Book review: How to Survive Family Holidays by Jack Whitehall (with Hillary and Michael Whitehall)

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

Families are, by and large, rather wonderful things.

They give us a sense of belonging, a place to call home, people who notionally, and often, literally have our back and a vital brick in our identity.

We need our families – but do we, for all those laudable positives, want to holiday with them?

That’s the centra question racing with gloriously humourous intent through UK actor and comedian Jack Whitehall’s book How to Survive Family Holidays, co-written, in a stroke of synergistic genius with his own mother and father Hilary and Michael Whitehall, with whom, you will not be surprised to find out, he has gone on vacation more than once.

Most recently, of course, those holidays have found their way to streaming with the five seasons of Travels With My Father on Netflix showcasing the perils and occasional joys of committing valuable off time from work to journeying with people whom you love but don’t always like.

Whitehall makes it clear that he does love his parents and siblings a great deal in the final chapter but he spends the vast portion of this book, rather fittingly, playing out just how double-edged a sword it is to sketch out an itinerary, jump on a plane/train/Romanian wooden cart (don’t ask) and see where time away from home may take you.

Naturally, you hope it will be somewhere sublimely wonderful, that perfect familial idyll that hovers in our mind’s eyes where mum, dad and the kids wander along in bucolic bliss, happy to be in each other’s company, wholly supportive of what the others’ want and buoyed by a camaraderie that can only come from being with your nearest and dearest.

“If you’re really lucky, you might be forgotten in your room and be left behind altogether, having to survive the nest two weeks on your wits alone, a real-life Home Alone. For some children, the idea of being left behind by their parents is a nightmare; for me it was a fantasy. Many a stressful dash to the airport was spent daydreaming about my family being halfway to France and me being left to my own devices back in Putney …” (P. 5)

Alas, and this is where Whitehall finds fertile ground for How to Survive Family Holidays, real life rarely meets the Hallmark/Disney ideal, prefering to land rather inelegantly, and at times infuriatingly, in the midst of frantic rushes down airport concourses to get flights, squabbles over the meals should be eaten and an obsession with bringing home with you when you should, by all rights, be leaving it far behind.

If anyone can speak with authority and great humour, such that you best not read this somewhere public lest people wonder why it is that you are collapsed laughing – actually on second thoughts, let them stare with bemused scorn; this is a very funny, illuminating book and worth some benign public ridicule – it is Whitehall who has been on frequent trips with his family, both personally and professionally, and who is therefore well placed to make comment on what you should avoid when you holiday with your family.

For starters, your family.

Lest you think that sounds a tad counter-intuitive, the reality is that, as the dust jacket blurb of the book observes, “no amount of sunshine, wine or holiday spirit will stop your worst character traits coming to the surface” especially because you are with the people who, thought they love you, know you best and are primed to know which buttons should be pressed and when.

Jack Whitehall (image courtesy JackWhitehall.com)

It’s not necessarily that they are acting out of deliberate malevolence; all that happens, notes Whitehall, is the very traits that you have, by necessity, learnt to live with and minimise in day-to-day settings suddenly become infuriatingly in your face in a way that no amount of shopping at the souk or swimming at the beach will paper over.

How to Survive Family Holidays naturally has a great deal of fun with these hilarious micro-aggressions, with Whitehall, joined by his mum and dad in key chapters to bring anecdotes to life, all too aware of the comedy gold lying in wait.

The thing is, he notes, that you’re well aware of what could happen on these holidays because you know, better than anyone who you’re travelling with; while Bob or Nancy’s predilection for culturally inappropriate comments make come as a shock on your package tour through the Middle East since you’re all strangers thrown together, you know full well going in, at least if you’re Jack, that your Margaret Thatcher, suit-wearing whatever the conditions, rigidly inflexible father is almost guaranteed to set the holidaying cat among the pigeons.

You are also painfully, if affectionately aware, that your darling mother, normally a paragon of warmth and sanity, will suddenly become a laundering machine in the lead up to a holiday and will manically apply padlock to everything in your home lest thieves, who apparently have the time to scope out your home for days on end, steal your rusty lawnmower from the back shed.

And yet, knowing all this, you persist in holidaying with these people you sometimes reluctantly call family.

“When travelling abroad, it’s important to try new things. Broaden your horizons. I have always been willing to give anything a go, but it has taken a fair bit of trial and error to discover that there are some experiences best given a wide berth. Especially if you are travelling with your parents. It seems silly even to write this, and indeed, reading ti back I wonder what I was thinking in the first place, but top of the list of activities that are best advised with your parents is: naked yoga.” (P. 175)

Fortunately for those of us reading about, and not travelling with the Whitehalls – those as a spectator sport, especially if you had your own room to return to at the end of the day, it would be highly amusing to watch – travelling with your family can be a riot of laugh-out-loud hilarity.

From diarrhoea attacks in the midst of the irradiated zone near Chernobyl to hotels that don’t present themselves as advertised to a wearing reluctance to try new things, holidays can be hit and miss affairs, a dynamic made all the more pronounced when you are the Whitehalls and all kinds of personal and familiar characteristics come into gloriously funny play.

With sage holiday tips, wry observations and rueful understanding that what could go wrong can go wrong, Whitehall takes us through perilous Christmases, chaotic plane boardings with unreserved seating and toilet misunderstandings in Spanish restaurants – that passage, ahem, alone will have you on the floor in a guffawing mess (and yes, I read it on a train and had to fight hard not make a complete spectacle of myself; not sure I succeeded) – in a book that somehow manages to make holidaying with your family not seem like the worst thing you can do.

How to Survive Family Holidays is, for all its hilarious anecdotes and familial honesty, an affirmation of the fact that while they might drive us mad and question our good holidaying judgement, that families are wonderful things and that while we might gripe and moan in the interim, we will miss it when they are gone.

For now, we have a very funny book to read, a tome full of such blinding honesty and rueful comedic perfection that you might be compelled to go on a break with your family just to see where it all may lead … or perhaps maybe just read How to Survive Family Holidays and ponder what might have been?

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