Not seeing the wood for the family trees

As the BBC’s celebrity-genes show Who Do You Think You Are? returns, why are people so keen to define themselves biologically?

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Culture

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Mirroring the increasing fascination with family trees and personal genealogies, the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?, now in its fourth series, is more popular than ever. Its premise is pretty simple. Each week, celebrities attempt to trace their family roots, during the course of which they may encounter something surprising, upsetting or, best of all, both. But it’s not just about seeing a warm-hearted patriot like Jeremy Clarkson discover his family are all from Alsace (they’re not, by the way); there is also some detective work involved and lots of ‘ahhh, so he was illegitimate’ moments. The search for roots is as much the subject as the roots themselves.

After newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky’s roundly resented tearathon last week, next up was John Hurt, an actor perhaps best known for giving birth through his chest and acting his way out of a paper bag. We soon learn, however, that there’s more to John than just being a very good actor. Born in Derbyshire, bred in Grimsby, and affected at RADA, John also has a suspicion that he’s of Irish descent. Of his first visit to Ireland, he declares ‘it felt like coming home’. He always liked its ‘anarchic spirit’ he continues, before wondering if that was because it was ‘in his blood.’ But this surmise is grounded in more than getting drunk in Dublin in 1971; he has heard on the generational grapevine that his great grandmother, Emma Stafford, may have been the illegitimate daughter of the Marquis of Sligo.

We then follow John across Ireland to meet the current Marquis of Sligo, and discover that the second Marquis, a Howe Peter Browne, could well be John’s great, great grandfather. Apparently it was par for the course for young Lords to hump their way around Britain, siring illegitimate heirs to their heart’s content. To give this added credence, we learn that Howe Peter Browne hung out with Byron at Cambridge – ‘that’s really where [Howe’s] life of debauchery began’, an expert informs us. The portrait we see of the second Marquis of Sligo tells a slightly different story; with a tuft of prematurely white hair, plump, rosy cheeks, and a pair of nipple-high breeches stretched resplendently over his paunch, it’s what Byron might have looked like had he ignored sex and politics and stuck to fondant fancies.

Not that this seems to faze John, who, at this stage, was still clearly excited at the possibilities these links afforded him. Possibly Irish, he might be a descendent of a roguish philanderer to boot. He positively swells with narcissistic pride. Unfortunately, as the programme unfolds, each confutation, each false trail, sees his initial sense of self dissipate. By the time he discovers that the link with Irish aristocracy was in fact a fabrication on the part of his great grandfather, he is nearly broken: ‘I’m not who I thought I was, and that upsets me. I’m not going to dance for joy because one of the bankers in my life has gone… One of the bankers in my life was my Irish identity.’ In those valedictory words, the ambiguous nature of the contemporary genealogical craze reveals something of itself. And with more than a little pathos.

Admittedly, for many, tracing your family tree is harmlessly intriguing. I’m curious, for instance, as to where the copper tinge to my beard comes from. At the moment though it doesn’t go any further: someone, somewhere, at some point, fornicated with a ginger. The rest, as they say, is ancestry. For some, with John Hurt amongst them it seems, it’s often more than a passing interest to be exhausted on Aided and abetted by DNA analysis, discovering your roots has become a principal means by which one understands and affirms oneself. For example, upon finding genetic links to the Kpelle people of the Liberian rainforest, Oprah Winfrey recently declaimed: ‘I feel empowered by this. Knowing your family history is knowing your worth.’ (1) Or take Tim Campbell, winner of the BBC’s The Apprentice a couple of years ago:

‘A lot of people are happy to live in ignorance about their ancestry, which I quite understand, but I needed to know more about what my community contributed before and after the slave trade… It’s about self-esteem, and I think it’s a similar feeling to the one people have when they’ve been adopted. The more information you have, the more confident you feel about yourself.’ (2)

As my ancestors were, therefore I am. Such genealogical stories have a distinctly individuated quality compared with the social narratives they’ve replaced. Whereas an identity forged in the crucible of the living, through social and political solidarity, tends, in turn, to transform your historical perspective, making potential subjects of objects, by hanging on to the red thread of biological and cultural inheritance, concedes too much authorship to the past. History appears as the weft of genetic destiny in which individuals are caught. The family tree, in this sense, is a diagrammatic symbol of alienation.

In some ways, however, it’s not that tracing your family tree now has an over-inflated significance, but that life has, in some cases, shrunk to the level of a hobby, something that one does during one’s leisure time. Too many of us are retirees now. Instead of defining and understanding oneself in terms of what one does, in terms, if you like, of relations of production, self-realisation is restricted to the private sphere of consumption. In this regard, the success of Who Do You Think You Are? begins to make sense. In the drawing out of one’s identity through familial inheritance, celebrity, the production of celebrated private life, finds its equivalent of gainful employment. I just wish that John Hurt would remember that he’s far better in his day job as an actor than he is moonlighting as a celebrity, Oirish or not.

Tim Black is a regular film and TV reviewer for spiked and is on the committee for the Battle of Ideas festival.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) The Genealogy craze in America: Strangled by roots, Stephen Pinker, New Republic, 6 August 2007

(2) History in our genes, Simon Crompton, The Times, 24 March 2007

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Topics Culture


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