Guardian Review of HNTGU

How Not to Grow Up! by Richard Herring and My Family and Other Strangers by Jeremy Hardy

Phil Daoust sees two stand-up comedians react to the onset of middle age in very different way

* Phil Daoust
* The Guardian, Saturday 22 May 2010

People have been telling Richard Herring to grow up since he was three. "Wee wee, poo poo, bottom" was, he says "my first and in some ways purest catchphrase". Now it is "my adult stand-up act pretty much distilled down into its essential components".

That resolutely juvenile sense of humour has stood him in good stead. In the 1990s it made him a TV star alongside the more cerebral Stewart Lee, and although their double act is now just a memory Herring can still pack out any medium-sized provincial theatre you care to name. His stand-up show is a regular highlight of the Edinburgh festival. The ladies seem to like him, too. Assuming you can believe anything he says (and you probably can't, as he's a comedian) he has spent most of the past decade "up to my plums" in a succession of much younger women. So what's he got to be miserable about?

He's hitting middle age, of course, and can no longer deny it. How Not to Grow Up! is the story of a man turning 40 who takes a look at himself and doesn't much like what he sees. It's not just what the mirror reveals – though his stomach is spreading and his hair is getting grey – but the comparisons he makes with those around him. When his dad was 40, he had a wife, three children, a proper job as a teacher and some useful skills like gardening and wine-making. Herring Jr can use a Nintendo DS. "If the Apocalypse came and I survived it," he writes, "I would have nothing of use to contribute to the new society. People don't want to hear cock jokes after Armageddon."

As for his friends, even the most immature have settled down and are having children. And all poor Richard has to fill his days is a string of affairs, and the hope – which eventually turns into reality – of luring two women into his bed at the same time . . .

Is he complaining or boasting? It's not always clear, even to Herring himself. Many men, he knows, would kill for a life like his. But something seems to be missing, and it's probably woman-shaped. As the fateful birthday passes, he becomes desperate to find the One, falling fast and hard for assorted "hilarious", "gorgeous", "effervescent" beauties, most of whom run away as fast as their high heels will let them. Will he realise that what he really needs is to cultivate a sense of self-worth? What do you think?

Jeremy Hardy is just six years older than Herring, but My Family and Other Strangers suggests he has more in common with Herring's father. He has a partner, a kid, and probably at least two pairs of slippers. He doesn't worry much where his life might be heading, or where it's been in the past; he's quite happy pottering along, performing his stand-up show here, recording a radio programme there, visiting this Sussex castle and that London food market. If Herring's life is one big blurry, boozy tour, Hardy's is a succession of days out, recorded with occasionally soporific attention to detail. If you want to know how much it costs to park in Croydon's Centrale car park or what's on the menu at Rosie Lee's Tea Room in Loddon, you'll find it right here on pages 142 and 165.

Like Herring, Hardy is on a quest, but his appears more contrived. Born and bred in south-east England, he is "the whitest, most Anglo-Saxon Protestant" he knows, and would like to find out if his ancestors were all as dull. What would he gain from the experience? That's the problem with the whole project. "I'm not sure what I think I'll really *learn* by finding out more about my forebears," he admits early on. Almost 300 pages later, he notes: "Without the fact of having a book to write, I doubt I would have done a fraction of this researching or exploring."

Was it all worthwhile? For Hardy, perhaps, as he discovers at least once skeleton in the family closet, and realises how much he should treasure his living relatives. For his readers, less so. There is plenty that is interesting and touching and funny in this book, but every time we get close to Hardy's family, or one of the many friends he has lost, like Linda Smith or Alan Coren, he remembers what he has been paid to tell us about, forces us into his car and drives us off to another public records office. Sometimes, it seems, you can be too grown up.