One of the wonderful things about embarking on this project is the response I get from other people when I tell them about it. “Oh yes”, they say, when I explain who Amy was, what she did and how we found out about her travels by accident, “I have done a bit of research about my family” or “I’d love to write a book about my great grandfather”. And then they start to tell the stories about the ancestor who was a Jewish cobbler escaping the pogroms in Russia and cobbled his way across Europe, or the Irish family who fled the famine.
We are, as a family, perhaps unusual in the extraordinary nature of the history we have – and it’s not just Amy: there’s the frontier farmer in New Zealand, the civil servant in Imperial India, the baby carried from Ireland in the face of French invasion, the family who looked after the Queen of Holland when the Dutch royals were forced to flee Napoleon, the author of the Scarlet Pimpernel…
But the wider issue of family history, even histories perhaps not quite as exciting as ours, is a thread I’m interested in drawing into the book on Amy. Family history is very much of its time – Who Do You Think You Are? comes up in conversation quite often when I talk about what I’m doing.
I don’t know exactly why that is. Perhaps it is because we are not as rooted in place as we once were, so now we try to find those roots in the people we have come from. We use the same word, roots, for our ancestry and for what binds a tree into the place where it grows and the tree has long been a metaphor for family, as in family trees, branches and so on – but it no longer reflects that long-term association with place. The Beaments, as far as I know, all come from a small corner of the west country of England, and now we are across the UK, and the world, with only our name, our common history, giving us a sense of who we are. The same is true of the Barstows of York.
Or maybe it is, as my brother suggested, that the generations before us lived through extraordinary times, and that the old man walking unheeded down the street has an incredible story to tell – if only we would listen. Perhaps we are simply interested in each other; with history, as with fiction, we just love a good story. There certainly seems to be a lot of crossover between the two these days.
This is something I would love to hear other people’s view on – especially now I’ve worked out how to moderate comments!