After nearly 30 years of living abroad, Britain when I return to it can often seem like a parody of the country I remember. A place designed to service (and sometimes disservice) tourists and with a peculiar obsession for a past distorted by selective memory, nostalgia and sentiment. It doesn't seem quite real, somehow. I know this isn't a fair picture; that I am myself seeing Britain through my own distorting lens (for I only come to Britain nowadays as a tourist), but there it is. That's the Britain I see and, it seems, it's also the Britain Ben Hatch and his family spent five months exploring as they researched the guidebook he and his wife Dinah had been commissioned to write.
"Are We Nearly There Yet?" is not the guidebook (that would be, I'm guessing, "Frommer's England with Your Family (Frommers With Your Family Series)" and "Scotland with Your Family (Frommers With Your Family Series)"). Instead, it's the story behind the guidebook. Ben and Dinah take their two under-fives, Phoebe and Charlie, and drive around Britain. They stay in a different hotel every night and visit tourist attractions day out and day in, testing the hotels and the attractions for child-friendliness (and parent-friendliness). It seems like a mad way to make a living and something only a masochist would choose to do, but it makes for an entertaining story - perhaps most enjoyable for people with experience of young children.
With credits from John Cleese, Terry Wogan, Richard Briers and Tim Brooke-Taylor among others I was expecting a laugh a page; perhaps I should have read the credits more closely. The words "moving" and "touching" occur almost as frequently as "funny". Because the book is not simply an account of the trials and tribulations of guidebook writing, it's also about Ben Hatch's relationship with his father.
David Hatch, a one-time member of the Cambridge Footlights Revue, had a distinguished career in BBC radio behind him before being knighted for his services as chairman of the Parole Board. During the course of Ben's book, David Hatch is diagnosed with a liver cancer that has metastasised, fights it, is brought low by it and ultimately succumbs to it. So interwoven with the story of the sometimes manic, sometimes mundane trip around Britain, we have the thread of Ben's childhood, youth, adulthood, and the push-pull of his father's personality. (And it seems to have been quite an outsize personality.)
I started reading this book expecting it to be entertaining, and an easy, straightforward read. And it is entertaining - in places it's very funny - and it is written in an easy style, but it's not nearly as straightforward as I anticipated, and at one point it reduced me to tears. To be sure, it's more than possible that my reaction to "Are We Nearly There Yet" is coloured by my own relationship with my father and by his death from pancreatic cancer (which followed much the same course as David Hatch's liver cancer). Still, I thought this was a good read, certainly funny (the "draft copy" texts for the guidebook especially amused me), but, yes, equally touching and moving. I would definitely recommend it.
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