heavy. I was only doing about 15-20kmph and I broke my hands. I was lying there stuck under the bike, I couldn’t push the bike off me, and I was on the piste and all the bikes, cars and trucks come at the same time.
The trucks come through at a fair old whack and I was thinking the next vehicle could be a car or a truck and they just won’t see me and I’m right on the racing line. Luckily the bike that came up after me, saw me and left his bike at the top of the river bed to warn others and then came down and helped me. I got back on the bike, but my hands hurt quite a lot and I could tell there was something not right with my right hand. When I finally got back on the bike and started riding a bit, I noticed that my left thumb was flopping around and thought ‘shit that’s not good’! I had to bang it back into place because it was just flopping around. I thought I would just get to the end of the day and there are loads of doctors and nurses to help. I thought I could just get back and they would give me an injection or something and I would be able to crack on again. I was so wrong!
You did well to ride out at all!
Yeah I did well or was just stupid because they were like balloons by the time I got to the end of the day. I remember the French Doctor saying (insert French accent) “Charley, your hand is broken and the Dakar is finished, and I’m not even sure if you’re going to be able to wipe your own arse!” (laughs) Oh god, moments in life! They are all quite funny when you look back, but at the time they were just horrific! You really do think in the despair of the moment.
I guess you’re going to be a bit of a red flag to sponsors when they do a risk assessment on you.
(Laughs) Yeah I dread to think what my insurance will be like.
Let’s hope they don’t read the book!