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30 Mar 2018

A Blast of Fire and Ice

Five senses aren't enough... to describe everything. Heat rising from the roof of my skull, my temples pulsing. Some other force is at work: sometimes fire, sometimes ice.

Phillimore is an American-sounding company. They published vanity books, seeming replicas of parish registers in a typed format on heavily textured cream paper, artistically torn down the sides. To me age 12 their product looked the real deal. Forgetting the medium I went straight to the message:

Catherine Marshall, my forebear, had married James Lowry at Truro St Mary in 1809. And the witnesses were William Marshall and Nicholas Marshall. A powerful, strong, entry to come down through time.

The creamy paper, the incredibly high ceilings of the Westcountry Studies Library. The new names, the family unit. The sense this was deep Cornwall. The heat blew off the roof of my skull.

Since then, well, I've learnt it's bad to be obsessed with genealogy. We all descend from the same ancestors after all and maybe we're a chaotic mishmash with no real threads that can be followed backward meaningfully. Throw in a vast number of "non-paternity events", confused clerics muddling or omitting the names of females...

And, here's the killer fact. Apparently the DNA of some ancestors gets diluted away to nothing in the random cement mixer that is the cell meiosis. In effect over time their contribution was just an empty box.

Hmmmph. Let's raise an empty glass to ancestral anonymity!

This week has restored the story I always knew had to be true. That history, our private family history, is passed down through real named people, every step of the way. What your Grandpa said, true. What the registers said, true.

I match exactly the DNA of a descendant of Nicholas Marshall.


My other Cornish blow-your-head off moment was the day I sat with salt in my hair in the microfilm reading room in Truro. This time I was a few years earlier, in the 1780s on the coast near St Ives. By virtue of another forebear, I was a Trewhella. The temples pulsed. Dang I can still feel it.

This week, two decades on, I match the DNA of a Trewhella descendant.

These people are in my veins.

The character in Daphne Du Maurier's House on the Strand loses his grip on reality through connecting with the past. I'm happy just to have a blast of fire and ice.

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