While working as a young assistant professor at Berkeley amid the acid and anarchy of the late 1960s, Richard Dawkins found himself tiring of an American campus novel populated by "twittering" sophomores. His spirits were lifted by the entrance of an English major.

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"Aha, I thought, my mind immediately filled with visions of riding breeches and moustaches, a real character at last." Similar visions are conjured by the lovingly polished family tree that prefaces his memoir, featuring a general, a colonel and Major Hereward Dawkins. Also perched on various branches are a "Cannonball", a "Bunny", a Yorick and seven generations of unnamed vicars: real characters of a kind that looks made up these days.

It was Hereward Dawkins who passed the family estate at Over Norton, Oxfordshire, to his third cousin, Richard's father, enabling the Dawkinses to remain "members of the Chipping Norton set", as they have been "since the early 18th century". Upon inheriting the property in 1949, John Dawkins abandoned his career as an agricultural officer in the Colonial Service to work the land as a farm. Richard had been born eight years previously, in Nairobi, and now he was "home" – for that was how the colonial boy thought of England before he had even visited it.

The move from Africa brought him close to his true home: not England as a whole, but Oxford University, within which he has spent his academic life apart from that spell at Berkeley. One college was an ancestral home, a squad of family members having been Balliol men before Richard became one. "Balliol made me, Balliol fed me…": The significance it holds for him is expressed in the lines of Hilaire Belloc that he quotes, and recited at his father's funeral, and spoke in his eulogy for Christopher Hitchens, a Balliol man too.