Category Archives: Work

Radical genealogy

In a recent article in the Guardian on the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, Paul Mason reflected on his family history. Before him it featured an unbroken sequence of hatters and miners to whom his education and career path would have seemed inconceivable, an improvement in life chances beyond their dreams. Inspired by this thought, and fearing, like many of us, that those advances are in the process of being reversed, he scribbled a sign in a bus stop on the way to the announcement of Corbyn’s confirmation in office. It read: This is for all our ancestors.

It so happens that similar thoughts have been passing through my mind in the course of writing a family history. For most of us, the experience of searching for one’s roots prompts sobering reflections on the various forms of misery that blighted our forebears’ lives. Poverty. Disease. An almost complete lack of education (deleting ‘almost’ in the case of women). A punitive legal system backed up by dragoons in cases where the desperate were driven to crime or protest against the system. The Johns were luckier than many but still knew all of these things, which makes my own charmed existence a thing of wonder. How fortunate has my generation been and the few that came after. How hard those gains had to be fought for. And how easily they are being lost under the guise of austerity.

Yet there is a disconnect between the injustices of the past and attitudes to the politics of the present. This has many causes, no doubt: the blandness of the school curriculum, media bias or pusillanimity, the co-opting of history as a form of entertainment with no sense of relevance to the present – I could go on. But I sense it in the current mania for researching one’s ancestors as well, a place where the personal relevance of past suffering ought to be most keenly felt. How can we know what conditions were like and not feel angry? Why is knowledge so divorced from action and understanding? Why aren’t more people, myself included, writing banners like Paul’s?

It is this that leads me to propose a new approach to the subject. Let us call it radical genealogy. Immediately it sounds like an oxymoron, such is the aura surrounding family history, something safe and slightly obsessive like trainspotting. Nor do I intend a dogmatic imposition of political theory or a revisioning of the past through the lens of current concerns. But a more critical, contextualised and purposeful form of engagement should be possible, as suggested by my book The Dancer and the Drum. For example, the roots of one’s own character and links these might forge with aspects of psychology. Male domination of the family tree as an example of the treatment of women. Where our predecessors lived and what that tells us about the housing market then – and now. What access they had to medicine and education, and not just as an exercise in nostalgia for midwives in wimples or ‘the Victorian classroom’. The energy, resourcefulness and creativity of the poor as a challenge to notions of victimhood and passivity. Even the motives and means by which records of the past are made available and whether the current, privatised model is best.

Others will have their own angles – the past experience of immigrants, for example, which could hardly be more relevant to today, or a view from the opposite side of the class divide. Nor will we always, perhaps ever, agree regarding a particular take on someone’s background or what lessons are to be drawn. Ideally not, indeed, the point being to make the past – our pasts – an area of contention, of theorising sometimes, but above all of relevance to present lives. That is what history should be, after all. Not a pageant of canonical figures and events, still less a celebration of something loaded yet vacuous like British values, but a lively, disputatious conversation whose terms of reference are changing all the time. Genealogy has a place at that table. Our families should be part of the debate. What better tribute could we pay to their memory?



After a first relationship which may or may not have been formalised but produced three children, my great-aunt Ethel married a widower called Thomas Claffey. The date was 1926, the place Tooting in South London. All I knew about this man was his occupation given on the marriage certificate: gas stoker. But something told me there was more to his story, although I had no idea where my searches would take me: a relative I did not know about and a tale of courage in battle.

The first breakthrough came with the discovery of Thomas’s enlistment papers online. The picture they painted was humdrum, to put it mildly. In 1909, giving his occupation as ‘labourer’, he had become a reservist in his native Dublin and been assigned to the catering branch of the Royal Army Medical Corps. They called him up at the outbreak of hostilities and he was sent to France but saw no action, being categorised as Bii, or fit for labour duties overseas: an Irish navvy, even in war.
The next breakthrough came with the discovery that Ethel and Thomas had a daughter called Margaret. Not only that but she was very much alive. I made contact and we spent a very enjoyable day exchanging news about our respective families. Margaret remembered her parents fondly but my interest in the past dislodged some additional memories, among them one of Thomas saying he had served with the Inniskilling Dragoons and fought in South Africa. Checking his enlistment papers I found something missed first time round, a reference to his previous military service which bore out Margaret’s recollection.

Records dating from the Boer War are harder to come by and nothing relating to Thomas was found. But the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons were involved in the conflict and an account of their campaign was published by Lt. Col. Watkins Yardley. Among the adventures it describes is a skirmish which took place in November 1901 around a ridge near Spytfontein. In the confusion of combat Privates Bates and Claffey were brought down by their horses falling and separated from their troop, which had withdrawn. They hid in long grass close to the enemy and managed to shoot two of them. Claffey had the chance to retire but stayed with his comrade, engaging over fifty Boers. Finally Claffey remounted his horse and recaptured Bates’s under heavy fire, the two men making off with bullets flying round their ears.

No medals were awarded for this escapade, the army’s definition of gallantry being stricter than mine. But Margaret was delighted to read an account of her father in action and dug out some photographs, two fragments of him as a young man in uniform and a holiday snapshot including Ethel and Thomas. He cuts a fine figure with his strapping physique, dashing moustache and habit of standing at ease. After so many years the hero of Spytfontein still had a military bearing.

In memoriam

We have just passed the centenary of the outbreak of the most calamitous war in history (a judgement based on its long-term effects as much as what Jack Aubrey, in another conflict, calls ‘the butcher’s bill’). For volume two of my family history I have been researching and writing about the experiences of my grandfather and his generation, which range from draft-dodging through being wounded in action to a solitary, hard-to-trace death.  

I was naturally interested, therefore, in the first major study to appear of the man responsible for the forms in which the Allied dead are commemorated.* Fabian Ware overcame accusations of Bolshevism to impose his vision of burial in situ, even for those few whose families could afford to repatriate their remains; identical memorials and inscriptions irrespective of rank; and full lists of the missing at necropolises like Thiepval. It is an expression of comradeship if not equality in death, a posthumous levelling that some objected to at the time but which now seems the least that could have been done. 

Of late the rule on bringing bodies home has been relaxed and in country graveyards one comes across white headstones bearing a serviceman’s details, reverently preserved by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission from the lichen, grime and erosion that has disfigured its contemporaries at home. Such purity in the face of age is somehow unnatural, like peering into a mouth devoid of fillings. But the point is made, I suppose. They seem forever young.

The counterparts of these set pieces of remembrance are the war memorials erected in towns and villages across Britain. Unlike the vast cemeteries and lists of names in Flanders and France the men recorded were all known by those who paused to look. Sometimes brothers appear, more than doubling the sadness. As a small boy, seeing the letters Pte repeated, I wondered why so many of them were called Pete. Many of the inscriptions were engraved in his distinctive font by Eric Gill, genius, satyr and religious crank. His patient chiselling in countless locations, a bearded eccentric clad in a smock to let his manhood swing, amounts to one of the great if dispersed expressions of public art, even if his achievement has been sullied by our less indulgent view of incest and interfering with young girls.

Or maybe that is the point. What were intended as monuments to a shared ordeal where differences are not only silenced but in bad taste cannot escape the bickering of posterity. Nor perhaps should they. That war was a crime against humanity, a seismic collective blunder prosecuted with indifference to the cost and in sanitising its memory we make it more likely to happen again. That said, it is seemlier for someone who survived the carnage to break ranks and flout the conventional pieties. Siegfried Sassoon, on viewing the Menin Gate in 1927, wrote a poem containing the lines: ‘Well might the dead who struggled in the slime/Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.’ 

Forty years later the establishment responsible for those horrors was still parading at cenotaphs as if to dignify their complicity, arousing anger in another poet impatient with the past. Philip Larkin, flying over London on Remembrance Day, imagines far below ‘the solemn-sinister wreath rubbish in Whitehall.’ And more recently, in the context of another war, the unveiling of a memorial to Bomber Command received flak from those still aghast at the slaughter of civilian populations.

These are difficult sentiments to express. How can one reconcile honouring the fallen with bitterness at the circumstances surrounding their fate; or reverence for the act of mourning with dissent from those taking the salute? Perhaps by not thinking of the dead as passive recipients of our respect, saintly non-combatants in the life of which they were cheated. Making them party to our arguments, even objects of controversy is a way of keeping them present in our thoughts. That is a more honest, involving and appropriate tribute to their memory.

* Empires of the Dead by David Crane (Collins)