I remember as a child being taken by my father to visit some distant great aunts in Oldham, Lancashire. Cold rain teemed down from a black sky as we arrived at their tiny Victorian terraced house. The yellowing net curtains twitched, then we were ushered inside with kindness and sat down in their tiny sitting room. They were elderly spinster sisters, retired from working at the local cotton mill. One fetched a tray of tea and biscuits, then returned, shaking violently as she bent to place it on the low table in front of us. Her sister kept reprimanding her for 'fussing about'. The room was drab, with yellowing floral wallpaper, the odd vase, and a few photographs in frames above a fireplace. A caged budgie made a few staccato tweets and pecked angrily at its mirror.
Not having offspring or close living relatives of their own, they eyed me up suspiciously. Was I to be their legacy? Was I to carry what remained of their genes (well, some of them) on for the benefit of future generations? They would say things like 'Do you think he's got Ida's ears?' or "That's Henry's chin - and he weren't a good-un'.
There was one topic of conversation, and that was the past. My father was able to follow it, but I sat, bored, and tapped my heels against the chair as they bandied the names of dead relatives. I got the impression this was more of a ritual act than any kind of meaningful communication. Finally, one of the aunts disappeared, then returned with a small box containing several hundred sepia photographs. They passed each in front of my eyes and chanted the names of the subjects: "Now this is Edith and Alice at Auntie Glad's wedding", "This is Len and his wife Ivy". Sad faces of stiff-looking people gazed blankly from their Dickensian scenes. Children in rags huddled on doorsteps like birds on a branch. Middle aged men with prodigious facial hair peered from beneath tall hats.
Yet what sparked my eventual interest was the stories of their deaths. Each seemed to have suffered an appropriately Northern Industrial end. "This is Winifred. She choked on't Eccles cake." Or "This is poor Horace. He fell in t' printing press, poor man". My eyes widened as I imagined the scene. "Hold t' front page!" the foreman would have shouted, and as the whirring din came to a halt, "Oh dear. Does anyone have t' wire brush?"
The Tree of Life
We're always proud to find an interesting ancestor, especially one way back long ago, but few acknowledge just how many ancestors we had. For instance, my great great great great grandfather was Lord Mayor of Portsmouth, but I prefer to phrase it that way. I wouldn't say the more accurate "one of my thirty-two great great great great grandfathers was so-and-so, or, in this age of gender equality, "one of my 64 great great great great grandparents..."
Of course, I probably didn't have 32 great x 4 grandfathers. If things went that way, then my great x 32 grandfathers would have colonised the earth, even by today's high population numbers (I'd have around 8.6 billion of them). No, our population implosion is carefully controlled by inbreeding. If siblings marry, then their offspring's grandparents are duplicated. If two cousins marry, then theirs have a duplicate great grandfather and great grandmother. Going further back, it becomes far more likely that our second, third and fourth cousins may have married - they may not have even known they were related.
Yet it's somehow awkward to uncover any inbreeding in our family trees. Leaving aside questions of social acceptability, the fact is that trees don't grow like that. They have trunks which divide into boughs, branches and twigs. At the end of each, we are the little green leaf that flutters. Our accurate family tree would have some branches which ended not in a twig, but which turned back into another branch or bough. The whole thing would resemble a Henry Moore sculpture. Oh, and there would be only one tree. It's very large and messy, and we all grow upon it. And it's not just us, but Darwin's apes, other mammals, fish, dinosaurs, plankton, plants and whatever seeded life in the first place.