Star Rating: ***
First published in 2005
If you want a laugh-out-loud quick read about a family camping trip this is the book. We follow the adventures of a British family setting off on their annual summer holiday camping exploits in France and from the very beginning you get the sense that the whole trip is for the benefit of one person, Denis. He has what appears to be a love-affair with France, enamoured by everything French and seeing everything through rose-tinted glasses; his long suffering wife and children however, would probably prefer a package holiday trip to Spain. Add to this concoction of followers, friends Eddie, Gloria and her father and you have a recipe for disaster.
All are packed into one people carrier, which in itself sounds horrendous, they all seem in relatively high spirits as they board the ferry to France. Choosing a longer crossing route in order to experience life on a ship; they settle in for an afternoon of cheap booze before crashing into one of the reserved cabin beds. As boredom on the boat kicks in the kids disappear off and so too does the oldest person in the party, Maurice. To begin with no-one questions that he is MIA but as the ship docks it becomes evident that they need to find him fast. Unaware of the concern descending upon his party Maurice saunters around the corner just as the search party is co-ordinating its manoeuvres. Relieved that Maurice has returned unharmed Denis packs everyone back into the people carrier for the first leg of their epic journey.
First stop, was only a short distance from the port. Which considering that they had not only lost Maurice but then subsequently been stuck behind a broken-down vehicle, was probably a good thing. Still turning up as the sun is setting is never something a camper wants especially when they have to erect their own tents. Finding their way to Perhidy after several detours, they drive in and attempt to construction their “canvas boudoir”. Now Denis loves all things French and camping related but truly hates having to put up a tent so leaves this job to his undeterred wife, Maisie, whom he frequently compliments on her ability to do the physical tasks in the family. Add to this the constant moaning of her friend and side-kick Gloria, and Eddie and Maisie soon find themselves constructing two tents whilst the others stand nearby supervising. During this entertaining period it would appear that Maurice has once again avoided being kept on a lease and has slipped away to god knows where. Now for anyone that has ever been to a traditional French campsite there are some elements that take a bit of getting used to; these all tend to revolve around the ablutions house and it is where Maurice has run into trouble. The light switches are on timer and it would appear that he cannot move himself quick enough to be able to use the facilities emblazoned in light but rather everything goes an eerie pitch black before he has time to move across the room. This time it’s Eddie to the rescue and Maurice is returned unharmed to the canvas delights that are now secured for the evening.
Now I have been unfortunate enough to experience some of the more traditional French campsites when I was younger which meant that when I started to read the next chapter I couldn’t help but laugh out loud; the image that came to mind was a mixture of what was being described in the novel and one of my own. Toilets have since progressed somewhat in many areas of France but you may be lucky enough to stumble across a smaller, more remote setting where things are very much still set in the 1960’s. It would appear this family had done just that. With just a hole in the ground we hear about the morning disasters of not being prepared enough. Denis, disappearing off to the ablutions block, happy as Larry, after all he is now on holiday, forgets the vital piece of equipment – the toilet roll: although he doesn’t realise this until it is far too late. To add to this disaster he also picks a toilet with no lock on the door and what follows is a hilarious description of balancing precariously over a hole whilst stopping others from barging in. Hanrahan describes the scene so well you have to wonder whether this is written with personal experience in mind.
Once packed up they hit the road again heading off to spend a few days with friends, camping in their back garden. What could possibly go wrong? Failing to remember that French supermarkets shut at lunchtime means that by the time they arrive at their next destination they are famished and are happy to see the large spread that Monique has set up ready for them. After eating, high in spirits they set up camp not really thinking about where they are pegging the tents which turns out to be a big mistake that they will learn from the following morning.
“The next day the revellers awoke to the awful sound of precipitation on canvas, rain! Rain was what every camper, even the most seasoned, Denis included, hoped at all costs to avoid during any tenting holiday.”
With the rain came the knowledge that where they had pitched their tents was, at one time, a stream that led down to the nearby river. We hear about not only the rain falling heavily into the tents because they forgot to seal the windows the night before but also that elements of clothing are seen floating away with the current of the newly developed stream. You have to wonder at this point whether, if this was you, would you stick it out or would you think twice about staying?
After the downpour, as with any good European weather system, the sun comes out stronger than ever. So what does any self-respecting English family do when the sun comes out? – They head to the beach. For me, what follows is probably the funniest part of the book and therefore I do not want to spoil it for people so all I will say is that it involves two grown men, a rubber dingy, a pair of thong speedos (yes, I am not kidding) and two rescuing police officers. I am sure your mind is now questioning what happened, hence to say, this in itself is reason to read this book. What I will also add is that whilst Maurice is normally the missing individual in this party, on this occasion, it took several hours before either Maisie or Gloria noted that their husbands had been gone for some time and were they ok? When the men do re-appear it is also evident that they have clearly taken no advice on protection from the sun and now look more lobster than pasty.
You would think that this is probably where the English stereotyping ends but that is simply not the case and I soon find myself cringing into the book when I read:
“We are English”.
It sounded more like an announcement than a remark which is often the way that English people abroad tend to address the locals, declaring their nationality as though they should engender a gasp and a deep bow of courtesy to follow”.
So many times I have been sitting quietly enjoying the atmosphere in a café or bar and have heard this happen; as if by declaring that they are English the waiter will automatically stop talking to them in a language that they clearly cannot and will not take the time to understand, and he will begin the whole conversation again in English. After all that is the world language – is it not?
The antics of this disastrous family continues as they move further down south towards the Bordeaux region of France and we hear of the calamities of grown men attempting to fish, children being locked in cupboards during a game of hide and seek and a wine tasting event that ends up with one of them being arrested.
From start to finish you have question what makes this clearly unlucky family want to travel together for such a long period of time. It isn’t all a nightmare though and they do sometimes find themselves eating wonderful meals or enjoying each other’s company but on the whole this is a holiday that, had it happened to most people, they would have packed up and gone home long ago.
Whilst this is not a travel novel in the normal sense of the word, they do take you on a tour of France in a humorous manner and it does make you think about dusting off your camping gear, putting it into the back of the car and heading off for the Channel. This is a funny, quick read that will put you in the mood for booking a holiday but doesn’t necessarily give you any information on where to book that holiday.