June 8. Besides his weekly column in the Observer, and sundry research activities at Cambridge, my friend and former colleague John Naughton is maintaining a daily blog, Memex1.1, to which is attached a short oral diary. Both are well worth attention. And the oral diary begins with a shock. Yesterday: ‘Sunday June 7. Day Seventy-eight.’
Seventy-eight?! If asked I would say perhaps a month since the lockdown began. Likewise, with this diary. About twenty since the site was established. But I count back and find that this is my fiftieth piece (unlike John I don’t write at weekends).
Time has collapsed. We have only a distant sense of it passing. This is the immediate consequence of erasing our diaries when Johnson confined us to our homes. In my case, out went working trips to Cambridge and London and Ireland, a short holiday on the West Coast of Scotland, and various visits, planned and not-yet planned, to and from family and friends. Events to embed in the memory the succession of days and weeks.
In response to this common experience, it has been reported that increasing numbers of people have been occupying their spare hours by anchoring their present in the history of their own families. Some years ago, on behalf of the OU History Department, I manned a stall in the ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ show at London’s Olympia, where tens of thousands of people paid £22 a head to wander past stalls helping them with their genealogies. Next to my table was ‘Deceased.Com’, a database of tombstones, which remains a favourite electronic address. My pitch was that if you want to understand what it means to have a family tree, you need to study some history of those times. I didn’t get as many customers as my neighbour.
Now I too have paid my shilling to Ancestry.co.uk, the largest of many online resources for this activity. In my filing cabinet are the paper records assembled by my parents at a time when such research meant physically visiting archives and buying copies of birth, death and marriage certificates. I have long meant to put these in electronic order for the sake of my children and those that come after them.
Besides providing a template to set out the family tree, the value of the resource, I have discovered, is not the now digitised census records, which only provide one line of information and for the most part had already been visited by my parents. Rather it is the access it provides to the work of other amateur genealogists. Each of my forebears, going back to the late eighteenth century, also feature in up to a dozen other family trees which have already been industriously assembled. The past is now a networked world. All I have to do is call up one of these lists, and most of my work is done.
I have filled out the detail of a story I already knew. That my parents were the first to break out of the ranks of the labouring classes. That amongst their forebears were a scattering of skilled workers – a postman, a policeman, an overman miner – but at the beginning of the nineteenth century, most were just farm labourers. In what way their wives and daughters contributed to their family economies is almost never recorded.
Above all, across the six generations or so that can be traced, my family is utterly English. There is some movement out of a common point of departure in Sussex to the new employment opportunities in the capital and the north Midlands, but no hint of a connection even with Wales and Scotland, let alone further afield. Marriages were contracted by people of the same social standing, usually in nearby villages and towns. Until, that is, my children’s generation. My brother and I, who went so far as to take wives with a Scottish heritage, have sons and daughters-in-law from Japan, France, Ireland, and Iran by way of the United States. These alliances are for the most part the consequence of higher education and attendant gap years, experiences wholly denied my forebears.
Just as my family tree largely conforms to what I know to be the broader demographic transition in Britain, with an evolution from large Victorian families to the tight two and three-child units of the twentieth century, so also this sudden internationalisation of the Vincent tribe may well be the common experience of the generation born in the closing decades of the last century.
If so, it will do much to explain why the young are so unattracted by the petty nationalism of Brexit, whilst the old cling to the world contained in the carefully-assembled family trees.