Tales of the suburbs: 'What happened to the future they promised us on Tomorrow's World?'

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The Independent Online

I was once told, by someone who knows about these things, that the key to being relaxed and happy is to fill your spare time with an absorbing hobby.

Now, almost everyone to whom I have passed this on has retorted that they don't have any spare time. There are barely enough hours in the day to be stressed, without adding to your burden by trying to make a model of the London Eye out of Bulldog clips.

That's exactly what I said, too – by the time I've taken the kids to school, shopped, washed up and done the laundry, it's lunchtime, and I haven't actually started work. I often wonder what happened to that future they were always promising us on Tomorrow's World, in which computers and robots would run everything so efficiently that we'd all be free to spend our days drinking Pimm's at the yacht club.

But the Man Who Knew was quietly, and rather annoyingly, insistent. He pointed out that the majority of people who say they have no spare time still seem to find an hour or so to watch "I'm Strictly a Celebrity, Get Me Out of the X Factor". Perhaps that's their hobby, I suggested, being careful not to use the first person. No, said The Sage, that's just relaxation. A hobby is creative, fulfilling, makes you feel better about yourself.

So, I've been searching ever since for a pastime in which I can lose myself, in the hope that when I find myself again, I won't be quite so neurotic and shouty.

The first thing I tried was the piano. It was creative and fulfilling, but somehow, when I practised on my daughter's junior electronic keyboard, the sound I produced failed to make either me or my family feel better about me.

Then I began my chutney phase. That really did absorb me, and those rows of little fabric-topped pots looked pleasing in a Good Life sort of a way. But there are only so many jars of spicy pear that a household can absorb before the gag reflex kicks in.

And then, last week, I stumbled on the answer. We'd been talking to the children about family trees, and I decided to do a bit of rudimentary research to get them involved. They were moderately intrigued; it was a good hour before the allure of poring over a copperplate census entry with your great-grandfather's name on it was replaced by Nintendogs.

I, however, was smitten. It is like reading a great novel with a plot you have to work out for yourself. You are drawn into the lives of people who are little more than names, eager to follow their changes of fortune, anxious to know what happened to them in times of war, peace, recession. And this, you should understand, is my husband's ancestry, people I know little or nothing about. I haven't even started on my own yet.

For me, the pleasure is in the detail: the fact that, for generations, his family, like so many others, never moved more than 10 miles from where they had initially settled – why would they? How could they? The fact that, of those four doubtless boisterous children who appear on the census in 1861, only one survived to see the 1871 census taken. The fact that, in those days, not only did you have a job for life – in this case, carpentry – but sons and grandsons would also follow that same path. Something tells me that's not going to happen with IT.

For my husband, though, there's another dimension: he's hoping for a little lustre from all this. He discovered years ago that he shares his surname with one of the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. Since this eminent figure came from Bristol, and my husband's lot from Kent, any connection looked unlikely, but I didn't want to disappoint him. Then, late one night, I stumbled on something: about seven generations ago, an ancestor, asked on a census if he was born in Kent, replied he was not.

I had to keep searching, until gratifyingly, at the click of a mouse, there it was: proof that the old boy did indeed hail from Bristol. There may be no connection, and for me, it really doesn't matter. I'm fulfilled, I'm being creative, and I think I feel better about myself.

Genealogy is a win/win hobby. It cannot be dull, any more than life itself can be. Knowing a few facts about people you'll never meet, but whose genetic make-up is imprinted on those you love, is – and I never thought I'd say this – better than a cupboard full of chutney.