The P45 Diaries by Ben Hatch

Cover of The P45 Diaries by Ben HatchPeppered with the laugh-out-loud, slightly anti-establishment humour and characterised by the easy prose that will be familiar to those who have read Ben Hatch’s memoirs of travels with his wife and children, this novel is not as different from those books as might be expected. As I noted in my reviews of “Road to Rouen” and “Are We Nearly There Yet?”, those books also have at their heart important themes of family relationships, love and loss, lurking beneath observational humour and banter.

The P45 Diaries (a much better title, incidentally, than that of the earlier edition of this book, The Lawnmower Celebrity) starts out in Adrian-Mole or Mr Pooter tradition as the diary of Jay, an 18 year old middle-class son of an important BBC TV executive. It’s soon clear that this is not going to be pure comedy when it’s revealed that his lovely mum has recently died relatively young of cancer. Despite her careful preparation of the rest of the family for coping with out her, e.g. lessons in how to use the microwave, neither Jay, his dad, or his siblings are coping well.

Being an 18 year old with no clear idea of where he’s heading is hard enough without a crisis of that kind, and the reader slowly realises that Jay is going into meltdown, risking serious rifts with his family and friends, and jeopardising his dad’s high-powered career that pays for Jay’s own failure to hold down even the most menial job. As Jay’s irritating habits and irresponsible behaviour get beyond a joke, wearing down the reader as well as the characters in the novel, it becomes clear that his apparently selfish attitude to his future is really an expression of the unresolved grief that affects not only him but all the family.(Being closer in age to his father myself, I often felt more sympathy for father than for son.)

Dealing With Bereavement

There are some incredibly moving moments, such as when the three siblings ceremoniously take a saved lock of their mother’s hair out of its hiding place and allow themselves each one nostalgic, Proustian sniff – with an extra one for the youngest because he’s about to be packed off to boarding school in hope of curing the many tics that he’s developed since his mother’s death. The remembered details of his mother’s terminal illness are also very well done and rang true for me, having experienced something similar with my own relatives.

Knowing that the author’s father in real life was the late BBC TV executive David Hatch, I did wonder at the wisdom of giving Jay’s fictional father more or less the same career, but I was happy to live with that for the sake of one of the running jokes throughout the book: Jay’s rebellious hobby of pinching his dad’s contact book and making prank phone calls to celebrities – not malicious ones, which I’d find unfunny and cruel, but just silly ones with the sole of aim of extending his list of famous people who have told him to f*** off. Not sure whether the named celebrities would agree though! It made me wonder whether the author had ever done this himself in real life, or at least wanted to!

I turned the pages of the last few chapters with increasing speed, wondering how this could possibly not end in utter disaster and tragedy. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but the final resolution was for me in equal measure touching, logical and satisfying.

His First Self-Published Book

I was interested to see that this is the first book that the author has self-published. I’d have read it earlier if it had been available as an e-book before, though I must admit its previous branding had created completely different expectations. I’d have expected the hero of “The Lawnmower Celebrity” to be a middle-aged, pullover-wearing lawnmower pusher – or maybe someone with a ride-on lawnmower reflecting his wealth. (The author’s very funny foreword for the book’s new incarnation makes it clear that he was also uncomfortable with the old one’s presentation.) The new title makes the theme and format much clearer, and the cover illustration of french fries suggesting a certain fast-food restaurant associated with young people makes much more sense, so creating more appropriate expectations in the reader.

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