This is the first of an intended series of three pieces on genealogy; scratchings about my own experiences of, and relationships with, relations and events I uncover. It’s not a family history – that would be mean – but a collection of slenderly-researched thoughts about family history. To come, musings on the savouriness of sad stories, and something to do with ancestral off-shoots. In this first piece, I consider the grubbier aspects of lineage, and argue why it’s better tucking in to the low-hanging fruit of the family bosom.
For the past – for the past – half-dozen years I’ve been thrashing in a swill of ancestry as much as any other mouse-gripping, mouth-breathing male. Genealogy – the study of family lineage and history invented by the BBC in 2004 – grabbed me by the gilded beams the moment I received in the post from my dad a roughly pencilled tree with a few meagre branches; a slim cast of Mitchells in his lovely clerk’s leaning hand, more question marks than complete dates; and on a paper-clipped note in his usual clipped style: Suggest get on completing this – time against us.
And so it continues to grab me today, but in what I hope is observed as a more measured and managed and useful way – the early fevers over – a way that, on-song, and with game-reading intuition, finds Andy in Ontario and will in time find the great-grandkids of James. God knows it’s been otherwise; ancestor updates that have moistened the eyes of my listeners with the tears that well when a jaw-clenched yawn is so determinedly stifled, a wide and dust-moted gaze so carefully held in spite of every urge to stop me right there, to observe that another’s family tree is as interesting as a recounted dream.
At the beer company where I worked, I was for a time part of a team across which the genealogy virus had spread. We were the team that launched the flocking of starlings and, possibly of significance in our sudden group propensity to root-tracing, to nailing our names to something, were stunning the drinking nation with the branded philosophy of ‘Belong’. One morning found the four of us, our swivel chairs made rocking chairs, comparing notes; and amidst the fragments of fortunes lost in South Sea Bubbles, in Spitfires, or against the stove with the maid, it was evident we were all competing for the genealogist’s crown of Furthest Back.
I had by that time just cracked through the 1800 barrier with the chirpy uncovering of a ‘Beeby’ line in Warwickshire, with a personal target set at sixteen-something; a teeth-gritted diversion from the 1845 roadblock of a tight-lipped and possibly mendacious John Mitchell. But I noodled too on a mad genealogy, Who Do You Think You Are… Xtreme!, track-backs to trilobites – “Steve is seeing Calymene blumenbachi’s photograph for the first time”* – or the very least a record of the eighty humping couples, whose acts rewound, with burrowing babies, syphoned seed, the retraction of leprous sweet-nothings, have my family remarking on Bethlehem’s successful bid (their leftfield ‘lowly’ theme wowing the panel)… strange to think that just eighty shags ago becomes impressively B.C.**
And here dawned a realisation. My backward-looking family – if you get me – begins to be of interest to me, or ceases to be so any further back than, (and I’ll qualify interest in a moment) some time around 1750 – well, roughly somewhere in that neck of the woods – woods in which I’d hope my forebears were, by that date, no longer shitting but were emerging from, passably upright in clothes at least part-owned; no more miserable or malodorous than anyone else of the time. Which language is clue-packed. Because as much as the estimated eighty generations to 55 B.C. fizz and crackle with survivalist mettle, my dead kin alive with pith and spunk; as much as they toiled and tickled, fell in love and fell in bogs, they are, God love ‘em, of a most other time.
For, if the past is a foreign country, colour me xenophobic.
One of the truths of genealogical snuffling is that you fancy yourself ‘in touch’ with your folks. I can’t imagine there’s an ancestor-prodder out there who hasn’t thought coyly of shinning up the trunk to hang with a decorated soldier, or shaking down a buggering great-uncle to show him the lathe in his shed. The very adverts for Ancestry.com lure us with the chatting dead; a spiritual pulling of the short legs and long noses that run in the family. Lean in close to the photo, boys, you can hear them whisper… It was Hilda I loved!; I fought with Baden-Powell – and we never made up!
But as with all fantasies this comes with age restrictions. I find it difficult and, frankly, unnecessary, to trouble anyone, or more correctly, trouble myself with anyone, regardless of shared D.N.A., whose time does not have commonalities with mine – whose life, therefore, is not the stuff of feasible interest; less so mutually. Which probably makes me a bigot, an ancestorist. And an ingrate for battlefield bravery? Yes and no – the frightened heroes of the wars we know are rightly honoured, respected and felt; it’s the ones we don’t know as of our time, who slide from selfless to self-less; comedic bone-wielders. And, really, who are you going to want to show into your newly furnished guest bedroom when… okay, I know there’s no when – but you get where I’m going: there’s no communicating – communicating – with cousin Kevin from the year 420, no matter what you wave or how slowly you wave it; and the queer-scented dolt from 1570 won’t get much beyond your devil’s trousers.
I propose there’s an unspoken ‘limit’ on cross-generational days out. And, to be clear, I’m not, however much I lark about, talking about ‘time travel’ – about Bill and Ted or Marty and Doc – well, I am, but in the associative sense; in the musing on, the affinity with, the extent to which you pick your past: the family you understand – understand – defines you; because you have a fighting chance of understanding them.
Of course, there are rational explanations for this ‘limit’. Language, naturally; the growing proliferation and dissemination of printed material; education and literacy; the ‘modern’ censuses being what they are and when they were; the advent of photography. And, quite simply, the empathy possible for people who lived in places where a road could still take you. Oh, and Dickens. All play a determining role in making some ancestors more alive, more… relevant. And those before them not so.
We have this small window of truly cared-about ancestry; only so far back as we can [cough] relate to.
And shifting – you’ll amuse me by turning around – our stance 180 degrees: only so far ahead that’s useful and meaningful too.
We have lineage cut-off points in both directions.
Does it start then, really, with there being photographs – ‘it’ being the point of relatable interest – with visual records the only form of documentation accepted – our eyes become the absolute dictators of our minds? And does it end, future projections drooping, with there being simply too much new shit to have to imagine – with too high a risk of incomprehensible, and probably unlikeable, behaviour? Hell, if I could envision the world of our triple-great-grandkids I’d be a squillionnaire. I’ve worked in ‘innovation’ – I know “the best way to predict the future is to invent it”, but the truth is I lack the compulsion to do so for people such a world, or worlds, away. Which doesn’t make me a meanie, it’s just a hierarchy of bothered. Same as you’ve got.
If you think that is knuckle-draggingly idle, or, worse, a kind of lineage abandonment, just call your 16th century ancestor to the stand: do you think they imagined your being? For how many generations forward could they, like you, realistically, truthfully give a fuck? Who were they thinking of, when they were making love? You? In that hat? Project yourself and really quickly you’re going to bump against images of life in glass domes on just-inhabitable planets; desolate landscapes with twisted metal and red skies. Very bad music. But who knows what our ancestors could have pictured for us; hoped for us; if they’d wanted to? A bag? Remember the future – The Future – wasn’t around until about two hundred years ago.
Or maybe you just hope they’re happy, the futures of you. But what if their ‘happy’, like everyone’s in 2169, is cock fights on the moon and shooting ghosts… including yours? The unspeakable fuckers.
What if the brewery you built with your one good hand is in a future-now doing what you swore you’d never do? Well, maybe that’s for another time.
The Genealogical Window of Bothered Lineage. G-WoBL. A quick calculated hunch has this at a rolling 350 years stretch, max, made up, broadly, of 250 back and a century hence. Anything outside that, in either direction, BBC period dramas and Pixar can divvy up between them: although worth noting the dearth of adaptations of a pre-Austen age; there comes a point – travelling backwards – at which less fragrant love scenes sit uneasily… when the sit-upons are not what one would stand for.***
Well, I did hit sixteen-something, did a century better in fact (kisses biceps), in one Sunday afternoon online bloodbath of research – fish in a barrel – fourteen generations tethered to the maypole in Barwick-in-Elmet; an obscene, lopsided shoot on the family tree; a leaf stamped ‘born c.1530’.
I called my Dad to tell him. This was his mother’s line, and one he liked to swing on – there being in the slabs and thumps of the library’s parish records something more in keeping with how the WDYTYA celebrities were impressed, moreso than my relentless scrolls. We both agreed it was indeed fascinating to know of an ancestor who lived in the reign of the wife-slaying lard arse. There was a pause. Some mild chewing noises. I could hear he was watching the snooker.
Then I spoke: “So – guess what else I found? One of your grandad’s brothers married the daughter of a bloke who had a fish and chip shop!”
He was up on his feet: “Go on.”
*Calymene blumenbachi – trilobite nicknamed the Dudley Bug, its fossilised whereabouts sharing a West Midlands ancestry on my mother’s side. I’m guessing, of course, as to its relative role in our own existence, as I can find no records of its lineage on Ancestry.com
**Rough calculations made in the bar of the Table Mountain Inn, Golden, Colorado, February 2009; three pints of Blue Moon and no heed paid to papal calendar reforms.
***See also my June 2010 / July 2011 piece ‘Darcy’s Arse’, or ‘Pen & Ink: The Malodorous Truth Behind Much-Loved Literary Figures’, at: