Voyage of the dad: Comedian Jack Whitehall and his father Michael make unlikely travelling companions — but they turn out to be a first-class combination
HOW TO SURVIVE FAMILY HOLIDAYS
by Jack Whitehall with Hilary and Michael Whitehall (Sphere £18.99, 288 pp)
Winter is coming, the nights are drawing in and, as seasonal as swallows flying south, the celebrity autobiographies are piling up in bookshops. Most will have been written during lockdown, when there wasn’t anything else to do. Quite a few will be terrible.
Jack Whitehall’s disguised autobiography is, I’m relieved to say, rather better than that.
It’s a book about gruesome family holidays, of which he appears to have experienced more than his fair share. Fair-minded as ever, though, he has given right to reply to his mother Hilary and father Michael, who were also there, in the familiar back-up role of parents.
Jack Whitehall reveals a selection of gruesome family holidays in a new book, which comes after five series of Netflix’s Travels With My Father (pictured)
If the book reads like an incredibly long stand-up routine, that’s probably to be expected. But the surprise is that Jack’s parents give as good as they get, and given just how much they get, for the sin of embarrassing Jack serially over several decades, that’s pretty good. It’s at times a screamingly funny book.
Michael is, of course, best known as Jack’s travelling companion on five series of Netflix’s Travels With My Father. He’s grumpy, he hates foreigners (and foreign food) and wears a suit and a tie even when it’s 90 degrees in the shade. For many years he was a theatrical agent and latterly a producer, and his clients included Daniel Day-Lewis, Edward Fox, Judi Dench and Colin Firth.
But father and son are, on the surface at least, very different types of men. Take the packing of suitcases beforehand. Jack says he has ‘always packed with the haste of an adulterer who’s heard the crunch of a husband’s footsteps on the gravel drive’, whereas his father ‘packs like a 19th-century viceroy heading off to the Raj for a couple of years’.
When his mother packs for them, when they are heading off to make one of their travel films, she packs ‘medicines for every eventuality, including bug repellents, painkillers, indigestion remedies for when I force my father off-piste menu-wise and anti-chafing cream.
‘I don’t care how desperate Daddy gets, I’m not applying that!’ says Jack.
But it’s not just far-flung lands you need to be medically prepared for. Even a hop across the channel can be fraught with danger. ‘My father’s stomach kicking off in the Cote d’Azur was no laughing matter. What fun it was to watch a French doctor attempt to explain to him in broken English what suppository medication entailed.
Jack characterises his dad (pictured) as an old moaner and humbug, while his mother Hilary is a less dominant presence in his book
‘He then spent the rest of the trip pondering out loud why the French were so obsessed with putting medicine up their bottoms, concluding that it was probably to keep their mouths free for smoking.’
Jack characterises his poor dad as an old moaner and humbug, and then launches on a Michael-like diatribe about the bum bag, or fanny pack, as the Americans slightly disconcertingly call it. ‘Not only is it visually offensive, it is also an excuse for parents to say the word “fanny” in front of their children with a wanton disregard for how traumatising that might be . . .’
Mother Hilary is a less dominant presence in the book, but she has some pertinent contributions to make.
Towards the end of the book she offers her ‘Top Ten Mothers’ Travel Dos and Don’ts’, with, at number four, do take carrier bags everywhere.
HOW TO SURVIVE FAMILY HOLIDAYS by Jack Whitehall with Hilary and Michael Whitehall (Sphere £18.99, 288 pp)
‘Never embark on any motorway trip without being fully prepared for a child acquainting you with the contents of their guts. They use long-distance driving as a natural emetic, similar to the way cats eat grass.’
One time, she explains, she had forgotten the plastic bag, and the only thing she could think to use as her daughter began to retch was her own hands. ‘I had the unenviable task of cradling her vomit, while trying to prevent the dog from eating it.’
How the three of them manage to keep this going for nearly 300 pages slightly beggars belief, but they do, without hesitation, deviation or repetition.
I have read a few so-called books of ‘funny anecdotage’ which have felt as though lilies of all types were being gilded, so that in the end, you didn’t believe a word. Not this one.
What undoubtedly helps is some photos of family holidays, many of them featuring father Michael wearing some of his extraordinary collection of unsuitable shorts.
Jack believes that after a certain age men shouldn’t be allowed to wear shorts by law, and having seen these, I would be inclined to agree. It’s a spendidly effervescent and enjoyable book.