‘Only a man can pack a boot.’
That’s one of the early lines from Ben Hatch’s Are We Nearly There Yet? and it sets the scene for what turns out to be a side-splittingly funny 8000 mile journey around the UK’s ‘family-centred attractions’, undertaken by Ben Hatch, his wife Dinah and their two young children, Phoebe and Charlie.
‘We have a natural feel for space,’ Ben goes on, speaking proudly of his sex and how they are programmed by evolution to know exactly how many packs of Pampers will fit in the gap behind the wheel arch. Sadly, having packed the boot in alpha-male fashion, it turns out he’s forgotten the double-buggy and the big green suitcase...
The six-month trip is Ben’s research for a book commissioned by Frommers – a guidebook on family-friendly attractions in Britain. Hotels are providing them with one-night stays in return for a possible, not necessarily complimentary, write-up. The journey is carefully thought-out (reminding me of Paul’s Simon’s ‘Every stop is neatly planned’ line from Homeward Bound, and indeed the family end up singing that song at the end of the trip as they re-enter Brighton and real life). But first...
I love funny books but they rarely make me laugh out loud and I suspect this is true of most people, in spite of what they write in reviews. But this one really, truly did. It’s difficult to pick out particular incidents because there are so many – the book is jammed with them, and that’s a deliberate pun on the state of the Hatches’ car and, very often, the roads they drove along. But yes – this book was one of the funniest I've read for a long time. I simply have to mention the agency who required them, before they let their home, to provide egg cups in the precise ration of 0.75 to 1, together with jelly moulds, tea cosies and non-slip bathmats. And the liveried porter at an expensive hotel, who carried their plastic Tesco carrier bags ‘with an embarrassing degree of reverence’. And Ben’s wife’s Dinah’s fear of tortoises and turtles, which necessitates phoning ahead to zoos etc to check that no such creatures will be appearing in talks, and precipitates the reaction at one point: ‘You bastard. You said they were hibernating.’
As someone who is afraid of the little plastic tags that attach price labels to clothing, all my sympathies are with Dinah here, as they are with her dread of ‘merging’ onto motorways, especially with a nagging/cajoling husband at her side.
And anyone who has travelled with small children will recognise the way the car starts to smell vile as a result of decaying food in various inaccessible places, not to mention the inevitable vomit episodes. And – another side-splitter – the spreading of butter with the sharpened end of a carrot because they forgot the knife. Oh yes, we’ve been there, but we’ve never heard it told so well.
The children steal the show, of course, as is only right. Toddler Charlie, when he gets hungry, finds other children of similar height to himself and scratches them in the face. Actually, quoting just this one thing about Charlie makes him sound like a little terror, but believe me, he’s not. Well, not all the time. He’s charming too, as is big sister Phoebe, who draws maimed rabbits (‘What happened to its leg, Phoebe?’ ‘Bitten off.’) after watching a DVD of Watership Down. And the family’s quest to buy her a toy rabbit for her birthday that meets her exact specifications (not only pink, fluffy and making the required noises but, trickiest of all, ‘medium sized’) proves at least as challenging as Frodo and Sam’s trip to Mordor. Though funnier, it has to be said.
Not all is humour. The story is woven through with the deterioration in Ben’s father’s health and his eventual death from cancer of the liver. It’s movingly told, with what comes across as deep honesty and enhanced by many wonderful tales of Ben’s own childhood and his delightful, though at times rather competitive, Dad. David Hatch, we discover, was controller of Radio 4 (yeah!) and responsible for Week Ending, Just a Minute (which would have been taken off after one series if Mr Hatch hadn't threatened to resign) and The News Quiz. He was a member of the Cambridge Footlights and in the 60s took part in Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, alongside John Cleese and other soon-to-be big names in comedy. It all makes perfect sense – now I know where Ben’s sharp and quirky but ultimately ‘humane’ sense of humour comes from, or one root of it, at least.
Another Phoebe thing – or rather her father’s wonderful way of describing it. This is in Blackpool. ‘She wants to go on everything, even things that aren’t things to go on.’ Yes!
This guy has captured parenting. He outsmarts Outnumbered, and that’s saying quite a lot. Please, someone, give him his own comedy series to write, quick.
Ostrich World – an attraction somewhere in Britain (the Hatches cover a lot of ground) – is, says Ben, like calling their own car ‘Banana Skin World’ because there happen to be a couple of banana skins lurking in the depths of it.
And the snooty swans on Windermere who refuse supermarket sliced bread because they’ve come to expect something better – focaccia or almond sourdough, perhaps – from their usual well-heeled visitors.
The image of the poo-streaked bat in the loo may, I fear, remain with me for life. As will the story of the 900 year-old castle and its 'settling ghost'.
There are troubling moments, too. Ben visits his father at intervals and is shocked by the rate of his decline. The family Vauxhall Astra is involved in a nasty accident and they almost give up the trip – it’s Ben’s father who insists they carry on. Ben ends up in Jimmy’s hospital in Leeds with a very nasty toothbrush-induced condition to a private region, which perhaps shouldn't be funny but is. Finally, after many months in this strange, slightly surreal alternative Britain, peopled by kind strangers and (in some cases) rulebound hotel staff, they roll home to Brighton, singing their own words to the aforementioned Paul Simon song and are shocked to discover that the pensioners they believed were renting their house have trashed it. (Stains, not only on the tea cosies but on the bedroom floor...)
Several years ago I read a novel called The Lawnmower Celebrity. I remembered the book, which was funny, poignant and original, but forgot the author’s name. So I was surprised to discover, on searching for more writing by Ben Hatch, that he was the author of that book and another novel, The International Gooseberry, which I haven't yet read but very soon will. He had spent the intervening years looking after his children while his wife went out to work, and was the first one to be bitten by his children’s emerging teeth. Hurray for Ben, and well done to his wonderful family for not only surviving this trip but for making it available to the rest of us. I finished the book with one predominant feeling – if I ever get the chance to be reborn, I'd like Ben and Dinah Hatch to be my parents, please, or a couple very like them. Not saying I don't love and appreciate my own parents, but I can't imagine a better start in life. They are funny, at times ridiculous, quirky (yes, I already used that word but it deserves a second outing), sensitive, honest and kind.
Can’t wait for the next one – there’s a hint at the end that they may be going to France...