Family roots

I watched Who Do You Think You Are earlier, the BBC’s celebrity genealogy show. It’s a bit of a lottery. Carol Vorderman gets an ancestor who was the first person to identify a dietary cause for beri-beri and who probably would have won the Nobel prize if he lived a little longer, as well as finding that her father worked in the Dutch resistance during the war; poor old Griff Rhys-Jones discovers an ancestor he thought died in a railway accident was actually killed in a drunken pub brawl (which he seems to have started).

I find it interesting how much people care. Alistair McGowan, the impressionist, knew his father was born in India but was expecting his family history to rapidly trace back to Scotland. In fact, he discovered the existence of a whole family of McGowans in Allahabad, and it turned out he could trace back a whole line of Anglo-Indian McGowans (i.e. mixed European and Indian blood) which went back through six generations born in India. He’d had an inkling that he had Indian blood but had no idea how strong the connection was. But what I found interesting was this: after all these revelations, what seemed to shock him as much as anything was that the original John McGowan, a soldier in Madras in the 1770s, wasn’t from Scotland but Ireland.

We’re talking about his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, one of 128 great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, coming from the wrong side of the Irish Sea, but that seemed like it really mattered to him. He must have known that his emotional connection to Scotland was essentially artificial, since it was based purely on his name, but he had invested enough in it that he really seemed to feel it affected who he was.

It’s like those Americans you sometimes meet who describe themselves as ‘Dutch’ or ‘Italian’. Not ‘Italian-American’ but just ‘Italian’. As though they’d been born in Perugia. I can see that for black people it’s rather different, since their history was rudely interrupted and there’s still rather a lot of unresolved karma floating around the subject; and of course being visibly different means that identity politics is thrust upon you anyway. But if one of your great-granparents happened to leave you with a name from, say, Wales: why does it matter to people?

I’m not criticising; I just don’t get it. I can see it would be interesting to know who my ancestors were, I just don’t think it would tell me anything about who I am. I guess if I had any reason to believe that my own family history was at all interesting I might find it easier to empathise.

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