Friday, 27 January 2012

Book review: Are we nearly there yet? By Ben Hatch. A distillation of human nature in 8,023 miles

Ben Hatch’s idea of working from home was to drive around Britain with his wife and two young children reviewing tourist destinations for a guidebook. It’s the sort of misadventure you have to be insane to attempt and this entertaining book shows that Mr and Mrs Hatch are certifiably mad, but also comfortingly normal.

The definition of a holiday changes for many people when you have young children. In pre-parent life it could involve adventure, partying or extreme relaxation and sunburn. Once you have a mini-me or two there is an added element of survival. Arriving home is viewed with a touch of relief that you’re back to having all those things to hand that makes living with small people that much easier.

The thought of ‘being on holiday’ for five months with two under-fours is enough to frighten most confident parents. Even worse, these mad people rented their house out while they were away so there was no return if it all got too much – which of course it does at times.

There are two surprising aspects to this book. Firstly, that the family adapts surprisingly well. Secondly, the way that the sheer honesty and unforeseen events result in book covering every aspect of human nature. Ben Hatch doesn’t hold back from covering any of the situations ranging from marital problems to professional jealousy and the decline of a terminal ill close relative.

His writing cleverly gives equal screen time to both sides of the marriage when there are arguments or comic moments. He may be the butt of most of the jokes but his wife doesn’t escape (especially with her irrational fear of anything that remotely resembles a tortoise) and there are a multitude of observations of the children that will make all parents nod and smile.

This makes it a heart-warming mix of toe-curling amusement, deep sadness and light-hearted entertainment. If Disney did travel anecdote book films they would want to do this, but they wouldn’t get anywhere close to the true charm of the book – the warts and all reality. However, they would definitely cut a certain scene involving a hapless toothbrush. You’ll have to read the book to experience this little horror.

You can find Are we nearly yet? on Amazon and you can follow Ben Hatch on Twitter here.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The vagabond’s breakfast and life imitating art

When you are working from home you usually carry on regardless when you get ill. Except when you have ‘flu. A helpful definition of ‘flu used to be: If you are walking about complaining about how ill you are you have a nasty cold. If you are splatted on the sofa you have ‘flu.

However when there are two young children in the house you still have to respond in some way to their demands with constant calls of “Dad! Can you be a Ben 10 alien?” Or “Need a wee!”

I was carrying on as best I could, partly helped by the kids’ sudden addiction to Dora the Explorer on the TV. When life was quiet I was reading The vagabond’s breakfast by Richard Gwyn.

This is a true account of the author’s nine years being a vagabond around the Mediterranean, written while he was waiting for a liver transplant. It’s a tale of excess, of exploration, of many unusual friendships and ultimately of paying a price for abusing your body.

Richard Gwyn was an alcoholic, drinking seven bottles of wine a day, yet he still seemed cram a lot of experiences into those nine years. As I read the book I realised that the best times in my life, those times that are recounted to new friends or screeched over with the people who were there, all involved excess alcohol or doing something that broke the rules.

I was reading the book, shivering with fever, and making resolutions to rebel more. Then came the true reality of Gywn’s vagrancy. The desperation, the need for alcohol, the fights and injuries that ended with him contracting hepatitis C – the actual cause of the destruction of his liver. It didn’t seem so appealing now.

Instead I started to become more entranced by the many creepy coincidences he recorded. My favourite example was when he walking out of his house in Cardiff to pick up a stock of bilingual poems from a publishing company he had just created with friends. This company was called Cranc which means crab in both Welsh and Catalan. As he stepped out of his front door a large crab dropped out of the sky and landed on the path in front of him.

Just as I finished the book I started to feel better but suddenly my health deteriorated. Influenced by the book I wondered if I was coming down with pneumonia. I checked the symptoms and yup, I had them all. I ended up seeing a lovely doctor in an out of hours surgery and her verdict was that I had caught ‘flu again and was seriously ill.

Some time later, I’ve lost over a stone in weight and I’ve still got a heavy cold. Gwyn’s book with his philosophy and unexplainable coincidences has made me think in different ways, but it’s hard not to blame it for the second batch of ‘flu. I’m reading A clockwork orange at the moment and I nearly got involved with a supermarket rage incident that is very unlike me so I’m picking my next book very carefully.