Getting to Know You: Ben Hatch

I’d like to welcome author Ben Hatch to the blog today. As you’ll have seen, I recently read his book ‘Are We Nearly There Yet?’ and loved it, so it’s a real pleasure to have him chat to me today.

Your latest book ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ is a humorous account of you and your family on an 8000 mile trip around Britain.  Did it pan out the way you expected?

My wife Dinah’s a travel journalist and we heard about this job – writing a
guidebook about family friendly attractions in Britain. It sounded great, a doddle. We’d go to zoos for months, eat nobbly-bobblies at safari parks and castles. I imagined us boating on Lake Windermere, the kids visiting so many galleries and museums they’d end up chairman of the Arts Council or something. I realised it wasn’t going to be what I imagined when I lost the key to the roof-box containing my one-year-old son Charlie’s nappy changing stuff on the first day. We changed him on a bench outside Eastnor castle in the rain using nothing but a KFC Lemon-fresh wipes Dinah found at the bottom of her handbag.

Which events did you find most stressful and fun?

There was a nature wee in a field of live ordnance near Otterburn in the North-east. Nice sign there that read: “Warning: this may explode and kill you.” I spent two days in a renal ward at St James Hospital in Leeds after developing a
kidney stone that my wife misdiagnosed as trapped wind, as in, “Oh for God’s
sake stop moaning, Ben – just lie on your back and cycling in the air.” We wrote the car off in Wales, opened a car window in the tiger enclosure of Windsor safari park and the driving got so bad at point crossing the Pennines my daughter did the toddler equivalent of self-harming with razors. She drew all over her face and arms with black felt-tip pen. It was so stressful my wife and I even managed to have a massive argument about which type of owl was best –
tawny or barn.

We had the most  fun leaving places, singing along together in the car at the tops of our voices with the windows down as we pulled away. That used to give me goose-bumps. We always felt in these moments like we were the best family in the world. Maybe I’d have a clean shirt on my back, and there was always this optimism. Today was going to be the best day of the trip. Today we wouldn’t get lost. Today nobody was going to wet themselves, be frightened of Victorian wax mannequins and, for once, my wife might go a whole day without being led hyperventilating away from a tortoise enclosure. (She has a tortoise phobia).

You live in Brighton with your wife and two kids.  You’ve travelled to many destinations, why Brighton?

As a kid I spent every summer in Devon. Living in Brighton means I still get woken by seagulls and can smell the sea. Brighton’s also half crazy with its right on liberalism, which I love. You practically have to have an allergy to live here, for instance. It’s the law. I just about get by with a mild gluten intolerance. Anything less than that though and you’re forced to relocate to Worthing.

I understand you once lived in a windmill in Buckinghamshire…..?

Yeah, I got called Windy Miller in school . “Give us a wave, Windy.” “Where’s your blue smock and belted hat?” “Don’t forget to duck when the sails go round,
Windy.” One person used to pretend I lived in a lighthouse. They thought that
would massively annoy me like there’s some terrible kind of tall-abode rivalry
going on between windmill dwellers and residents of lighthouses. Actually there
is. Everyone who lives in a lighthouse is a tit.

How did you establish your writing career? 

I didn’t. I was working as a reporter on the Leicester Mercury when my mum died. I wanted to do something to make her proud of me. I took a year off to write a novel. I very serious about it. I became like a wild animal. I never went out. I just sat at the screen wearing out keyboards, typing. When I finished ‘The Lawnmower Celebrity’ my girlfriend sent it off to agents while I went off back-packing. I went backpacking assuming it’d get rejected. I wanted to be on a beach when I heard the bad news. The rejections piled in and I was in a bar in Thailand four month’s later, worried about what was going to happen next, when I heard an agent wanted me to sign. I landed a two book deal. It was great. My next novel was ‘The International Gooseberry’.

My dream was complete. So then I cocked it up. I completed my two book
deal then thought, I know I’ll write a book out of contract. That way nobody
will harry me. I’ll make it perfect, the greatest novel ever written. It took
seven years to write this novel. By the time I submitted it to the publisher
nobody knew who I was anymore. They’d all left. “Sorry, who are you? What book?”

Who do you think your ideal reader is for your travel work, and are they the same for your fiction?

My ideal reader likes cheese, enjoys cinema and puddings without a biscuit base.
I’ve no idea what my ideal reader is. Anyone who enjoys comic writing maybe.

What has been your most negative experience, whilst travelling?

I caught bronchiole pneumonia and spent 10 days in a remote Italian hospital on a drip. I didn’t speak any Italian. Nobody there spoke any English. I had a very limited Collins phrase book. To explain what I had the consultant pointed to the closest description he could find: Lung cancer. For several days I thought I was dying.

What is the most hazardous situation you have found yourself in, whilst

I was almost murdered in Santa Monica whilst backpacking when I accidentally went back to the mansion of a rich psychopath. Well, I think that’s almost happened. What happened was this. I went a club and met three rich Americans. One of them claimed he was the heir to the Campbell Soup fortune. He wasn’t. But I was drunk at the time and impressed. I like soup. They brought me drinks and they invited me to this party. I discovered I was only the guest shortly before I stumbled across the video camera they’d set up in the garage on a tripod pointing to a dog rug. They tried to get me stoned and then tried to bait me into this garage. In the end I threw myself on the mercy of this tall Indian looking guy, who called me a cab when the psycho guy was in the bathroom. When the cab hooted he told me to run for it. I did. As I got into the cab two Dobermans leapt on the bonnet and slavered all over the windscreen. I should probably have reported it to the police.

What has been your most positive experience, whilst travelling?

Driving 500 miles from Mumbai to Goa in a jeep driven by a 15-year-old boy
shortly after September 11. It was my stag weekend and we’d miscalculated the
distance. It looked tiny on the map. We had to sleep in the jeep one night and took so long getting there by the time we arrived in Goa we had to drive straight back to meet our return flights. The boy driving called himself Mr Chocolate and had no driver’s license. He kept shouting Bin Laden at us. We retaliated by shouting Blair at him. He overtook on blind bends after exciting himself chewing betel nut. There was Hindi music playing so loud it almost burst your eardrums. I counted 15 emergency stops. We passed overturned buses, burnt out cars, police administering roadside beatings, women carrying more on their heads than you could get in a pick up truck, and we almost died 100 times. But it was the most incredible travel experience. I was there with my mates and my brother, the spectacular scenery changed every hour and it felt like anything could happen.

Do you or your family have any phobias that have to be faced while on
the road?

My son has a phobia for wax mannequins (particularly Victorian ones. He really hates the Victorians) that means he fastens himself to my leg like a shin pad every time he sees one in a museum.  My wife though, as I said before, has a very debilitating dread of tortoises and all things that look like tortoises including turtles. At risky attractions I’m required to rove ahead and check out enclosures. I then shepherd her past any offending creatures holding a brochure to her face on the side deemed the “tortoisey one”.

What are your main concerns when travelling with your children?

In caves complexes such as Wookey Hole I worry frequently that they will run off down some  narrow pitch black warren of passages and end up lost in the underground complex forever where they’ll  grow up blind and white skinned like glow worms.

Who was/is your greatest influence in writing, and why?

JD Salinger. I was 16, had never read a book that didn’t involve somebody getting shot or a character wearing a bustle, when my dad gave me ‘Catcher
in the Rye’. Wow, what a book! It made me realise there was something between Jane Austen and Robert Ludlum. I reread it every few years and it always seems as fresh as ever.

Thanks for speaking to me today, Ben. I loved the book.

Vic x


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