I imagine that, if you are active in your study of your family’s genealogy, then you will be able to sympathize with Jeremy Hardy’s plight. He has undertaken to learn more about his family history, despite being woefully unprepared for the task, and we, the readers, get to go along for the ride.
If you know him as a voice appearing in BBC Radio 4’s The News Quiz or I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue (among others), then you will already know some of what you’re in for. Hardy’s personal life, comedy career and political activism all get glancing mentions, and if you haven’t followed him in the two decades since he won the Perrier Award for comedy and became a fixture on Radio 4, you might be a bit lost. But there is much that is new here as well, including more insight into this interesting and amusing man.
In a way, Hardy’s search for his lineage is almost an afterthought in the book. Many of the familiar Hardy-esque tropes are here, lines you will have heard from the radio or podcasts. Like his work on The News Quiz, for example, often a topic is a launching point for a familiar riff or tirade which seems to have come directly from his stand-up act. But Hardy is at his best, arguably, when his anger at some piece of crass idiocy by the powers-that-be is channelled into a comedic vein, what Simon Hoggart once called “a full-throated, all guns blazing Jeremy Hardy rant.” There’s also a good deal here to feed the ire of those who keenly feel the lack of a sense of the importance of historical preservation in public officials who have no sense of the public trust beyond their own immediate plans. Many of Hardy’s destinations have been widened, moved, or, it seems, turned into car parks. As someone who has seen some of his own personal landmarks sacrificed to the gods of the parallel white lines, I can sympathize.
If you have followed a certain set of Radio 4 players from the 90s to the present, there are a number of familiar faces (or perhaps “voices”) to meet along the journey, too. Perhaps most touching are the mentions of the three friends and colleagues from The News Quiz and Clue who have recently died, namely Linda Smith, Alan Coren, and Humphrey Lyttleton. Their mentions lend to the sense that this book is also partly an exploration of the nature of mortality and memory. I found Mr Hardy’s brief passage on visiting Alan Coren’s grave in Cricklewood particularly moving. I never knew any of these people, but as a spectator, I profoundly miss their voices in the world.
At the end it, this is a funny book about searching out your distant family heritage, and might even be useful to anyone searching out relatives in England, or at least, in the south (Hardy laments that it seems that, apart from a brief trip to Norfolk, he never really gets out of Hampshire, Sussex, and Kent). Admittedly, hardcore, or even reasonably competent family genealogists probably aren’t going to learn a great deal, but as I said, I’m not sure that that was the point. Further, this is a book about identity, and finding your place in the world. And finally, My Family and Other Strangers is a book about the importance of family. Not in the creepy, right-wing Christian conservative sense, but in the idea of acceptance, tolerance, and understanding. Recommended, four stars.
Originally reviewed 9 June 2011.
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