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Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Old stuff from the past


I had a look at my blog’s statistics page today.  It lists the methods by which visitors find the site, including any google search terms.

Two people apparently found me by googling “old stuff from the past”.  Hello, lovers of old stuff from days gone by.

[waves]

As you might have gathered, I am fond of old stuff.  I have an old chest full of old stuff.  Old papers, old books, old photos, old toys, old, well, stuff.  I like to get it all out every now and again and look through it.  Things that were once owned by my grandparents and their parents.  Photographs of people I never knew, but without whom I wouldn’t be here today.  I like old stuff. 

That was part of the reason I started researching my family tree.  That, and a fairly large dollop of good, old-fashioned nosiness.  There is something incredibly compelling about family history.  Perhaps it is simple egotism.  After all, there you are at the root of the family tree.  All those branches, all those hundreds and thousands of ancestors all coming together to produce you.  Or perhaps it is human nature to want to know where we came from.  Or perhaps a little of both.

I am working on a giant family tree which I hope will be something that can be passed on to my own descendants in time.  It is the product of several years of research and several months of painstaking construction.  Did I mention that I can’t draw?  Well I can’t write neatly either.  I used to have remedial handwriting classes at junior school.  Remember those little handwriting practice books with the extra lines to help get the letters the same size?  I was still using one of those two years after the rest of the class had moved on to normal notebooks.  It wasn’t good.

Well, I still can’t write like a grown-up.  Not a sober grown-up anyway, so the family tree has taken a lot longer than it would have done if I hadn’t had to print every name and piece of information v-e-e-e-r-y c-a-a-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y.  There was tippex.  And strategic placing of writing to cover other botched writing.

But it is finally close to completion. 

The only problem is that it doesn’t record the vast majority of the information I have amassed about my ancestors.  It is essentially a list of names and dates, with the odd occupation thrown in for good measure.  It is a good list of names and dates.  I mean any list that has “William the Conqueror” at the top of it is going to be a pretty solid list, as lists go – although I am still crushingly disappointed that I couldn’t trace any of my lines back to Ghengis Khan – but it still doesn’t convey any of the human stories behind those names.

And there are some cracking stories.  My ancestors have had a fine old time down the generations.  There have been all sorts of shenanigans and scandals.  Every time I open a closet, a whole conga-line of skeletons come out, swaying and grinning and scuppering any hope of this family history project producing any serious, scholarly research.

I think I know why I find family history so compelling.  He Who Shall Not Be Named reckons that if I was a superhero my name would be “Fault” and my superpower would be “assigning blame”.  I am willing to concede that I generally have strong views, in any given situation, as to whose fault it is. 

It generally isn’t mine.

With my giant family tree, and the stories behind it, I have a vast crowd of people to blame for my shortcomings.  After all, we all inherit traits and aspects of our character from our parents, don’t we?  And they inherited theirs from their parents and so on back through the generations.  So my tendency to shout and wave my arms about?  May I introduce my rather volatile great-great-grandmother and her habit of hitting her children with a broom.  Granted, she also had a bit of a gin-habit, but give me time.  And okay, perhaps I do have a mild persecution complex where Thomas and Ben are concerned, and maybe a slight habit of sulking holding a grudge, but at least I haven’t taken myself off to a hole in the ground, or hung myself with a belt in my brother-in-law’s barn in a fit of pique – yes, I am looking at you, great-great-great-grandfather.  And my love of a strongly-worded letter of complaint?  That one’s got to be down to James Phillips, Cornish farmer and grandfather to the hole-dwelling belt-hanger.  James was so incensed when his unmarried daughter became pregnant that he took himself off to Bodmin and had his future son-in-law, Thomas Shakerley, summonsed for “fornication and incontinence”.  And he persisted.  Four adjourned hearings later, the unfortunate Thomas finally gave in and pleaded guilty.  I assume the six years that passed before the couple eventually married was taken up by a sulk of epic proportions.  I would like to think that they could laugh about it eventually.  “Hey, Dad, tell the kids the story about the time you got me prosecuted.”

Or maybe not.

Then there is my slight tendency to come up with an idea and then DO IT RIGHT NOW!  RIGHT NOW!  Who needs planning or careful consideration when you CAN DO IT RIGHT NOW?  Nothing I can do about it – can I refer you to Sarah Lawson, my many-times great-grandmother, baronet’s daughter and impulsive eloper who ran away to Gretna Green with a working man and spent the rest of her life trying to get herself un-disinherited.

And what about Ms Lawson’s granddaughter, another Sarah, who ran a Tyneside dockyard pub so tough that she wouldn’t let her own daughters set foot in the place?  I assume I have Mrs Lawson Lewthwaite to thank for my unkickable habit of swearing like a sailor.

My ancestry is an endless supply of ready-made excuses.  After all, you can’t fight genetics can you?  Although it occurs to me that Thomas and Ben might one day use the same argument against me.  Oh well, I still live in hope that I will find a way to prove that it is all Ghengis's fault after all.

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