Tracing your family history has never been more popular, thanks to the increasing number of historical records becoming available online, and TV shows such as Who Do You Think You Are? uncovering dramatic genealogical surprises of the stars. On to this bandwagon, Jeremy Hardy has not so much leapt as stumbled; having little more than a half-baked notion that he really ought to investigate his lineage.
Most people who embark on such research do so with a sense of purpose, meticulously poring over archives and carefully chronicling what they unearth. Not our Jeremy. In fitting with his shambling approach to comedy, his mission, as described in My Family And Other Strangers, is a far more haphazard affair.
He absent-mindedly visits a few places of relevance and mooches about a bit, occasionally perusing at gravestones or photographing a property some ancestor might once have inhabited, but he canít quite be sure. He describes every trivial minutiae of his endeavours to such an extent that you are as likely to read about his quest for a parking space in Croydon as you are about for quest for a long-lost relative.
But, then, other peopleís family histories are never going to be that interesting. Most of us arenít descended from heroes of history, but just more ordinary folk. Which means that when Hardy does mention great-great uncles or cousins three times removed, itís easy to lose track of the sprawling family. You certainly find yourself skipping past the passages with lots of names in them.
He has some intent to discover the truth about a few family myths, in the hope of uncovering some dramatic twist in his ancestry. Is he really descended from Sir Christopher Wren? Was his great-grandfather a royal bodyguard? Does an illegitimate child mean Hardy has a claim on a large country estate? The comedian also hopes for a bit more ethnic diversity in his DNA; his genes canít all have come from a small corner of south-east England, can they?
My Family And Other Strangers is a guide of how not to go about such research, and will surely frustrate any serious genealogist. He accumulates a few facts and documents, but much of the research has already been done by relatives.
Into this meandering narrative, the easily distracted Hardy shoehorns a few of his political hobbyhorses, from the Irish troubles to police brutality, as his train of thought becomes more of a replacement bus service. And sometimes his mind turns to friends heís lost, such as Linda Smith, Humphrey Lyttelton and legendary comedy tour manager Wizo.
But, as you might expect, Hardy has a light touch, and even when heís complaining about the one-way systems of the Home Counties, thereís usually a deadpan wit and an awareness of his own shortcomings as a genealogical researcher. There are a few gags in it, too, including a couple you might recognise from his regular appearances on programmes such as The News Quiz.
So while the book can sometimes be frustrating, with Hardy making slow progress with his careless research on a topic the reader has little interest in. But the incidental details make his whimsical vacillations more enjoyable than they might have been.
Eventually, his idle ponderings of his relationship with the past and the future of his family do build to a satisfyingly thoughtful conclusion, especially as his adopted daughter Betty is a Romanian Gypsy, meaning Hardyís idea of family has little to do with DNA.
The bookís slow in parts, and rather haphazard Ė like both Hardyís research and his stand-up. But there are interesting and funny points to be made on the rather torturous route.