englishman abroad, history

DNA Test

Genealogy had never really interested me until recently. My mother has traced some of her side of the family into Wales, Devon and Ireland and my father-in-law has a proudly displayed family tree in the hallway. Still, he’s a farmer and there’s a palpable sense of history on the family farm, which has been passed down for generations. But what about me?

Like many people born in England, I just presumed that I was as English as the Anglo-Saxons and didn’t think any more about it. True, England was invaded thereafter by Vikings, Normans, Irish, Scots and several others, and the Anglo-Saxons were Germanic anyway (and preceded by the Romans) but whatever. I was English in England and that was that.

Last year I went through a lot of rigmarole in getting my daughter, Aurelia, a British passport in Brexit’s wake. I had to dive a couple of generations back to facilitate this, and call up the General Register Office and get all manner of old birth certificates. Including that of my Grandfather Steve.

It turns out that Grandad Steve, who I’ve never spoken to and has lived elsewhere as far as I can remember, wasn’t really called Steve. He had an absolutely nutty name that I won’t put on here. Just really bonkers and quite distinctive. Not typically “English”.

So I’ve decided to do some digging and see what comes up, so I’ve ordered one of those ‘test your DNA’ kits that so many genealogy sites are offering.  I’ve done some research and I know you have to take these things with a pinch of salt, there’s surely a margin of error etc. etc. Nonetheless, I’m curious as to what such a test might say.

It’s sitting on my dining room table right now and I’m going to send it off this week; there isn’t really an answer that I’m particularly hoping for or dreading.

englishman abroad, history

German Guilt

On Monday, we were at a good friend’s barbecue and I got talking to her father, who has recently retired. He told me a little about what it was like growing up in post-war Germany and travelling abroad as a German. He was one of the first young Germans who went to France on a trip with the German Boy Scouts. One day he was trekking through rural France on a hot summer’s day when his troop happened upon a farm, they approached and asked the farmer for permission to draw water from their well. What do you think happened next?

If you answered ‘They were chased from the property by vengeful French farmers with pitchforks’ then yes, you are correct. It sounds funny, but this young man was not yet even a teenager. A couple of days prior, I had spoken with a Dutch woman who told me about the day she learned about The Indonesian War of Independence at school, and the bad things that her grandfather had supposedly done during the conflict. Both conversations centred on historical guilt. Both conversations put me in mind of British and American attitudes to history.

Many Americans and Britons are proud of their countries’ role in WW2, despite their respective nuclear weapons and indiscriminate bombing. America is very proud of its history and its struggle for independence from the British, and Britain is still somewhat fond of its old empire. After all, we still have awards like the OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) and the history of our royal family is interwoven with empire.

Although there is much to be proud or ashamed of in any country’s history, my own thoughts are more ambivalent. Why do Germans still feel guilty about the Nazis? It wasn’t them! Why do Britons harp on about a non-existent empire? It’s long gone! Look at what is happening to the proud countries now: America elected Trump and Britain is leaving the EU. It seems that both places are living in the past. As for Germany, deeply ashamed of its past, it rebuilt and reinvented itself as an economic powerhouse. Looking forwards, not backwards, seems to be the key.

Next week I am on holiday in Tenerife, so there might not be a blog post. Hopefully I won’t get lost, approach a farmhouse and be chased into the sea by  vengeful French expats.