Our common ancestry – David Bullard on Whisky
Perhaps it was something to do with the popularity of Downton Abbey on TV but my nephew in London decided to give his mother (my sister) five hours of family tree research as a Christmas present. Checking out where you came from is now a hugely popular activity thanks to a TV programme called “Who do you think you are?” which takes celebrities and traces their family back through the years. The problem is that most people simply don’t have the time or knowledge to track down parish records and look at endless faded scraps of paper in an attempt to find out more about their ancestors.
So a nice little business has sprung up and, for a reasonable amount of money, a researcher will delve into your family background and present you with the good, or bad, news neatly typed out and bound with a diagram of your family tree. My sister was so taken with the idea that she purchased additional hours of research and has gone back even further into the Bullard family tree only to discover that we are commoners. Worse than that, we are descended from peasants who scrimped a living making baskets.
This will come as an enormous shock to those leftie journos who have labelled me a “toff” and assumed I must come from the ruling classes because of my precise BBC accent and patrician manner. Far from being a ruddy faced colonial oppressor I am a product of the working class and proud of it. My working class credentials are probably more authentic than most of the ANC cabinet members and I think I can also probably justifiably claim a bit of oppression 100 years ago. This, of course, entitles me to regard myself as a victim which I fully intend to do whenever there’s some pecuniary advantage to be had from it.
My sister isn’t quite so comfortable with all this so she has stumped up even more money to dig further into our past in the hope that we will discover that the ancient Bullards only became basket makers because they were nobility fallen on hard times. Or that we are heirs to a vast estate in Scotland which accidentally went to the bastard son because we, the rightful heirs, couldn’t be traced. I think she may be disappointed. My guess is the further back we go the commoner we will get and we might even discover that members of the family were on the dodgy side. I certainly hope so because being descended from basket makers is, quite frankly, a bit boring even if my working class street cred benefits.
I’m hoping for a highwayman or an illegal distiller of whisky in the Highlands, constantly on the move to avoid the English excise man. That would at least be worth bragging about. About the only person we’ve come up with thus far of any interest is a woman known as “Ma Spencer” in the mid 1800’s who apparently ran a successful pub in London and was a bit of a tippler by all accounts. Maybe the researcher is trying to spare our blushes but my guess is that Ma Spencer probably ran a bawdy house and was a well known, gin-swilling madam. With a bit of artistic license we could claim that she met and inspired Charles Dickens and was the model for many of his female characters. After all, extensive research hasn’t suggested she wasn’t…
Having gone back in time to discover our forebears I am now acutely aware that somebody 100 years hence will be doing much the same. So the pressure is on to be interesting and controversial rather than become a basket maker. I don’t think I’ll disappoint the future researcher unless my descendants are uncharacteristically politically correct. And with any luck the family won’t want to research any further back having discovered me which will at least spare them the shock of discovering the basket makers.
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