When John Parke, a graphic designer in south-west London, received a typed letter through the post from a "John S Parke" in Marlborough, Wiltshire, he was intrigued. "The writer claimed to be working in co-operation with Burke's Peerage on a project relating to the Parke family name," says Parke.
The text continued: "Finally, after years of effort and considerable expense, we are ready to publish The Burke's Peerage World Book of Parkes. And you, John Parke, are listed in it. Using highly sophisticated computer resources, we have searched through over 170 million individual households. We have located and compiled the most extensive worldwide register of families bearing the Parke surname today."
Parke instinctively felt sceptical. "I thought their choice of who to send it to was obviously quite random and the names were more likely to come from the telephone directory than anywhere else." His response was to send Burke's Peerage a sarcastic letter. "It seems to me they must be churning out a standard product for everybody," he says.
At pounds 21.95, low-standard would probably be nearer the mark. Burke's describes its product as having a "handsomely bound, pewter-coloured cover with a leather texture" and as becoming "an attractive addition to your living room" - wishful thinking on both counts. The complimentary copy I received from Burke's Peerage (tailor-made for all those who share the surname Wilderspin) arrived in a brown cardboard cover with a bogus-looking coat of arms printed on the front - hardly worthy of coffee-table prominence. Flicking through, the contents resemble an illustrated history book for 12-year-olds.
Simplistic pictures of swords entwined with flowers, cathedrals and coats of arms fill almost every page. There are pearls of academic wisdom - "History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its themes" - and a brief introduction to emigration, heraldry and the origin of names. But any hard facts relating to the surname itself are absent. All that appears at the back of the book is a list of American and British Wilderspins with their home addresses.
So who is responsible for this publication and what, if any, are their connections with Burke's Peerage? A rather austere photograph included in the mailshot shows the publisher Harold B Brooks-Baker, sitting at his desk with a copy of the old Burke's Peerage directory conspicuously positioned on a bookshelf behind him.
From his office, Brooks Marketing, in Clapham, south London, he explains his involvement. "I've been working for Brooks Marketing since 1984 and became a part-owner of Burke's Peerage a few years later. My colleagues and I now own the name." Brooks-Baker uses the title and the logo for genealogical and title research. He also licenses it out to an American company based in Ohio which has produced the World Series of Surnames for the past two years.
Does he not think the mailshot is potentially misleading? "There is a problem that people may think there's ancestral research involved - of which there is none," he admits. "We are currently discussing a new publicity flyer which will make things clearer."
What about the reams of addresses in the back - are they published with permission? "Their names only go in if they buy the book," he assures me. "That's to protect us because some people don't want their names printed."
This was news to Mrs Wilderspin of north London who, without her knowledge or consent, has her full address published in the last chapter of the World Book Of Wilderspins. So does her brother-in-law. She had never heard of Burke's Peerage direct-mail offer. "I don't want be in something like that," she says. "If there was any way I could take my details out I would."
Anthony Camp, director of the Society of Genealogists, has been aware of Brooks-Baker's publications for years and is unequivocal in his criticism. "The World Book of Surnames is nothing but a list of addresses taken from electoral registers - usually quite out of date."
Brooks-Baker has informed me that he is a trained historian and has studied in several different countries. He insists his product is respectable. "I personally think it's very well written. It sparks off more of an interest." The direct-mail operation, backed by the Burke's Peerage reputation, appeals to a peculiarly British preoccupation with class, heritage and background.
Perhaps it takes an American to realise just how susceptible we are to the idea of discovering distant titled relatives and a distinguished lineage. "As people here become digits in the great wheel of modem life, they want to know more about their ancestry," he reflects. Judging by his "World Book" series, the sort of ancestry he refers to and promotes could just as easily be found in the telephone directory.Reuse content