“The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there,” writes L.P. Hartley at the very beginning of The Go-Between, a novel I read and loved in my 20’s.
As a woman who now likes to pen stories based on her family tree, this famous first line has new meaning for me. It makes me ask the question: Despite our best efforts, can we ever really know our more distant ancestors?
Sure, we can absorb with attention the family myths. We can dig out the dates of births, marriages and deaths. We can check out the newspaper record. We can look up legal documents and even research with scholarly precision the historical context of their -often- difficult lives.
But is that REALLY knowing them?
Or is the best way to know our ancestors through our own parents and grandparents, through their inherited behaviours and beliefs that we witnessed first-hand. I have three other ideas.
1. Visiting the ‘homeland’ can give you a feel for who your ancestors were.
There’s a well-known 182 mile coast-to-coast hike that goes from the soaring sandstone cliffs of St. Bee’s Head on the west coast of Cumbria to the charming storied fishing village of Robin Hood’s Bay on the east coast in Yorkshire. Patching together my father’s Nixon/Forster family tree, I discovered he had ancestors; farmers, lead miners, grocers, servants; living just north and south of – and even directly on – this picturesque route.
This 182 mile ‘footpath’ traverses three national parks: The Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors National Parks. It’s a walk that offers up isolated pebbled beaches and quaint historic villages; rugged wildernesses with hilltop cairns; flat easy patches with long sweeping vistas; medieval castles and ancient stone circles; serene valleys dotted with sheep; sturdy Roman roads and magical heather moorlands.
As it happens, I can take this hike anytime (on YouTube) and see with my own eyes pretty much what many of my ancestors saw with their own eyes.
My ancestors had good eyes, I bet, for long distance gazing. Strong legs, too. And leathery skin beaten up by the cold wet winds of the moors. They probably were skinny and didn’t worry about cholesterol as they downed their breakfasts of heavy black rye bread and fatty bacon. Come to think of it, that description fits my father pretty well. His exceptional long distance eye-sight and strong legs made him a top athlete in the 1930’s at this boarding school in St. Bees. He was still participating in cross-country ski marathons in Quebec in the 1980s.1
2. You can always look to old family recipes to teach yourself something essential about your antecedents.
In my 1960’s Montreal home, on Saturdays when we ate roast beef, I was in charge of making the Yorkshire pudding, and I do believe that it was my father who showed me how to make the batter and take fat drippings from the roast and spoon it into the bottom of the muffin tins.
Still, it was my French Canadian mother who was in charge of the kitchen and her roast was ‘blue’ -practically mooing on the plate a la francaise. My father ate only the outside over-cooked part.
Apart from frying our POM (Pride of Montreal) white bread slices in bacon fat (ICK!) and threatening to feed us smoked herring (double ICK) my British pater (who was born in Malaya, after all) didn’t seem to know much about his native Yorkshire foods. He never mentioned the oatcakes that were a staple of the poor; or the cheese pies eaten on various festive occasions or the special mutton pie made with candied fruit in a rich crust served with fresh fried trout and curd cheesecakes, washed down with ‘home-made’ whisky served as a reward at the end of sheep-shearing season.
As a child of the Raj, my father more often spoke with fond nostalgia of the Mulligatawny soup (curried chicken with apples) he ate on his father’s Selangor Rubber Estate.
Still, somehow, more through his dislikes rather than his preferences, I learned that (generally-speaking) eating plain hearty food was in his North of England blood.
3. Consulting out-of-print genealogy books can give you an insider’s knowledge about the people who came before.
I stumbled upon a terrific little volume online: Rambles Through the North Yorkshire Dales. Published 1913 on archive.org. The book even has a chapter on the Yorkshire character. Bingo!
The Yorkshireman, says the author, a native, is notorious for being tight-fisted. “He loves to get the best of a bargain not only for business purposes but as sport.” He is suspicious of strangers, especially of the patronizing upper-crust kind. He is “reticent and hard on the outside with a queer sense of independence and a real and natural sense of humour.”
So right! My father would drive ten miles to save ten cents on gasoline. He could deconstruct a person’s character, a television show, a work of art with one well-chosen (often withering) word. He didn’t follow the current fashion – and mocked us when we wanted to. He was amused by the minutia of everyday life, although I seldom got his subtle jokes.
Yorkshiremen says the book are filled with ‘a fierce romanticism, a strong religious fervour.’ Still, people from the North of England were once very superstitious. These people believed or half-believed in dragons and water sprites, fairies and ‘boggles’ or imps who were often the ghosts of nasty feudal landlords long dead.
Many of the local traditions around holy wells and sacred fires, etc. stem back to pre-Christian times. and are still carried out in various and sundry small towns.
Does this fit my father? No, not at all. My father, educated in mathematics at Oxford, was a pragmatist. Still, he seemed to actually take delight in reading fairy tales to me.
And last but not least, my North of England ancestors spoke funny. Real funny. According to my mother, my father lost his English accent the day he arrived in Canada.
I learned about the Yorkshire dialect by watching the original All Creatures Great and Small television series based on the life of Alf Wight or James Herriot, a veterinarian, in Thirsk, North Yorkshire. In that show, locals were used to play the farmers and I often needed subtitles to understand them!
No, my Yorkshire father never said things like, “Ere, wot’s f’r us tea Mutha” as in “Mother, what are we having for dinner?”
M’of t’sop, d’yawanowt?
I’m going to the shop? Do you want me to get anything?
Put t’wood int ‘ole. Close the door. (Put the wood in the hole)
Sit this sen Darn as in Sit down.3
but I suspect his grandfather, Robert Nixon, who at 67 in 1911 was still working as a delver in the local Rievaulx quarry certainly did.
- Even better, his younger brother, Michael Nixon, living in Keswick right on the hiking path, was awarded the MBE for performing mountain top search and rescue in the mountains of the Lake Country well into his 80s! https://keswickmrt.org.uk/mike-nixon-mbe-1928-2018/)
- I never met Michael. I don’t think my father knew him at all, either.
- My father very very often made fun of the Canadian ‘aboot’ for ‘about.’ From what I can see, this ‘aboot’ is right outta Yorkshire so I have to wonder if there was something subconscious going on here: if years before at prep school he had had the ‘aboot’ shamed out of him. My grandmother spoke in the Queen’s English. She was from County Durham but educated at a Quaker School. I know because I have a tape of her speaking about British Malaya from Cambridge University archives. It is not in the public domain so I can’t link it here. https://imfromyorkshire.uk.com/yorkshire-sayings. Here’s a link to BBC Sounds discussion of English spoken in Helmsley North Yorkshire, the home of the Nixons. https://sounds.bl.uk/Accents-and-dialects/BBC-Voices/021M-C1190X0035XX-0301V0