Monday, 9 December 2013

Bill Bryson and Ben Hatch: Bringing Down the Curtain on the 8th Chorleywood Lit Fest

by Catriona Troth

There were so many events I would have liked to have attended at this year’s Chorleywood Lit Fest.  Ranulph Fiennes, David Suchet, Anne de Courcy... I was particularly disappointed to miss Kate Adie talking about her new books, Fighting on the Home Front: The Legacy of Women in World War I.  But that night I was having dinner with my Triskele colleagues, on the eve of our own appearance on the Festival’s Fringe – and hey, an author’s got to do what an author’s got to do.

Once our own event was safely behind us, though, I was delighted to be able to snag tickets for the last two events of the Festival – Ben Hatch talking about his travelogue, The Road to Rouen and Bill Bryson talking about his latest book, One Summer: America 1927.


By coincidence, Ben Hatch had just completed JJ Marsh’s 60 Second Interview for Words with Jam (the second fastest ever respondent!). So I’ll confine myself to saying that he is every bit as funny in person as his books would suggest, and to sharing a handful of Ben’s best travel tips:

The secret of packing a car:

“You have to have all your suitcases identical sizes so they are interchangeable. They have to be squishy – and different colours so you can tell which one is which so you don’t end up inside the hotel with no toothbrush and no pants.”

The definitive argument against bringing too many shoes:

“Because my wife brought so many pairs of shoes, the children couldn’t bring many toys, and that meant they made toys out of ‘found objects’. At one point my daughter started treated her cardigan as a doll.  The cardigan was called Ella and she had to sit in the high chair and ride in the push chair, even if it meant our youngest had to walk.  The low point was at the Wedgewood Visitors’ Centre, when we had a fork out £5 for some clay so Ella could press a shape into it.  It’s one thing to be bossed  around by a four year old, but being bossed around by a four year old’s cardigan was too much. And all because my wife brought too many shoes.”

France or Italy?

“Italy, definitely, because of the way they deal with children.  In France, children are expected to behave like small adults.  We were shushed everywhere.  We were shushed in a museum where the only other person in the whole building was the security guard.  We were shushed by a homeless person on the street! But in Italy they let children be children. They can’t do enough for them.”
So what next for the Hatch family?  Ben is hoping to get a book deal so he can write up this summer’s trip to Italy, and he is in talks with a film company about a film of his first book, Are We Nearly There Yet?
And what about future trips? “I’d like to drive coast to coast across America.  Or maybe the trans-Canada Highway.  Or South Africa. But I guess that will have to wait until the children are a little older.”


I have been a fan of Bill Bryson’s ever since I read the opening chapter of Notes from a Small Island.  As it happens, he came to England from Iowa the same year as I returned from Canada – and his description of the culture shock of arriving in Britain from North America in the 70s brought back floods of memories. (No central heating, pervasive damp, one bar electric fires that smelled of dust and burnt your calves while leaving the rest of you freezing, candlewick bedspreads and half-day closing...) Clearly he was a kindred spirit.
The other reason I was looking forward to the evening was that – as she reminded me – 1927 was the year my mother was born.  “He’s billed it as the year of crooks, murderers and heroes. I want to know which one I am,” she told me.

With characteristic self-deprecation, Bill begins by telling us the story of the only time he has been recognised in the street his own country – only to find it was not a fan, but one of his son’s room-mates.

He then shared some of his favourites from his lifelong collection of unfortunate headlines and bizarre typos that began when, as a baffled American trying to get to grips with the vagaries of British English, he was faced with an article about declining seafood stocks in Cornwall in which every instance of the word ‘crustascean’ had been replaced with the words Crewe Station. This could probably only be topped by the over-zealous political correctness that changed as sentence about ‘Massachusetts accounts back in the black’ to ‘Massachusetts accounts back in the African American.’

Eventually, he is induced, somewhat reluctantly, to talk about his new book. (“When I read a new book, I don’t want to be told about all the best bits beforehand,” he protests.)

He began the book with the coincidence of two events – Charles Lindbergh flying the Atlantic and Babe Ruth, right at the end of his career, hitting 60 home runs in one season for the New York Yankees. He planned to write two parallel biographies that would intersect in the summer of 1927.  But when he began to research the book, he discovered an extraordinary confluence of event in that one summer.  It was the year that the Jazz Singer came out, the year of Al Capone’s downfall and the end of prohibition. The year of the Mississippi Flood and of a now-forgotten school massacre that eclipses Columbine or Sandy Hook.  And so the book changed.

True to his promise not to give too much away, he reads only one extract from the book, about Lindbergh’s landing in Paris at the end of his trans-Atlantic flight. If we think the cult of celebrity began with Beatles-mania in the 1960s, we need to think again. As Bryson vividly demonstrates, when Lindbergh left the coast of Newfoundland and disappeared from contact, the whole world held its breath.  When he reappeared over Ireland and it became clear that he would make it to Paris, crowds began to gather at Le Bourget airport. They stopped the traffic.  They swamped the runway.  They damaged Lindbergh’s plane with the sheer pressure of their bodies and in their enthusiasm, violently assaulted an innocent American bystander who was mistaken for their hero. In comparison, Beliebers are models of decorum and restraint.

But Bryson will not be pinned down.  For the rest of his talk, he tells stories that are drawn from across his range of books – from exactly why the only way he will now be killed by a light aircraft is if one falls on him from the sky, to the best advice on how to avoid bear attacks.

Bryson has now lived in Britain for most of the last forty years.  What, he is asked, does he like best about the British?

“Your humour,” he answers, without hesitation. “When we moved back to the States for a few years, this was what we missed most.  Just the little jokes you make out of everyday life. I found myself making those kind of jokes myself and they would fall completely flat. There was this one time when a neighbour’s tree came down in the night.  I got up to find him sawing it up and loading the pieces onto his car.  It was kind of a bushy tree and bits were hanging down. ‘I see you’re camouflaging your car,’ I said.  He looked really worried. ‘No, no,’ he said. ‘The tree fell down.’”

And what does he like least? He hesitates – clearly reluctant to offend.  Our tendency to complain and the lack of can-do attitude in officialdom, he says at last. His years as Chairman of the Campaign for Rural England have left a few scars.

His favourite place to walk in the UK?  The Yorkshire Dales.  But the British countryside overall is something he is passionate about.  “The most intensively used land imaginable.  You’ve farmed it, mined it, built on it, driven over it.  And yet so much of it is still spectacularly beautiful. That’s an extraordinary achievement and something you should be really proud of.”

The Chorleywood Literary Festival is indeed ‘The Greatest Little Lit Fest You’ve Never Heard Of – Till Now.’ Over the sixteen days from 6th November to 21st November, a total of 2700 people attended the 19 events put on at the 8th Chorleywood Literary Festival.

Chorleywood is only half an hour out of central London. So sign up here to get notice of next year’s Festival. And you needn’t wait another year. Sheryl Shurville and Morag Watkins – the indefatigable owners of Chorleywood Bookshop, put on fabulous author events throughout the year. Join their mailing list to hear all the latest news.

Catriona Troth is the author of the novella, Gift of the Raven and the novel Ghost Town. She is a former researcher turned freelance writer and a proud member of the Triskele Books author collective. Find her on Twitter as @L1bCat and on her blog/webpage at, or on Facebook at Books by Catriona Troth.

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