Who am I?

‘Who do you think you are?’ is the title of a TV programme going into celebrities’ genealogies. (Sweden has an identical series, as I’m sure have other countries.) I’ve always objected to the title, which implies that ‘who one is’ is rooted in one’s genes, rather than environment. For this reason, and because it looks a bit narcissistic, I’ve never been tempted to trace my own family back, though my father did many years ago. (He stopped when he got back to an ancestor who, he told me, had been transported to a penal colony in Australia for keeping a muck-heap outside his house in Writtle.) It must have been difficult then, reliant as you were on written records kept all over the place. Nowadays, however, it is far easier, with many of these records having been digitalised, and put on the internet.

A friend of mine, Sylvie Slater, who is interested in doing this for other people – I can see why – the other day offered to trace my family back. She’s brilliant. Within a few days she came up with a family tree which goes back to the early 1800s, and which, in spite of myself, I found fascinating. One ancestor on my mother’s side was a publican; on my Dad’s side another was one of the last ‘boot closers’ in England before the trade became mechanised. (‘Boot closers’ hand-stitched the uppers to the soles.) My mother’s family seem to have been marginally ‘higher’ in class than my father’s – bobbing in and out of the lower-middles – which was why they refused to attend the wedding of their daughter to a mere working-class lad. His side was consistently proletarian: peasants, factory workers, and – in the cases of the girls and women – domestic servants. My father’s family also remained living all this time in rural Essex, while my mother’s family moved around: a sure sign of aspiring lower-middle class ambition. Instinctively, I tend to go for the Essex ones. They give me some solid ‘roots’ in a part of the country I love and spent my teens cycling around. I also like the fact that none of them was a nob. ‘Salt of the earth’, no doubt.

Sylvie’s only just started. I’m looking forward to hearing more from her. I don’t suppose she’ll get much further back – peasants don’t often leave records – but in the very unlikely event that she’ll reach, say, 1066, I’d be eager to see whether I was a Roman, a Saxon, a Norman, or a Dane. I’d much prefer Saxon; the others were all colonial conquerors (I dread coming across a poor innocent young girl in my blood-line raped by a marauding Viking), and being Saxon might explain my anti-imperial tendencies and academic interests today. If, that is, there is something in the ‘who do you think you are’ assumption.

Of course I’ve conveniently left out the fact that the Saxons, further back, were invaders themselves, imposing themselves on the original Celts. Perhaps if Sylvie can find some Welsh for me? Or Irish? (One of my mother’s forebears came from Liverpool. That was enough to get me into the hard-drinking Hibernian Society at Cambridge.) But I still like the idea of being Saxon. That would also account for my good looks.

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