Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Why I smile sweetly and seethe at genealogists

Today's Grauniad has another tale of how yesterday's women are so much much more amenable than those of today, in the minds of those who pursue genealogy. I agree with the historian (let's call him A.J.P. Taylor-Schama-Elton-Plumb-Macaulay-Fisher) who remarked
[amateur genaealogy] is nothing more than narcissism dressed up in a wig and breeches. In the process, all the complexity, difference and integrity of "then" is turned into a pale facsimile of "now". Hand over the past to enthusiastic amateurs and they can be guaranteed to turn it into a kind of waiting room to the present in which people a lot like them hang around in funny clothes, waiting to be born.
Any interest in history is to applauded but so much family history is nothing of the sort. It's often nothing more than a record that tab A was inserted into slot B and out popped C. It's instructions on how to construct a pop-up paper theatre. The sort of theatr that shows tableau of Carry On films. Beyond several generations real relationships get lost. All that can ever be discovered is what was recorded in official records. The fact that Elmer Fuddle's biological father was really Squire Trelawney's gamekeeper, Porky Pig, but the official register of births, deaths and marriages has it down as Elmer P. Fuddle, gets lost.

Most family history is a triumph of biology over what really matters, in any meaningful history: social relationships. As an adoptee I feel that my family is my adopted parents and adopted sibling. As the song goes, "the time it takes to make a baby is the time it takes to make a cup of tea". What matters is time, the relationship thus built and the wider relationship with environment and society.

A begat B begat C begat D begat E begat D or
1:2 Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren; 1:3 And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram; 1:4 And Aram begat Aminadab; and Aminadab begat Naasson; and Naasson begat Salmon; 1:5 And Salmon begat Booz of Rachab; and Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse; 1:6 And Jesse begat David the king; and David the king begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Urias; 1:7 And Solomon begat Roboam; and Roboam begat Abia; and Abia begat Asa; 1:8 And Asa begat Josaphat; and Josaphat begat Joram; and Joram begat Ozias; 1:9 And Ozias begat Joatham; and Joatham begat Achaz; and Achaz begat Ezekias; 1:10 And Ezekias begat Manasses; and Manasses begat Amon; and Amon begat Josias; 1:11 And Josias begat Jechonias and his brethren, about the time they were carried away to Babylon: 1:12 And after they were brought to Babylon, Jechonias begat Salathiel; and Salathiel begat Zorobabel; 1:13 And Zorobabel begat Abiud; and Abiud begat Eliakim; and Eliakim begat Azor; 1:14 And Azor begat Sadoc; and Sadoc begat Achim; and Achim begat Eliud; 1:15 And Eliud begat Eleazar; and Eleazar begat Matthan; and Matthan begat Jacob; 1:16 And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.
Interesting but hardly the stuff of narrative history. What really brasses me off is amateur genealogists who insist "I can trace my family back to 1066". My first retort is "Are your papers in order. Are you claiming asylum? Interested in being on the front page of the Daily Express?" That's the Daily Express who's editorial meetings appear to be made up of a random collation of the phrases "asylum seeker", "celebrity", "tax", "plot", "scheme", "scrounger", and others of that ilk.

My second retort is "How interesting. How accurate and painstaking was your research? Did you make any leaps, like Sir Nookie Bear was born in the same parish as my great-great-great-great-great uncle Rupert Snookie therefore they must be related?"

My third retort is "how interesting" , said with a Roger Moore-esque raised eyebrow.

Biological determinists make me A-N-G-R-Y.

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