Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Invading the past

Sally Magnusson, what have you done?

Radio 4 has been proclaiming the return of the series 'Tracing Your Roots', a programme which encourages amateur genealogists to investigate their family histories. Their website invites listeners to contact them with 'family history questions'; those selected will have the assistance of programme researchers to unearth hidden details from their families' pasts.

They start out innocuously enough, asking whether you've hit a brick wall trying to find out more about where family money disappeared to, or came from, but there's something slightly sinister about the tone of the next part of the invitation:
We're also interested in stories of captivity - not for crimes, but perhaps a relative was held against their will in an asylum, convent...or elsewhere.
Today's broadcast included one such case; a child placed in a mental institution for life. The listener discovered that the baby's mother - her own grandmother - had had an affair and, to avoid being disinherited for her misconduct, arranged for the resulting illegitimate child (later found to be brain-damaged) to be hidden away and adopted.

One hopes for the sake of family harmony the listener has no living relatives on her grandmother's side:
"I felt a little bit of anger towards my grandmother," she said. "She came out as a calculating, selfish woman."
This wasn't, however, going to stop her sharing the story with the rest of the family - and the listeners of Radio 4. After all, it has all the ingredients the programme is looking for - extra-marital sex, financial machinations, an elaborate deception and plenty of human suffering.

There is a dark side to this prurient desire to unearth bygone sensational events; the resurgence of a story that is intriguing - or even morbidly titillating - for today's curious researcher may mean reliving unspeakable trauma for those who were directly affected by its consequences.

With the blessing of presenter Sally Magnusson and her team, amateur genealogists are bombarding distant relatives with demands to know the details of devastating events from the past. As regular readers may remember, my family has experience of this (The Cruelty of the Curious) and, a year on, I can report that the persistence of these people - newly retired, computer-literate and with plenty of time on their hands - knows no bounds.

One they have wind of a story, they will pursue it regardless of the feelings of those involved and without respect for family privacy; in fact they manage to project an air of outrage and resentment that you may be unfairly withholding from them the gory and painful details of the tragedy you witnessed as a child.

If you have never been hounded by such people, count yourself fortunate and hope that you never will be. The internet has brought it to epidemic proportions and there's more to come as long as people continue to respond to invitations like this:
Finally, is there an intriguing name change in your family history? We'd be keen to find out why.


  1. "She came out as a calculating, selfish woman."

    Did she now, to you in 2011 may be.

    I hate this judging people of yesteryear by the mores of today. ( oh and then apologising sometimes )

    as the book said
    "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

  2. Good point, Cat, and a link to an excellent post.

    According to the woman's story, the pregnancy was hushed up because her grandparents would have been disinherited by a rich relative had the affair come to light.

    There's a certain irony in her condemnation of actions designed to protect her own father's inheritance - and, by extension, her own.