Road to Rouen is Ben Hatch’s account of his time attempting to write a guidebook about France. Fleeing an emasculating and fraudulent incident with builders he takes his wife and two kids on a Master Planned journey around France. Interspersed with copy from the guidebook the book is actually about the journey the family takes and how the close confines of travel throw the spotlight on their faults and tensions. Tightly but simply written Hatch confidently conveys the act of trying to sell the book to publishers; the highlights and lowlights of the trip and the frictions this creates between him, his wife and his family. Most importantly to me though the book is highly and successfully evocative.
It’s evocative because I am the exact demographic that’ll enjoy this type of book. While not as well off as Hatch’s family (although whether they are well off is arguable, a lot of their activities, while posh, are comped as part of their journalistic activities) I spent a considerable portion of my childhood getting driven around France and mainland Europe from campsite to campsite, sat upon rolled up sleeping bags with feet resting on ten Franc bottles of wine. I’ve vivid memories of being too poor to take the tolls so having thirty hour trip to Italy (I ate a push pop ice cream in a service station). I remember my Mum leaning out the window to feed the toll machines and sleeping on the floor in the ferry canteen because we couldn’t afford a cabin. I remember the food, the cheeses, the wines, the mornings cycling to the campsite’s boulangerie to test my French. I remember the friends of multiple nationalities I met at the pool side. Most of all I remember how it felt compared to being at home. At home my friend’s may have ridiculed me for not having nice things or enough pocket money but abroad that mattered less. It was sunny, I could swim, I could read and there was a whole world of people and things to see.
This all ties back into a debate that it is going on at the moment in the British media. Whether travel companies make too much money by hiking prices during school holidays and whether or not parents should be punished for taking their kids on holiday during term time. It’s a debate that stirs passions on both sides. But it’s too often framed as a debate effecting only the rich and well off of the South-East. It should not be that. My parents had to save up tokens from the hated Sunday newspapers for a cheaper ferry ride and they took me away outside of term time. But from that I’ve memories and experiences that are so much less suffocating than those of school life. I’ve volunteered on holiday camps for less well off kids. I know the value that a holiday can provide. It gives us respite from our existence, it convinces us of the validity of our futures.
This book seems to me to highlight correctly the value of travel. It may cause you to argue over the map with your significant other, to storm off in a sunburnt, wine induced fury but it is worth it for the moments that with time and distance become memories. The book successfully caused me to reflect on my holiday experiences with my parents and how they felt about them. I assume the trials and tribulations that Hatch writes about were much like how my parents viewed their travels back then and maybe the highlights were similar. The idiosyncracies of a family’s packing arrangements, the glass of wine and the view of a vineyard at the end of a day, the old Breton men teaching your kids how to eat mussels without dirtying your hands, they’re all memories and moments worth savouring.
So buy the book if you’ve travelled, buy the book if you’re travelling, buy it if it’s a rainy day and you want to laugh and daydream of sunnier climes and times.