Sunday 11th December

On the radio, old French rock group causing acute indigestion (10)

“Sorry, did you say something?” I shout.

“Please turn that racket down, Alex. Come and have a look. Does this man appear at all familiar to you?” Dad asks, no doubt for the second time.

I am trying to cobble together a hummus and Branston bap while listening to Epicus Doomicus Metallicus at a cochlea-lacerating 11 on the volume-dial. Dad has printed out a picture of some smug-looking old geezer in sideburns and a skull-cap.

“Not a clue,” I admit. “Have you seen the pickle jar anywhere?”

“Look a bit more closely. Do you see any sort of family resemblance?”

This time I devote slightly more than a nanosecond to the contemplation of this image.

“Looks Victorian,” I conclude. “Someone trying a little too hard to compensate for male pattern baldness. Seems to be contemplating a particularly lardy luncheon in the middle distance. Lord Palmerston?

I munch hungrily on my Branston-less bap. There is a look of triumph in my father’s eyes.

“This, Alex, unless I am very much mistaken, is your great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather!”

“Well, that’s nice,” I offer, between mouthfuls. “Ah well, now I know where I got my nose from anyway.”

“If I tell you his name, it might ring a bell in your ill-educated brain.”

“Try me.”

“This man is … cue drum-roll … Thomas Jefferson Hogg!”

“Thomas Jefferson Hogg? Hmm, I can’t hear any bells ringing. No, wait, there is a faint tinkle in the distance. Wasn’t he the chap who wrote Confessions of a Justified Sinner?”

“No, that was James Hogg, no relation of ours, as far as I know. This is Thomas Jefferson Hogg.”

“Was he a slave-owner? A grave-robber? A Whig Prime Minister?”

“Well, he did achieve a certain notoriety for a while …”

“Something even worse than being a Whig Prime Minister?”

“He was sent down from Univ in 1811.”

“What, like Shelley? Old Percy was turfed out about then, wasn’t he?”

“That’s right. Thomas Jefferson Hogg was Shelley’s best friend at college and co-writer of the pamphlet on the Necessity of Atheism!”

I do actually choke on my hummus bap at this point. By the time I have poured myself a glass of water, I have recovered most of my composure but bells are now clanging all over my cerebral cortex and there’s a display of Christmas lights glittering between my amygdala.

“Wasn’t he the chap who insisted on carrying half the can?” I splutter finally.

“That’s right. The college authorities sent Shelley down when he refused to confirm or deny that he had written the pamphlet. They were just packing up their kangaroo court when this forebear of ours comes knocking on the door and insists on facing exactly the same question … and then also refusing to answer it! To be consistent, they had to send him down too.”

“That’s not much of a claim to fame. Did this Mr Hogg do anything else with his life?”

“Well, long after Shelley was dead and Hogg had spent years as a practising lawyer, he was commissioned to write the official biography of the poet. He wrote the first volume and then got sacked because it was all about himself, not Shelley, and included some blatant porkies. A year or two later he died of gout or gallstones or something.”

“Chacun à son goût, I guess. Or possibly constipation, judging from the sketch. So why have you only just discovered that he’s a relative of ours?”

“I thought I’d reached a dead end with Henry Leigh Hogg, the marine insurer – there’s still absolutely no sign of his birth certificate. But we know that he was brought up in Durham, like so many of our ancestors. I’m pretty sure he was Thomas Jefferson Hogg’s grandson.”

“T.J. Hogg had a family then?”

“He had a daughter called Prudentia, that’s all. And as far as the history books are concerned, Prudentia died an old maid, so that particular family line died out. But history also records that when Prudentia was a young woman, the Hogg household was a second home for one Henry Hunt, a charming, penniless chancer. Henry Hunt was the son of Leigh Hunt – surely you have heard of him?”

Skimpole in Bleak House?”

“The very same. Leigh Hunt was a radical poet and publisher, another one of Shelley’s pals before he fell on hard times.”

“And went to live in a bleak house? Yes, very good …”

“Well, young Henry was a chip off the old block and in no position financially to make an honest woman of the imprudent Prudentia who had, predictably, fallen for his charms. Even in the more enlightened Victorian households, a baby born out of wedlock was far from ideal. The poor kid was named Henry Leigh, after his father and grandfather, and shipped out to some other household in the extended Hogg family somewhere in the county of Northumberland, with only a career in marine insurance to look forward to.”

“This all sounds like wild conjecture to me.”

“I still need to dot the i’s and cross the t’s, it’s true. But I think we can both be proud to be the distant descendants of the splendid Thomas Jefferson Hogg. What an extraordinary coincidence it is that we should follow in his footsteps and go to the same college. At least neither of us got sent down!”

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