Saturday 24 April 2010

Book review : My Family and Other Strangers: Adventures in Family History - Jeremy Hardy

The blurb on the back of the book explains, "When Jeremy Hardy decided to explore his ancestry it was, in part, to get to the bottom of his grandmother Rebecca's dubious claims that the family descended from a certain 17th-century architect and that, more recently, Jeremy's great-grandfather was a Royal bodyguard. Other legends ranged from the great aunt who ran illegal hooch during Prohibition to the wronged Victorian servant girl who bore an illegitimate Hardy, not forgetting the family's rightful claim to a large country estate."

Having researched my own family history pretty much as thoroughly as you can online, I can relate to the strange family rumours and even stranger truths that are lurking in the ancestral closets along with the generations of skeletons. I was also intrigued to see how he would get on doing it "for real", actually going to the records offices and hunting for gravestones in churchyards. I always feel like I've missed out on all that side of things by no longer being in the country of my birth and TV programmes like Who do you think you are? make it all look so easy and fascinating.

Well, to begin with, Jeremy is like a kid with a new toy, excitedly telling us about his ancestors and the way he's researching things, and his enthusiasm is infectious. But unfortunately it's also shortlived, fizzling out about halfway through the book. On some trips to the record office, he gets bored and hopes that it's soon closing time and he can't be bothered to follow up certain leads. He curtails his description of one ancestor's life with a dismissive "blablabla". That's fair enough, but if he can't get enthusiastic about his subject matter, how can he expect us to get enthusiastic about reading it ? At one point, he says he doesn't care if we like his writing, as long as his former English teacher thinks it's good - well, that's a great way of connecting with your readers !

I found that the book sometimes lacked direction. Bearing in mind that the average family history buff is a silver-haired, tea-drinking pensioner (even if I don't fit that description !), I found the large number of F-words irritating, especially as they were totally unnecessary. Similarly, the author's political ramblings and frequent no-holds-barred criticisms of the police force seemed out of place. And it got to the point where I rolled my eyes every time I read the recurring phrase "I did a comedy night here once" or the non-stop discussions of the relative merits of taking the train over the car. Do we really care ?!

The book cover describes the author as "one of the sharpest comedians in the country" but, living in France, I'd never heard of him. Fans of his would surely be happy to read this for autobiographical value alone and would be more accepting of his sometimes controversial stances. I enjoyed it and happily read the whole book, because I am in the target audience (according to the blurb on the back of the book) of "anyone who has ever tried to decipher the 1901 census record or who has simply wished that they too had asked their grandparents more about their lives". But I do wonder if, without an interest in family history or Jeremy Hardy himself, some readers will find it slightly tedious.

star rating : 3/5

RRP : £11.99

Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Ebury Press (4 Mar 2010)
Language English
ISBN-10: 0091927501
ISBN-13: 978-00919275091

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