For reasons that largely escape me, but which may have contributed to my becoming sadly addicted to home reno shows of the “Better Homes & Gardens” variety a few years back, Luscious Lyn and I have recently started to watch Who do You Think You Are, an English show in which celebrities of the second stripe pretend to discover facts about their family history without acknowledging the team of researchers working behind the scenes who have carefully prepared every square inch of the utterly ‘spontaneous’ revelations well beforehand.
In truth, watching the likes of John Hurt and Jeremy Irons bemoaning the fact that they might have someone slightly notorious or ill-fitting in their backgrounds is really quite entertaining, because let’s be honest, the reason I’d want to engage in such an exercise is in the hope of finding someone thoroughly and despicably nasty (“Really? My Great great great whatever buggered Blackbeard on a Caribbean beach whilst knifing the local Governor’s virgin daughter, and they gave him a baronetcy for it? Coooolll…..”), or at the very least, finding out that the pathetic, grubby little domestic betrayals of your more recent ancestors aren’t the most noteworthy occurrences in your entire family tree: if you’re going to be a hero, be a real hero, but if you’re going to have bastardry in your family, please God let it be some spectacular bastardry!
Last night, we watched Jodie Kidd discover just that level of bastardry, which was entertaining for us, but absolutely fascinating for Erin, who sat up and watched the episode with us, and who was beset with questions about her own family history as a result. Suddenly, the idea that you can be connected to people from several hundred years ago, and that you can learn all about them, is inspiring to little Miss Death-obsessed 10 year old.
I know very little about my Mum’s family. She died in 2003 without ever spending any time discussing her family line, and to be honest, I wasn’t that interested for most of her life. My grandmother died when I was young, my grandfather was both distant and dotty when he followed us out to Australia a few years after we arrived, and due to the timing of various moves I’ve not really had any sort of relationship with my grandparents on either side. I know a few snippets of family history, a surname or two, and the fact that the trail stops cold sometime in the late Victorian-era with an out-of-wedlock birth. Hey, if the BBC run out of sixth-rate personalities sometime in the next 40 years and come knocking, maybe I can find something out.
My Dad’s side is a slightly different matter. Thanks to a second cousin with a genealogy bug, my Dad’s been able to trace our paternal line back to the early 1700s, to Henry, a pipemaker who hanged himself “in a fit of insanity after a night drinking at a local club”. I’ve also got rather a lovely document tracing the history of the surname Battersby itself, with a trail that stretches back well before the 13th Century. Should I ever decide to do some serious digging, there could be a long line to uncover. We have a coat of arms, awarded in 1605. We have a motto (“Before honour is humility”, and before you make any jokes about my personality, consider it in respect to my finances, and see how accurate it is…). The name is associated with a family seat that was first recorded before the Norman Conquest. There’s a sweet looking little village in North Yorkshire that shares the name, and which is, undoubtedly, the source of its English origin. There’s going to be a few things worth finding out.
I have an odd relationship with family, and with our history. The last 20 or 30 years haven’t exactly been covered in glory and gold dust, as far as I’m concerned, but then, of course, I’ve been living it, and I doubt anyone really thinks they’re part of the glory years whilst they’re actually happening. Maybe William the Conqueror, but was he really happy? (Laughing his fucking head off, I should imagine…) Maybe this whole novelist thing will really take off, and my great great whatevers will be on telly looking at photos of me and commenting about the number of chins I’m sporting. Or my brother will finally tip over the edge and assassinate an entire coastal town. Who knows? We wait with bated breath.
But deep history, history that illuminates a way of life and a prevailing culture that is alien to one’s own, that does fascinate me. To connect myself to moments of great import, or even just to see a connection to facets of existence which have fallen into extinction, to draw a line between myself and those events that have shaped the course of continents, that would be worth discovering, I think.
I’ve made a promise to Lyn– who, for a number of reasons, cannot trace her family back beyond two generations– that once we have the means to do so, we will find out how far back her line stretches, and who it encompasses. While we’re at it, we may see how far back we can stretch the Battersbys and the McMahons.
Here’s hoping for some world-class bastardry……